SME Focus: David Alexander


David Johnston Alexander.



What is your business called?

D.J. Alexander, also colloquially known as “Alexanders”.

Where is it based?

Dundas Street in Edinburgh city centre. We have a second office in Edinburgh, one in Glasgow, one in Dubai and one opening soon in London.

What services does it offer?

Basically our purpose is the letting and sale of residential properties, mainly, but not exclusively, in and around Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Who does it sell to?

Our letting customers range from individual buy to let landlords to major residential property investment funds. The clients on whose behalf we find properties are mainly professionals using us on an individual basis or major companies – e.g. Standard Life, Marks & Spencer – on whose behalf we secure accommodation for key personnel. Most of the people who use our sales division are ordinary owner-occupiers or buy to let landlords seeking to cash in on their property investments.

What is its turnover?

If you include the rental income we handle, turnover would amount to hundreds of millions of pounds per annum. However, turnover for the actual business is expected to exceed £3 million in the current financial year – a new record for the company.

How many employees?

Just under 50, in Scotland, Dubai and London.

When was it formed?

16 September, 1982

Why did you take the plunge?

Having come from a working class background in Lanarkshire and commencing work (in part time jobs) at the age of 11, I had always wanted to start and then grow my own business. After leaving school at the age of 16, I began work as a labourer in a foundry. I then became a representative for a small printing company before joining Rank Xerox, where I had a very successful two years in sales. With this experience behind me (manual job, then working for a small business and then a big multinational) I thought the time was ripe to start my own business and I had absolutely no doubt that, whatever it took, this is what I would do. I decided to launch an estate agency because I sensed there was a gap in the local market in Edinburgh – I believed that solicitors, who at the time dominated the housing sales market in the capital, could have been more proactive in marketing properties on their clients’ behalf.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

I had a current account with what was then the TSB at Goldenacre in Edinburgh. I had managed to save around £2,000 but when I asked them for £20,000 - a sum that I considered necessary to start the business – they refused, on the grounds that I could not offer any security. I then went round the corner to the Bank of Scotland where the manager, Ian Lewis, agreed to lend me the money. I have never forgotten Ian’s pivotal role in helping to get D.J. Alexander off the ground and I have remained faithful to the Bank of Scotland ever since.

What was your biggest break?

The first two and a half years were very tough. Not only was the housing market in recession but I had underestimated the strength of the Edinburgh ‘old boy’ network and found it hard making the right contacts. Then, out of the blue, I received a phone call from a female client who had moved from Edinburgh to the Home Counties and for whom we were trying to sell her flat, in Warrender Park Terrace. Given that the property was proving difficult to sell, she suggested that we try and let it out. My response was that we had no experience of letting homes and I doubted if there would be much demand. But she proved to be very persistent so, reluctantly, I advertised the flat to let in the Press; the next day we received 37 inquiries and a letting agreement was concluded in 24 hours. So I contacted other clients who were struggling to find buyers for their properties and suggested that we try and let them out until the market improved. They agreed and most of the properties let very quickly. Within a few months I decided to abandon sales and turn the business over exclusively to lettings.

What was your worst moment?

When the said Ian Lewis was moved to the Minto Street branch and a new manager took over at Goldenacre. Shortly afterwards I received a letter informing me that I had three weeks to clear my overdraft of over £20,000 because I still had no collateral and the bank’s debt was, he claimed, exposed. I had no way of paying back the money and seriously feared the business would go under. As a last resort I contacted Ian Lewis, who offered to take on my account (overdraft and all). I had absolutely no doubt that I would not default on the debt, but Ian was not to know this so, for a second time, he permitted me to have finance perhaps at some personal risk to his career progression.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

Meeting so many nice people in various walks of life – including dedicated members of staff, who by their efforts have made a significant contribution to the growth of the firm.

What do you least enjoy?

Dismissing someone who is basically a decent person but whom you know – in your heart of hearts – is unable to do the job and never will. Having said that, I will never carry a passenger for sentimental reasons because the strength of the business comes first.

What is your biggest bugbear?

Unreasonable attitudes, such as when landlords become petty minded about small stains or scuffs which are no more than normal wear and tear – and for which they can claim tax relief from the Inland Revenue. Equally, I despise those tenants, albeit a minority, who do not behave in a socially responsible manner. Also on my hate list are neighbouring owner-occupiers who will sometimes abuse our occupants for no other reason than that they are tenants. We actually had one woman come into the office one morning, waving an empty Maltesers packet and claiming – in a loud voice - that it had been left, as litter, on the common stairway of her block of flats by one of our tenants. When asked, she admitted she had not actually seen them do it but she was convinced they were responsible – “because it wouldn’t have been anyone else”.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

To achieve further growth in our core areas of Edinburgh and Glasgow, to extend our influence in Dubai and to crack the London market, which is huge. I am deadly serious about London – our presence there is not some toe in the water exercise. We have spent £2.8m in securing our first office premises, in Lower Sloane Street in Chelsea, and I hope to have several branches in the city five years from now.

What are your top priorities?

To help my son, Ben, who has just joined the business to obtain the knowledge and adapt the working practices necessary to enable him to head the firm when it’s time for me to step down. It goes without saying that this will happen only as a result of hard work and if Ben proves he has the aptitude for the job – there will be no easy ride just because Dad is the boss. To ensure that valued colleagues continue to enjoy working for me and obtain their due rewards. To become a major player in London. To develop our residential sales department, which I recently reintroduced after more than 20 years of exclusively dealing in lettings. We used to refer landlord clients who wanted to sell up to other agents, and it eventually occurred to me that this was a job we could – and should - be doing ourselves.

What single thing would most help?

For the good health that I have enjoyed up to now to continue. Money and ambition are meaningless without your health and strength.

What could the Westminster government and/or the Scottish Executive do that would most help?

To stop interfering in the rental market, which both have been doing with increasing regularity in recent years. For example, it is ludicrous to penalise landlords for the misdemeanours of unruly tenants, while the landlord registration scheme is just another way of expanding the bureaucracy. Even when politicians did introduce legislation that was basically sensible – HMO certificates for multi-occupied housing – they spoiled it by becoming over-zealous. Now a flat housing just three residents who are unrelated (even if they happen to be good friends and responsible people) needs to have an HMO – ridiculous.

How do you relax?

Cooking, collecting fine wines, playing golf. Each is a great antidote to the meddling of politicians and local authority bureaucrats.

The Herald