Bidwells IT director managing growing portfolio

"We are more profitable now than when we were in 2006 as we have been more efficient," says Philip Van Enis, IT director of Bidwells, a property consultancy that is coping well with the drastic slowdown the property industry has witnessed during the downturn.

"That puts us in a good position for post-recession," he adds. Based in Cambridge, Bidwells is a top 20 UK-only property consultancy. From its agricultural beginnings in 1840 the company has diversified and today it is a full-service consultancy, providing strategic and technical advice on all aspects of commercial, residential and rural properties - from architectural consultancy to transport planning advice. Its clients range from Trinity College in Cambridge and royal property agency the Crown Estate to individual consumers buying and selling homes or seeking advice on planning and land issues such as the HS2 rail line.

The Cambridge HQ accounts for 50 per cent of the Bidwells business, while a London investments office and offices in Scotland give it national scope.

"That diversity has been a huge strength during the recession as there is always a balance in the business. When the recession struck in 2007 different parts of the business went into it at different times, so house sales was the first in and the planning division was the last in around 2009 to 2010," says Van Enis.
With the construction sector gaining a great deal of media airtime in the discussion about how the UK and Europe will return to growth, it's too compelling not to ask a sector insider what the economic landscape actually looks like. "It looks pretty mixed as growth is hard to come by and every deal Bidwells does is very hard won," he admits. "I think the window of vision for what the order book will look like is much shorter. People are very cautious and they cannot see far enough ahead to make changes from quarter to quarter."

So in a difficult property economy, is cost reduction the daily focus for the IT director? "Trying to get the same level of service to offices, whether well populated or less well populated, is the main challenge and it has a cost associated with that."It's clear that Bidwells, like all organisations, is keeping a keen eye on its costs, but as a nationwide, non-London-based company, it has business and technology challenges outside of its control that can hold back business and increase costs unnecessarily.

"Bidwells has three offices in Scotland, in Perth, Fort William and Inverness; two of them accommodate less than 15 people in them. For us to get a cost effective MPLS connection to them is challenging," Van Enis explains.

Transformation through virtualisation

In the four years since the IT director joined Bidwells he has been rebuilding the company's IT as part of a major investment by the company.

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"When I arrived it was a long way behind where it should be. In the last four years the big transformation has been to use the recession as a chance to catch up," he states.

"We are currently moving to desktop virtualisation, but getting it to work across the WAN is more challenging than you'd think or that the vendors would have you believe. I want to run it from the data centre, but we are doing a hybrid of virtualised desktops and apps in some cases," Van Enis explains.

Interestingly, Bidwells is not moving to thin clients as part of the desktop virtualisation plan.

"We did an extensive thin client test and there is not the cost or horsepower benefits. Some of the protocols, like for USB for example, don't work as well as you'd like.

"We went to engage with the vendors for answers about the issues, but we had to do a lot of investigations ourselves. The vendors have their ideal models and we don't fit that model well," he says of the supplier management challenges he has faced at Bidwells.

"Next year we plan a major telephony upgrade and we want something that seamlessly links mobile to the office without us having to do anything. I'm not convinced unified communications fits together that well though."