Colin Graham had originally vowed when heading off to Glasgow to do his legal training that he wouldn’t work either in conveyancing or his Dundee hometown.
But having ended up spending his career doing both of these things, “that’s the way it’s worked out and I would never swap that”.
Now, having spent more than 30 years with Thorntons, which bills itself as one of the largest full-service legal firms in Scotland, he has now taken on the mantle of chairman, and says it is “just absolutely the right time for me and, I hope, the right time for us”.
The law firm, which can trace its roots back to 1857 when Sir Thomas Thornton started a legal practice in Dundee, has grown to more than 430 staff with plans for further expansion and 12 offices in ten locations.
Graham notes that the organisation has inevitably changed greatly over his time there, “and it will continue to change”. It has proceeded with a series of deals, in 2014 merging with Fife firms Steel Eldridge Stewart and Murray Donald, and in April last year revealed it was extending its reach down the east cost by joining forces with Kirkcaldy-based Clarkson Hamilton.
The run of mergers in recent years “has been a deliberate policy to get into other locations, and we will need to maximise these as well”, Graham says. As for whether more acquisitions are on the cards, this is very much the case. “At the moment I think we have a lot of work to do inside with the recent mergers to get these maximised, fully bedded down. They’ve all been great for us, every single one has been fantastic, but we could do more to maximise them.”
He also points out that many smaller firms “don’t have succession plans in place, so these opportunities come to us and we can’t afford not to look at them”. However, despite such desire to grow, Thorntons has not been immune to challenges, and Graham says the financial crisis of 2008 “hit us big time”, but it prompted the introduction of a “very simple” strategy, with another set to take it “right through to 2020” and relating to turnover and margin. “It’s in place and that will hopefully work for us,” he says.
Graham had considered studying medicine but opted instead for law, leaving school at the end of fifth year and going straight to university.
Looking back and having now racked up a “huge volume” of client work, his move to the chairman’s seat means a huge change in his role, stepping away from his day-to-day activity in residential property.
He admits he will miss dealing with clients, saying: “I love handing over their keys if it’s a settlement, or giving over their money if it’s a sale.”
But carrying on with such a heavy conveyancing caseload alongside his new duties would not prove compatible, and although taking the work off his desk was a concern for the firm, an enlarged team has been put in place to take over, Graham explains, adding that his conveyancing role has undergone huge changes in tandem with the property market.
“I have never had to spend as much time keeping clients updated as I do now. I think the conveyancer’s job just now is as hard as it has ever been.
“You have got to be on top of it, you have got to be keeping clients advised, otherwise you are not doing the job properly.”
It comes amid expectations of dampening demand in the UK housing market this year as consumers’ spending power is squeezed, but Graham says people “need to move no matter what’s happening. It’s just one of those things people do so it’s just a case of encouraging them along, helping them along”.
His comments come as there is some cause for Scottish optimism about residential investment, which is expected to rise this year, proving an appealing alternative to the bubble in the south-east of England and despite fears over the impact of Brexit and a potential second Scottish independence referendum.
Property group Rettie & Co said last month that Scotland “has strong underlying market fundamentals that are likely to support growth moving forward”, and looking at the private rental sector, it found that three of the highest gross rental yields in the UK were in Scottish cities.
Among these was Dundee at 5.9 per cent, and Graham has changed his mind about the city, saying: “It’s funny, when you leave a place, you realise how good it is.”
Born: Falkirk, 1961
Education: Glebelands Primary School Dundee, High School of Dundee, University of Dundee
First job: Portering at Dundee Royal Infirmary
Ambition while at school: To play rugby for Scotland!
Favourite mode of transport: Upstairs, front seat of the bus
What car do you drive? An Audi Q5
Music: Totally eclectic
Kindle or book? Jump between the two
Reading material: Crime mysteries, particularly Scottish writers Caro Ramsay and Peter May
Can’t live without: Laughter
What makes you angry? People not taking telephone calls or returning them
What inspires you? New team members joining full of inspiration, enthusiasm and fresh ideas
Favourite place: Vietnam