Interview with Ben Thompson, Managing Director at ULS Group

ULS Group has just launched estateagent4me, a free website enabling customers to choose the best performing estate agent in their area. ULS also provides eConveyancer, which commands 5% of the conveyancing market – and the company has big plans for the future. Jane Common asked Managing Director, Ben Thompson, why the company is doing so well…

You joined ULS last year, Ben – what made the role of managing director attractive?

“I joined ULS as MD in November 2014 from a senior post at Legal and General and a total of 29 years in financial services. ULS is a hybrid company – a cross between technology and conveyancing – and that makes it unique. I love working in financial services because it’s an ever changing market – it never stands still – so ULS innovates there and on the technology side too. The company is 13 years old and listed on AIM in July last year so we’re growing all the time. We’re most famous, obviously, for eConveyancer – the company was formed with that proposition in 2003 – and we now command roughly a 5% share of conveyancing transactions in the UK, making us one of the bigger players. But looking at the conveyancing market as a whole it’s highly fragmented, meaning there are lots of opportunities for growth. So there’s no reason why we can’t continue to expand – and help the companies we work with expand too.”

Is there a lot of competition within e-conveyancing?

“Yes, there’s some very healthy competition and that’s a good thing. I believe we are well-placed, though – we deal with over 200 firms, right down from the big names to the smaller high street practitioners, and we are succeeding on two fronts. Firstly, our proposition – excellent service to the customer at a competitive price; and secondly because we’re very good at building relationships with the solicitors we work with. We’re constantly engaged in a two-way feedback process and that’s so important. And, with my background, we’re now building good relationships with people in the mortgage and lender worlds as well – we’ve recently had some big contract wins in those areas.”

Any plans to work with more solicitors’ firms?

“We’re growing quickly at the moment because of some relatively recent contract wins so that means we have more business to give to our existing partners and our priority is to look after them first. But we always welcome solicitors for discussions, of course.”

What sorts of conveyancers are you looking to work with?

“The key thing, whether they are big, medium, or small, is that they’re commercially minded and have an appetite and ambition to grow. We provide an excellent service to our customers at a reasonable price so we want partners who are willing to compete on price and service as well. So if a conveyancer has a business model that is set on very specific cost parameters that’s probably not right for us. Normally, though, when a solicitor compares how much time it takes to attract work directly with the benefits of working in partnership with us and all the business we bring in – well, nine times out of ten we’ll win. Looking back over the course of the past 13 years there are some great examples of firms we work with that we’ve helped grow.”

Is part of the reason you’re doing so well at the moment because the market is buoyant?

“No because the situation we have actually got in the market is that, while the value’s going up as house prices and mortgage advances rise, the reality is that in terms of transactions we’re down on last year by 10-11%. So we’re actually growing against a declining transaction market and that’s very gratifying.”

Do you think the market will pick up in terms of transactions?

“Yes, we’re optimistic about transaction numbers in the medium term – we’re not predicting anything dramatic but there will be, I think, a gentle increase. There’s been a slight uptick already following the election – probably that’s been felt especially in London because of clarification around certain policies like the mansion tax. So we’re expecting a very slightly better half of 2015. Longer term, interest rates won’t stay low forever so people who have sat on their hands for the past five years might decide it’s the right time to move. And the changes in stamp duty are going to have a positive effect too.”

You’ve just launched estateagent4me – how does that work?

“It’s an estate agency comparison service that enables home owners considering moving house to look at agents in their area based on performance rather than customer ratings. So we compare estate agents on four key things – market share in the area; how long it takes them to sell a property, on average; how close they get to the original market price; and what percentage of the properties that they take on they actually sell.

“And it’s landed well –we’ve had excellent feedback from all our stakeholders but in particular customers and estate agents.

“The reason we’ve launched estateagent4me, aside from the very obvious, is to help boost our conveyancing share in the estate agent market so the agents will give more work to our solicitor partners and that will become a virtuous circle. There are fantastic estate agents out there – traditional and on-line – and we’re keen to build equitable relationships with them and find customers that want to buy directly from us. So we’re growing into a different space beyond the banks and building societies and getting the ULS and brand out there.”

How do you see the future going forward?

“I’m very excited – for us, it’s about forever improving technology and focusing on the customer journey and we have some interesting thoughts around that. We develop all our technology in-house and, as conveyancing is core for us, we’re looking at the next five to ten years and thinking about how we can make the experience better for our customers, our stakeholders and our partners. We’re at the point of investing quite heavily into making the house buying process even shorter – we’d like to get customers to the point of certainty as quickly as possible.

“Also, to the future, we want to increase awareness of ULS as a group. Right now eConveyancer is well-known but we need to get the ULS name out there as well. We do a huge amount of white labelling for firms – for example, we provide conveyancing services for Lloyds Banking Group – but of course people see the banks’ brand and not ours so they don’t realise that we actually undertake a lot of the conveyancing in this country.

“But, really, it’s all about building on where we are now. Our staff are happy – this is a fun place to work with the momentum we’ve got and there’s a really good atmosphere; our partners are happy and our customers know they are getting the best service at the most competitive price.”

ULS Group is at www.econveyancer.com

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