Alistair Allison

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With hindsight, Alistair Allison’s path to the top job at TFT looks seamless. After a degree in sports science left him with no idea what he wanted to do next, he decided to study for a Post-Graduate Diploma accredited by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and, alongside that, approached the local surveying firm to see if they could offer him some work experience.

At the time he thought surveying seemed to offer a good balance of security and travel. TFT had done some major developments in the centre of Bristol and looked like an exciting, commercially-¬minded place to work. 17 years later, he’s still there and is now managing partner. It has turned out to be every bit as good as he hoped.

“I was the work experience boy, did my surveying course, self-funded, and a year later TFT offered me a permanent role. From there, it all happened quickly. I was one of the youngest partners.”

He says his skillset was always a little different to that of the standard chartered building surveyor. The business side always interested him more than the technical side and from early on, he wanted to look at how the business could respond better to client needs and identify strategic opportunities.

“Surveyors can be technically exceptional, but it’s not the same as managing a business and motivating a team. I specialised very early in the project management side of surveying, particularly on large commercial projects. That meant I always had to look at the big picture, to be able to drive and work within a team.”

It was a good grounding for the additional levels of responsibility that came later. He became a partner in 2012, taking responsibility for service line growth. When the group made acquisitions, he was responsible for their integration: “I was often outside my comfort zone. We took on an engineering company, for example, which was a really different discipline. Nevertheless, I knew we’d bought it for a reason and would ask what we could learn from them.” In 2017, he was elected to the executive board and became responsible for business growth across the firm, before taking on his current role as managing partner in 2019.

Initially, he found the biggest challenge was ‘being everything to everyone!’. “It’s difficult in terms of the amount of correspondence and getting our priorities right. That said, I love making a real difference. I have built a good track record of making changes and I enjoy looking at what’s not quite right and fixing it. It’s a great business with great partners, but there’s always something that can be done better. 10-20% better can make a big difference if there are incremental improvements.”

This has included carefully planning and implementing a succession plan for the firm, looking to the future whilst managing the present.

However, whatever the early challenges, the pandemic has been a world apart, forcing a new level of ingenuity and flexibility. He adds: “When I took over in March 2019, I spent a lot of time building and launching a new business plan and strategic direction. I presented it in February, trying to drive key parts of the culture. It was all underpinned by a commercial growth strategy. We were going to formally begin the strategy in March 2020. Then the pandemic hit.”

He admits it was terrifying: “I couldn’t let it show how nervous I was, but the team really came together. We had no idea what it meant for us and our ability to operate. The partners took a 20% drawings cut for the first quarter, which was cancelled after June when we had greater clarity. We had to take some cost management measures and we needed to look at our assets. Nevertheless, we got through the year in a strong position.”

The business has now re-grouped and Alistair can finally get started on the plans he’d put in place before the crisis hit but with some subtle changes to reflect an altered world. The plans go back to first principles and are designed to give the business a flexible toolkit. “Previously we had been divided up in a way that left us vulnerable. We want to focus on an agile skillset and better collaboration across offices. This has already helped to deal with the pandemic, and we believe it puts us in a good position for the future. We have had a year of focusing on ourselves and now we can really push for growth.”

He’d like to see more graduates coming into the business with the type of commercial know-how he’s built up over the years and believes this should be a priority for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors: “Technical excellence is important, but it hasn’t always gone together with being business savvy. We need people who are not just very good at doing the job technically, but have the aptitude and interest in understanding what our clients do”.

By necessity, this briefing can only provide a short overview and it is essential to seek professional advice before applying the contents of this article. This briefing does not constitute advice nor a recommendation relating to the acquisition or disposal of investments. No responsibility can be taken for any loss arising from action taken or refrained from on the basis of this publication.