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CEO Spotlight: Drumming up business for Hicks Baker

By Harry Whittle
14 May 2021
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Giles Blagden managing partner of Hicks Baker

Giles Blagden has been beating the drum for the Reading-based commercial property consultants for 30 years. He self-effacingly leads the firm with understated determination.

Possibly the perfect antidote Giles Blagden offers for handling the pressures of running Hicks Baker and coping with business upheavals caused by the coronavirus pandemic is to bash away the stress on a drumkit. And with back-up from a carefully selected glass of his favourite pinot noir, preferably from Burgundy.

He said the firm has been relatively lucky during the pandemic, with staff managing to handle well the additional stress and mental wellbeing challenges. Rather than luck alone, his compassionate and caring attitude towards colleagues and clients might explain why the firm is coping well with uncertainty and volatility.

One permanent change he has witnessed is a move away from an attitude of presenteeism, with trust an important factor in switching to more flexible work patterns. “We’re still in lockdown mode, with about a third of the team in the office each day. The headache for me now is how best to use our office. We’ve been asking people how they prefer to work.”

The accidental surveyor

For someone with such a clear long-term vision for his firm, Blagden’s career choice had more to do with chance circumstances. A law degree from the University of Leeds convinced him to consider a different profession. “I tried marketing instead, got a job dealing with surveyors and property companies, and thought I fancied that.”

His arrival in the Thames Valley was equally fortuitous. He took a graduate trainee position in London with one of the city’s oldest surveying firms before moving to Savills. Then, at 27, he found himself a single parent with two young children and made a crucial work/life balance decision rather earlier than he had perhaps planned “to commit to a life outside London to gain a better balance in our lives.”

His parents lived in Dorset, so Reading seemed the logical location down the M4 corridor from the capital. Hicks Baker had recently been set up by Roger Hicks, and he invited Blagden to join him. The trainee soon qualified as a surveyor and eventually took over the business from Hicks on his retirement in 2012.

The firm had grown from half a dozen people to nearly 20, although numbers have dropped back to the mid-teens in recent years. Blagden is hesitant to increase the headcount until the Covid-19 crisis passes.

Learning to put clients first

His first job at Hicks Baker was managing properties in Reading’s Queen Victoria Street. “That was one of the reasons why Roger took me on. It was a very hands-on role, so I learned alot quickly.”

The work was a big change from dealing with large corporate clients in London, he explained: “Private clients and SMEs became far more important, partly because their property investments mean so much more to them personally.”

He sums up his approach in the advice he gives new joiners: “Put yourself in your client’s position. Think about what the client wants and expects from you, and not about yourself. Don’t try and show off, just give clients what they need.”

Hand on the rudder

As with his clients, sustaining strong relationships with colleagues and contemporaries underpins his love for the job.

I know most of Reading’s property professionals and business community members. Our careers have developed at the same time. That kind of knowledge seeps into your bones and over the years I’ve built up an invaluable network

He regards his leadership role as about making Hicks Baker the best it can be: “Life is always changing so I’m always adjusting the rudder. I like that challenge. I generally back my own judgement and, by and large, seem to be reasonably good at it.”

With the firm’s workload up by around 25% so far in 2021, Blagden and his team are busier than ever. His usual 50/50 split between working directly with clients and managing the business is currently tilted more towards client-based activities.

Wearer of many hats, but not a control freak

That’s not to say he neglects his leadership duties. In fact, Blagden includes finance and HR in his job description. “There’s not much about the business that I don’t understand, but I wouldn’t say I was a control freak,” he said.

He values the opinions of an independent business consultant who sits in on meetings between the firm’s three partners. “He makes sure we don’t allow any element of self-congratulation to creep in and that we don’t become complacent,” he said.

Who else does he turn to for advice and support? “My wife, usually. She has a good business brain and I value her perspective highly.”

Flexible post-Covid working

Since March 2020, Blagden’s preoccupation has been making sure Hicks Baker generates enough work and revenue. “There has been a lot more HR stuff to do during the lockdowns. And I look at our financial projections more closely. I’m pleased with how we have come through the crisis.”

Flair for art

As well as a wine appreciation (“Although I won’t usually pay more than £20 for a bottle”), Blagden also dabbles in art and is currently chairman of the Reading Foundation for Art, which uses bequests, legacies and donations to purchase art curated by the town’s museum. “It suits me as I enjoy collecting art – mainly British twentieth century,” he said.

A drummer in various bands since he was 12, he hasn’t been behind a kit for gigs for about five years. “My last group was called Broadband. We did covers of everything from the Monkees to Adele. There were a couple of other surveyors in the group as well as me. It was great teamwork and there were no egos.”

During the pandemic lockdown, he invested in an electronic drumkit, so he can now make as much noise as he likes through his headphones without annoying the neighbours.

How the region’s commercial property is coping

Looking at how the region’s commercial property landscape has changed over three decades, he points out the transformation of towns like Reading, Wokingham and Bracknell. “Reading, in particular, is more urbanised and its tentacles have spread.”

Anticipating how the commercial property sector will recover from the pandemic is a hard call to make. “I think most businesses are unlikely to decide about returning to offices until the end of the year, although staff density rates will probably fall,” he said.

That said, Blagden’s overall prognosis is upbeat – even if it doesn’t feature his drumming.

A large part of the retail and leisure sectors have come through hell and high water. Humans adapt and so can buildings. Flexibility is here to stay and different business models will inevitably drive property developments

Motivations…

“I enjoy seeing staff doing well, passing qualifications, succeeding, extending themselves, for example, by starting in a support role and moving to a professional role. I think we’re good at giving opportunities to people that they probably wouldn’t find in larger firms. I’m also proud of managing the firm through difficult times and making it a good, balanced business.”

… and frustrations

“It’s hard for me to relax, except at Christmas and on Bank holidays. The rest of the time I worry about things that could go wrong and how to keep the business growing.”

Giles Blagden