Interview: Malcolm Cannon on property management

Malcolm Cannon is all about stepping up a gear. Picture: Neil Hanna
Malcolm Cannon is all about stepping up a gear. Picture: Neil Hanna
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THOUGH relatively new to the industry, Malcolm Cannon has ambitious plans of bringing the “phone, letter and shoe leather” business of property rental into the modern age.

As the chief executive of Edinburgh’s largest letting agency, he may well have the clout to do it. His campaign begins later this month with the launch of a website to support the expanded operations of Braemore Property Management.

But while clearly keen to talk about his plans, Cannon doesn’t want to give away too much before the launch on 16 April. After considerable deliberation, he finally strains to put together a form of words.

“There are things that we will be doing that will make us unique, possibly in Scotland but certainly in Edinburgh, in terms of services we offer,” he says by way of explanation.

“For right now, let’s just say that we will be mimicking other industries where online communications are the norm.”

The overhaul will allow newer technologies to be deployed in tasks such as rent collection and property maintenance, a move that the majority of landlords who own the 3,000 properties under Braemore’s management should welcome.

Faster and more flexible communications will also benefit the roughly 1,000 people who enquire every week about renting a home. Meanwhile, those 6,000 living in Braemore properties will be able to report maintenance and other issues as they occur, rather than being confined to telephoning during office hours.

Cannon dwells in particular over this final point. After all, if the plumbing springs a major leak, no-one wants to wait all night before getting it seen to.

“We are providing people with homes, and that sounds very noble, but it is something we have to keep in mind,” he says.

That is one of the few traditional elements that Cannon continues to abide by in a sector that is otherwise “notoriously quite dated in its approach”. Other archaic customs he’d like to go by the wayside include the current “light touch” regulation of those in charge of billions upon billions of pounds ofassets.

Responsibility for protecting homebuyers and sellers from rogue estate agents was last week handed over to a Welsh council following the closure of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). The controversial decision to put Powys County Council and Anglesey Trading Standards in charge of the National Trading Standards Estate Agents Team has led some to conclude that if anything, the sector is becoming less regulated.

Cannon concedes that some new measures have been brought in, such as the Tenancy Deposit Scheme introduced in March 2011. This requires that landlords keep deposits in separate protected accounts so that the money remains safe.

“It is not being adopted by everybody, and it needs to be,” Cannon says. “And it is not being particularly well-policed.”

He compares residential lettings to the market for independent financial advisers (IFAs), which came under the control of the Financial ServicesAuthority in June 2000. Prior to that, IFAs received little oversight.

“When the FSA started to regulate much more tightly, I think the trust level went up,” says Cannon, who believes the same would be true in property rental.

Owned by Lomond Capital, Braemore will soon include the operations of James Gibb and Alba Residential, as the three come together to create a single letting agency. The amalgamation comes just eight months after Cannon’s appointment to head Lomond’s businesses in Edinburgh.

“Combining the operation allows us to leverage the size and scale of the organisation as much as possible,” says Cannon. “Having three separate businesses was also adding complexity to an already complex business.”

Set up in 2010 with a £45 million war chest to fund acquisitions, Lomond now manages more than £1.5 billion of property investments in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Manchester. Its founders, chairman Roger Lane-Smith and chief executive Stuart Pender, aim to reap benefits through consolidation in this buoyant sector.

Their first acquisition was Braemore, which had more than 800 properties on its books when it was taken over in 2010. It has since acquired a string of other letting agencies in Edinburgh, where the proportion of private renters aged 16 to 34 grew from 13 per cent in 1999 to 33 per cent in 2010.

Cannon joined the company from his post as chief executive of ESPC, the umbrella organisation for Edinburgh solicitors working in the property sector. He spent four years stabilising the group, which was badly shaken by the economic downturn and ensuing property slump.

Though he never quite made his childhood ambition of becoming a forensic scientist, Cannon has managed a varied career in his marketing capacity. This has included stints in the pharmaceutical and whisky industries, and more latterly a spell as chief executive during the revival of Hunter Boot as a fashion brand.

The appeal of Lomond and Braemore, he says, is the chance “to move the needle” in another sector.

“We have got a super brand here, and we have got a good opportunity to make something really special at Braemore. I think the market is ready for something different.”