Interview with Andrew Sommerville, Director of Search Acumen

Today – 21st January 2016 – marks Andy Sommerville’s 30 years in the search industry. The co-owner and director of Search Acumen shared the secrets of his longevity in the business – and his success – with Today’s Conveyancer’s Jane Common…

On January 21st every year do you think ‘that’s another 12 months in the industry’ Andy?

“Yes, each year when the 21st comes round it does suddenly strike me. I always remember that I started on 21st January 1986 – the date just sticks in my head. And I began when I was 19 and I’m 50 this year so it’s easy to recall the big anniversaries as they tie in with the big birthdays.”

So how did you start out in the search industry?

“My first job out of school was at the Greater London Council [GLC] – I was in the valuations and estates department there with a plan that I’d train as a surveyor. I was responsible for plotting all of the GLC highway action, regeneration and improvement schemes – I’d plot slum clearance areas on the map, for example, and then work with surveyors to decide which sites should be demolished and which refurbished. It was interesting and I developed a good understanding of how things worked.

“Another part of the job was dealing with search requests because the GLC was responsible for answering certain questions on local authority searches. So we dealt with bags of post – solicitors making enquiries and local authorities asking us if there were any GLC proposals that would affect certain properties. We’d answer the local authorities’ questions on a form they sent us – giving information about road and school schemes and housing developments – and post it back.

“We also dealt with members of the public who’d come up to the counter and ring a bell to ask about personal searches. I was only 17 or 18 at the time and I’d rock up to the counter and chat with people – I really enjoyed it. They’d have, say, six searches to check and I’d go and look in our big book and come back to the counter with the answers to their queries.

“One guy I got to know over that counter was Mark Riddick who had a nice little business with a guy named Dave Penney doing personal searches for solicitors. He was running all over London – it was shoe leather, pen and paper back in those days – gathering information and putting it into handwritten search reports. We got chatting over a number of months, mainly about football, but I really admired him. He had an amazing entrepreneurial spirit.

“Then one day he said: ‘Dave and I are really busy – do you fancy joining us?’ And, by pure fluke, that very morning, we’d all been called into a meeting and told the GLC was being abolished and all its responsibilities devolved to local authorities.

“‘I don’t know where PSA is going but if we work hard maybe we can make a proper business out of it,’ Mark said. So I had two options – sit and wait for my redundancy, which wouldn’t have been much anyway, or start on this new venture with Mark and Dave. And I decided to go for it.

“My first boroughs were Southwark, Lewisham and Lambeth and it was hard work. Our office was in Mark’s flat in Chelsea and I’d drive past my house at 5pm to go to there and write up all the searches I’d done during the day – then I’d hand deliver them around London before returning home for the evening. That’s how it was back then.

“But the market was kind to us – the right to buy scheme was kicking in and mortgages were being made more readily available – and within five years we’d built a neat little lifestyle business. It was niche – all we did was personal searches for solicitors who were terrifically busy and sending in search requests to local authorities which just couldn’t cope with demand. But I’m proud to say PSA was the first totally independent search provider carrying out searches specifically for law firms – a few other firms did searches but always as just a tiny division of a bigger business whereas that’s exclusively what we were about.”

How did you adapt to the arrival of the Internet age?

“Well, in the mid-90s, Companies House started to develop its online service and the Land Registry opened its doors to allow members of the public access to its information. So Companies House and the Land Registry were both looking at offering information online and we realised that at some point pen, paper and shoe leather weren’t going to be enough and that we needed to evolve and adapt.

“So Mark and I visited a lot of solicitors in London and said: ‘You carry out personal searches with us – how do you undertake your official searches?’ And they replied: ‘We fill in a form; write a cheque; send it in an envelope to the local authority and then we wait. And we have to do that 20 different times for each official search on any one property.’

“That’s a lot of waiting and chasing so we developed one basic on line form using this new thing called the internet on which lawyers could tick all the searches they required – then we’d go off and do all the duck paddling for them and return the results in a big, thick envelope. And we called that service SearchFlow.

“Then we discovered there was a government initiative to revolutionise the way search information was collected and delivered on the Internet – apparently 85% of local authorities would be delivering search information electronically within 18 months. And while that was a huge threat to our shoe leather, paper and pen it was also a massive opportunity and we wanted to get involved. So we applied for one of the channel licenses that would give us access to this local authority information on the Internet. It was tough – we were known within the legal market but outside of that no one had heard of us and we were up against all these big corporates like KPMG. We had endless interviews and evaluations and made it to the final stage where we gave a half-hour presentation about our idea SearchFlow.

“After the presentation, 15 of the 20 questions were addressed to me, which was nerve wracking. But we were awarded one of the channel licences and, from there, we didn’t look back. We built the business up and achieved 39% market share at its absolute peak in 2006-2007. We had 300 staff, eventually selling to a company called MDA, who built satellites but had a competing business.

“It was amazing and if anyone had said to me when I was a kid at the GLC that one dayMark, Dave and I would build a business that would be bought by a company that produced satellites – well, I wouldn’t have believed them. But MDA acquired us and after 20 years of blood, sweat and tears – all that hard work, investment, sacrifice and shoe leather – that felt like such an achievement.

“And, because we’d awarded share options to staff that had been with us from the early days – not necessarily in strategic positions but just part of the company for a number of years – everybody reaped the benefits of the sale. That was especially rewarding. We’d built a business, made some money and shared that with the team. And while there wasn’t enough money for me to sail off into the sunset it took the edge off life – I could do all the nice stuff without worrying.”

And you stayed on at SearchFlow for a while?

“Yes, I stayed on in various roles for four years. But I realised that the culture and ethos of a small growing business is totally different to that of a big corporate and I learnt some lessons through that. Parts of corporate are excellent – rigour, structure and discipline, for example – but that comes with a lot of internal politics, which I didn’t like and it was upsetting seeing the culture of the business change and the passion diluted. So in March 2013 – very amicably, I have to say, I left. A couple of days later I was back playing table tennis with the staff.”

But it was the end of a chapter?

“Yes, it was. I had a little time out at my caravan in Whitstable and then after my exclusivity period ended, Mark, who I’d known now for nearly 30 years, and Andrew Lloyd and I met up and said: ‘What about putting the old band back together?’

“We spent a day scribbling on a white board and asked ourselves whether we had the appetite and drive to do it all over again. We decided we did.

“The next question was: what can we do that’s different in a saturated market? We didn’t want to be a ‘me too’ – we had to deliver something that gave law firms a reason to switch to us. And our plan was simple – we had a blank canvas and we decided to take advantage of the latest cloud-based technology and build a team of industry experts who we’d worked with before. We brought Kate Crook in as marketing manager, Jo Marchant in Operations, Claire Handley heading up Client Services together with a high class Client Relationship Management team and invited back some of the customer service team who’d worked with us in the early days. We were honest – we said: ‘We’re starting from scratch and we don’t have any business or clients but what we do have is a plan and a vision.’ And they wanted to join which was wonderful because they knew it was a risk but they believed in us.”

Why did you choose the name Search Acumen?

“We picked the word ‘acumen’ to show that we understand the market. It’s a strong, positive word and now we’re known as the ‘guys at Acumen’ which proves it resonates with people.”

Two and a bit years in, it’s all going well isn’t it?

“I’d say so – there are 20 of us now and we have a cracking team of experts in all fields so that’s marketing, customer services and relationship management. And we have the technology behind us too. Already we’ve achieved just below 5% market share which is pretty impressive in two years – and we’ve got big plans for the future.”

What’s your core focus at Search Acumen?

“Heading up the client relationship management team and being out in the market meeting industry contacts who have become friends and supporters over the years. I try and understand what their issues are so we can build the next generation of services for conveyancers. I get involved in the marketing too, and obviously I’m on the board and look at strategy and threats and opportunities. But I love getting out and chatting to people – I’ve come full circle, in a sense, from those early days at the GLC when I was always first at the public counter when the bell rang. I’d talk to people and I’d learn and that hasn’t changed except that now, thanks to my 30 years’ experience, I can help others learn as well.”

What are you planning for 2016 at Search Acumen?

“Well, our first year of operations was about getting up and running and proving to ourselves that we could do it again; our second year was about building upon that and making some noise in the market and 2016 is about the big commercial stuff. So we’ll be sticking to our knitting and delivering services that offer value to law firms – we’re planning to build residential market share up to 8% in 2016 – but we’ll also be moving into the commercial property market with some new services. That’s really exciting – something to properly get our teeth stuck into.”

And where do you think Search Acumen might be in five years’ time?

“Well, we have a grand audacious goal and that’s 20% of market share – it’s a big’un but we don’t think it’s unrealistic. We know we’re making a massive difference in this market already. Law firms are telling us our customer service, for example, is far quicker and slicker than anything they’ve experienced before and things like that show we’re on the right track.

“I will say, though, that we are not being seduced by our own self-importance – we know realising all our ambitions is going to be tough. But it’s good fun as well and this is a whole new journey. I don’t want to be an old man sitting in a rocking chair thinking I wish I’d given it a go – I wanted to give it that go. And that’s what we’re doing.”

What’s changed in your 30 years in the industry – and what’s stayed the same?

“Well, obviously having the Internet has changed the way everybody works across every industry. And there are so many more reports available these days compared to three decades ago – back then official searches were 90% of the market, Land Registry was a closed shop and drainage and water was within the official search. Now it’s 60% official searches and 40% personal.

“Life has changed a lot for solicitors as well. Now they can be based wherever – they don’t have to be in London to be big players. But these days they have to market themselves to compete – 30 years ago their fees were based on percentage of purchase price but now they are being driven down and that’s tough on them. Personally I think conveyancers should be paid far more than they are because they take all the risk. Clients think that because they haven’t heard much from their conveyancer during a property transaction there hasn’t been much for them to do. Whereas we all know the truth of that!

“So life has got tougher and more complicated for lawyers and all those things have changed but what hasn’t changed is that, even today, there is still the shoe leather and the pen and paper in the sense that this whole industry is still about gathering information – and however high-tech we all get, that’s still the bread and butter of what we do.”

Do you still get the same kick from it that you did 30 years ago?

“Honestly, it’s even better. I used to believe there’d been a golden moment back in 2006 when we owned SearchFlow and I remember thinking: it will never get better than this. The market was flying; the numbers were coming in; the team was growing – it was all there. But, hand on heart, this time round it’s better because we’re building something from nothing. When we started Search Acumen there were just a few of us in a room with a white board and a vision and to see that vision being realised with the team we’ve got around us – any other business could try and poach our staff but they wouldn’t go because they’re challenged and fulfilled – is so exciting and rewarding. So yes, while I’m longer in the tooth I still have the same energy and passion for this industry that I always did. I love it.”

Will you be celebrating today Andy?

“Yes, there’s a group of us who are trusted competitors and friends and have been in the industry a number of years – the Search Industry Lunch Club (SILC), we call ourselves – and we’ll celebrate, certainly.”

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