From red phone boxes to a connected world

The Scottish poet and dramatist James Thomson pictured the cessation of working life as:

An elegant sufficiency, content,

Retirement, rural quiet, friendship, books.

That may not be exactly how the next few decades work out for me but, as I approach the end of my long association with DM Hall, with whom I have been a partner since the age of 22, I hope I may be excused for reflecting briefly on a varied professional career.

I have to admit at once that, as I sat alone in the newly-established Inverness branch of the firm in 1984 – literally waiting for the phone to ring – the prospect of lasting more than four decades in the business seemed fairly remote.

But ring it did – an instruction, as I remember, for an inspection for Alliance and Leicester. The role of Chartered Surveyor, on which I had embarked at the age of 17 straight from school in Broughty Ferry, suddenly seemed rich with possibility. I hired a secretary and the ball was rolling.

Inverness and the Highlands was a tough territory to cover in these days. The largest local government area in the UK was a lot more remote and I pride myself in having been the first professional services person in the region to have a mobile phone.

Having said that, it was even clunkier than the Dom Jolly variety. There was a huge box for it in the boot of the car and a full-sized handset and receiver on the front seat. The signal bounced off ships sailing close to the coast, not satellites.

There were only three places I could get reception – Ullapool, Gairloch and Nairn – and, like most people working in the area, I made sure I had a supply of 10p pieces and a mental map of where I could access red telephone boxes.

A major difference between then and now was that surveyors really did get into the guts of the buildings they were inspecting. A boiler suit and a torch were indispensable for crawling into tight underfloor spaces and clambering into attics.

Insurance and liability issues have put paid to all that now and I am not sure the profession is necessarily the better for it.

Technology, of course, has transformed surveying – with a communications revolution which means that surveyors who inspect a property in the morning are now routinely expected to have a report on the client’s desk by the afternoon.

And, just as home buyers search online now rather than leafing through an agent’s books, more and more instructions are transmitted to the profession online, increasing the sense of distance and anonymity.

I used to know every bank manager and agent in the area, as well as being on first name terms with the girls on the mortgage desks, who were always ready with a cup of tea and the latest market intelligence.

Looking forward can be slightly disconcerting. I worry that there are now only two educational establishments in Scotland which are offering courses in general practice valuation surveying. Where will the next generation of professionals come from?

However, looking ahead can also be very gratifying, and I am pleased as my time draws to a close that DM Hall – in existence since 1897 – is guaranteeing its future with a splendid phalanx of new young partners, as well as proper succession structures for the young people coming up behind them.

I am also particularly pleased with the number of people embarking on non-standard routes into the business, such as some of our very able administrators who are taking things to the next level by qualifying as AssocRICS.

I will always be grateful to my colleagues who asked me to take on my current role, meaning that I was able to become the first person in the firm’s venerable history to go from being the youngest partner to Senior Partner.

It has been a long journey, and one I am very glad to have made. As the sign on a transport café south of Aberdeen says: “Ye may gang faur, and fare war.”

John Albiston

John Albiston