"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 50Â 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.
"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."
Discussing business and technology with Van Enis is interesting. He is passionate about both and in particular about the technology, but talking to him about his role reveals the real challenges IT leaders away from the capital face. It's easy to extrapolate his experiences and to imagine how this is hampering the recovery of our national economy. The onset of consumerisation is a case in point.
"There has been a massive change in technology. Organisations used to be in the driving seat, setting the technology agenda - not now. Consumers are definitely in charge, and the enterprise vendors have not caught up with that.
"We are trying to encourage the iPad for doing business. The real advantage is to sit in a client meeting and illustrate in more innovative fashion than in the past," he says of his consumerisation vision.
"Apple has been slated for being closed, but that's a good thing and it's the only one that we will support."
Van Enis has a team of 15 providing service desk, infrastructure and business analysis to the company with strategy and relationship management capabilities. Fujitsu is his primary infrastructure supplier and the IT director is not faint with his praise for the Japanese giant.
"We are really well supported. I've worked with HP, IBM and Dell, and Fujitsu is the most rewarding and I don't say that lightly. The quality of the engineering in their equipment is excellent and it contributes significantly to our operational stability." EMC, HP, Citrix and Cisco are his other key suppliers.
Van Enis considered cloud-based solutions as part of the transformation he has been leading, but for the moment has kept his IT firmly on the ground and for good business reasons.
"Cloud is a good idea, but the weak point for a geographically diverse business like ourselves is connectivity, and that is more of an issue than the security. Unsurprisingly, the industry has jumped on security as a topic of concern, but I am surprised more people are not seeing connectivity as an issue.
"Also with vendor consolidation, suddenly everyone out there is a cloud vendor. We did an analysis of the cloud for us and I didn't see it as that much cheaper," he explains.
Of greater concern than putting the Bidwells application portfolio into the cloud is the need to modernise the information management within the Cambridgeshire organisation.
"Email is our core tool. The challenge is about how we share our information a lot more efficiently internally and we want to work together more efficiently and help the organisation cross-sell.
"A lot of our information is in our heads or in a file structure, so Big Data is an interesting subject for us, as we are drowning in information. So for the next year I am planning on improving the information management now that we have caught up on the infrastructure. I am also very interested in how social networks work and why they work.
"Part of the difficulty for an organisation like Bidwells is that our information is in documents and land-based data and I look at the GIS (geographic information systems) side of technology and [information management] is not going there.
"As an example, current GIS systems are powerful but still operate in a traditional fashion. End users expect seamless and easy-to-use solutions that mirror the experience in their consumer lives outside of work.
"Organisations building corporate applications are under more pressure to provide tools and solutions that will engage their intended end users elegantly from a variety of devices (desk and mobile) as well as fulfilling their functional requirements."
Making a difference
Van Enis reports to the COO of Bidwells and sits on the operational board of the company. He also has the additional responsibility of reporting annually to the strategic board.
"We have to make a real difference to the organisation," he says of IT's role within the business. "My team really want to make things better and that is an important ingredient - to want to change the world and how we do things.
"The IT industry has reinvented itself with virtualisation, mobile and cloud," he says with an informed and analytical passion. "These are three major game-changers for every organisation," and as he shows, it's judging when they are right for an organisation to adopt that matters.
Philip Van Enis CV
August 2006-present: IT Director, Bidwells
2004-2006: Information Systems Manager, Fenland District Council
2003-2004: Operations Group Manager, Middlesex University
2001-2003: Applications Group Manger, Middlesex University