Monday interview: Richard Hepburn, Millar & Bryce MD

Land and property search firm boss aims to build on 140-year history and drive innovation

Hepburn is aiming for the Edinburgh-based company to recover market share
Hepburn is aiming for the Edinburgh-based company to recover market share

Richard Hepburn took the reins earlier this year as managing director of land and property search organisation Millar & Bryce.

The Edinburgh-based firm provides the legal profession with title information, conveyancing searches and land reference services across the UK and Ireland, having been founded in 1875.

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Hepburn stresses the advantages of such heritage, with the average length of service more than 20 years, but he was also attracted to the role by the prospect of modernising the business and replacing some of the legacy systems and processes.

Driving such a transformation “was the real appeal of the role” that also saw the “long-suffering” Hibs fan return to the town he was brought up in. “My challenge is to create an innovative [firm] within a 140-year legacy business,” he says.

Hepburn also notes the ongoing adoption of technology more broadly in the sector. Some properties still have their title held on the registers on parchment, and “you’ve got the spectrum of that right through to fairly modern digital technologies”.

It comes amid efforts to complete the Land Register of Scotland, a single system of registration for land and property titles. The digital, map-based public record of land ownership replaces the 400-year-old deeds-based General Register of Sasines, with St Giles’ Cathedral’s property title recently moving over, for example.

The new resource will improve buying and selling property, according to Registers of Scotland, with Hepburn seeing the transition as “a fairly major shift in the way the market generally is moving”.

“Millar & Bryce along with other providers in this search space have a really important role in that… and hopefully that target’s achieved.”

And in terms of other providers, he says the Leith-headquartered business has seen the emergence of competitors in Scotland. It “was traditionally the major provider, so it’s probably allowed other competitors to come in and grow their market share”, he continues, seeing it as his duty to recover some presence in the marketplace.

Speaking in August when his appointment was announced, Hepburn said: “The company has undergone significant changes in recent years, and I’m joining at a good time as we look to launch some of the innovative technology-led solutions offered by parent company Landmark Information Group elsewhere in the UK.”

Landmark is a business-to-business information company, and is “our real big brother in terms of their presence in business information in the property sector”, says Hepburn.

And Millar & Bryce, which also has a sizeable company search facility, providing information to support land transactions, company acquisitions and corporate decision-making, is involved in projects such as compulsory purchase requirements related to the dualling of the A9, the electrification of the Edinburgh to Glasgow rail line and the redevelopment of Queen Street Station.

It also carries out work related to large plot developments by housebuilders. “We’re quite dependent on property transactions as a key driver — the market in Scotland is at best flat with some regional variations,” Hepburn says. Registers of Scotland said earlier this month that the volume of residential sales in Scotland in July was 8,725, a year-on-year drop of 5.7 per cent and a month-on-month decrease of 18.3 per cent.

Hepburn has spent more than 20 years in various B2B roles, with a “large part” of his career at logistics group John Menzies, including a spell at its Menzies Aviation arm. But he then decided on a change of course in the mid-2000s, feeling he had been in corporate life “a little too long” and was instead seeking out something more entrepreneurial.

He and a partner raised money and bought into a research business in London that traded “really well” until the financial crisis hit.

The organisation had been somewhat reliant on public sector work, he adds, with clients including Transport for London and the Department for Work and Pensions. They took the decision in 2011 to merge the business into the research agency now known as Future Thinking.

And after serving as group managing director of private equity backed ALcontrol UK, Hepburn took on his current position.

Millar & Bryce currently has about 120 staff, and while there are plans to increase its use of new technology to realise the firm’s ambitions, Hepburn doesn’t see this hampering headcount, which he expects to grow “organically”.

In summary, “I just see my role as trying to make sure Millar & Bryce has another 140 years and that it’s a business that can jump that gap in terms of deploying enough technology and in terms of blending old and new skills. Lots of businesses don’t achieve that.”

30-second CV

Born: 1963, BournemouthEducation: BSc Hons civil engineering (Dundee), MBA (Edinburgh)First job: Engineering draughtsmanAmbition while at school: To get into the basketball team What car do you drive: No car at present Favourite mode of transport: BusMusic: Elvis CostelloKindle or book: KindleReading material: UK crime fictionCan’t live without: Sonos music streaming systemWhat makes you angry: BullyingWhat inspires you: Anyone achieving something against the oddsFavourite place: Burra Beach, ShetlandBest thing about your job: Getting the chance to help people grow in their careersBest business advice you’ve ever been given: Only when you are asleep can you make no mistakes