The Big F: the man behind licensed propert agent Fleurets

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They call him The Big F. Barry Gillham is certainly spacious, as an estate agent might put it, and, over the past two decades, he has had a large...

They call him The Big F. Barry Gillham is certainly spacious, as an estate agent might put it, and, over the past two decades, he has had a large part to play in the changes that have transformed the pub industry.

Gillham is, of course, chairman of licensed property agent Fleurets, which has gone through a few changes itself of late.

The firm's new corporate image has made the radical move of ditching Bastard Point, the typeface with the uncomplimentary name that has borne the word Fleurets for - well - for as long as Gillham can remember, and he joined in 1964. In fact the font has long disappeared from printers' portfolios and had to be made up specially.

The capital F's role in the logo has also been expanded, as Gillham himself explains:

"When I sign the Fleurets name, I do a big F. So wherever I go, they say 'The Big F's in town. We thought we'd make a virtue of it."

There was a debate about whether the familiar Fleurets maroon should go, too.

"The designers suggested we should change to blue, because it is a fashionable colour, but we had a look and saw that seven or eight of our competitors were using blue, so we stuck with red. I actually think we are three years ahead of the next fashion. If the competition goes red, then we may go blue."

Such eccentric manouvres are typical of a firm that many simply regard as old fashioned. Gillham has another definition, however.

"We perceive ourselves as different. Nobody else does things in quite the same way."

Whichever way Fleurets is doing things, it seems to be effective - and it is a pretty safe bet that it is Gillham's way.

The company has grown 10-fold since he and John Nicholl took it over in 1978. From being an almost exclusively London agent, it now has six regional offices which put it within a two-hour drive of anywhere in England and Wales.

Today, with 20,000 sales enquiries a year, it claims to be the largest firm of chartered surveyors specialising exclusively in licensed property. Arch-rival Christie & Co sells more pubs, but, according to Fleurets, it is compromised by its work in the nursing home market.

Gillham's own role in this rise is undeniable. He was always ambitious. Telling his careers master at 16 that he wanted to be "something halfway between a bricklayer and a solicitor", surveying seemed about right.

He qualified in the profession at the earliest possible age and grew a beard to make himself look older.

"Fleurets interviewed my mum and dad," he said. "When I joined there was dust everywhere and the walls were lined with leather bound, gold embossed inventories - one for each pub."

The dust and the books have gone and Fleurets, like the rest of the world, has launched its own website.

But the beard is still there and the Fleurets head office is still in Bloomsbury Square just a couple of doors away from where it was started in 1820 by the first Mr Fleuret, a cabinet maker who sold counters and back bar fittings to pubs.

In 1978 Fleurets was surviving on the basis of its long reputation but going nowhere. As soon as Gillham and Nicholl took charge, the firm expanded. Gillham takes up the story:

"Bob Whittle was an area manager for Ipswich brewer Tolly Cobbold. I was doing their tenancy changes and he turnred round and said 'why don't I do it for you to save you coming up here'. So he became an associate and set up the Sudbury office.

From there, a new office was opened every few years.

"We do it all out of cash flow," said Gillham. "We never borrow, we don't like risk. When we have made enough profit, we open an office. We don't take over other firms, we just set up shop next door and take their business.

"It was the Elders takeover bid for Courage in the late eighties that took us north. We valued the whole of the John Smith's estate for them, then opened the Leeds office in 1988 followed by Manchester in 1994. We still have to cover Scotland by air - but that could be where we put our next office."

Gillham is slightly concerned that people outside perceive the firm as selling mainly brewery cast-offs. Yet Fleurets has been involved in the big deals and has the respect of the major operators.

In the mid-eighties Gillham headed the think-tank set up by Grand Metropolitan which devised the notorious Inntrepreneur lease. Although the disputes continue, he remains of the opinion that "it was a superb idea" and there can be little doubt that, with a bit of help from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, the initiative has a dramatic and lasting impact on the way the industry is organised.

For Fleurets, the effect was a positive one as the firm was consulted by other pub companies which wanted to introduce assignable leases.

"We let 1,500 pubs for Bass and 1,000 for Vanguard," said Gillham. "Half our sales these days are leaseholds.

"It has changed the way we sell leases. Now we act as letting agents, organising open houses and viewing days. Herding prospective buyers around pubs engenders a spirit of competition between them. If they see other people are interested, they think 'this must be a good pub'."

Another change to the way Fleurets does business has come from the growth of town centre circuits where the site might be anything from a bank to a church.

"It has called for new valuation techniques," said Gillham. "You have to think like a potential occupier, know their requirements and consider not only the square feet but the potential turnover, balancing size and profit."

Gillham is optimistic about the future, especially the job that entrepreurial lessees can do in developing a pub business - and the potential for Fleurets to continue to grow.

"We are 10 times the size we were and we will continue to expand - as long as we can get the right people."

One of the many peculiarities of the Fleurets operation is that the right people tend to stay with the company, something Gillham puts down to the investment they have in the firm.

Fleurets is run as a large partnership. Each office is headed by a senior partner who jointly own the company and are incentivised to drive their own part of the business forward.

In turn, all offices are paid on a pool basis with no real divide between the surveying and the sales side of the business. The organisation lends itself to team playing.

Gillham describes himself as the "conductor" of the orchestra that is Fleurets, making sure everyone has the same tune. But he will frequently take up an instrument himself. Forty per cent of his time is taken up with rental valuations, rent reviews and lease renewals, another 40 per cent with company asset valuations.

When the valuation is connected with a takeover bid, he might have to operate clandestinely, visiting hundreds of pubs undercover. It is rare for a chairman to have such a close and active relationship with a company and Gillham has his critcs.

"Some say I am producing Gillham clones, and to a degree they're right," he said. "We select people we know and like and I do read every letter that goes out.

"We look for people who are a bit bouncy up and down, the kind of people who don't sleep too well. But we won't have Flash Harrys. You have to have staying power and work hard within a professional ethic.

"Continuity is very important in this business. On average someone will stay three to seven years at a pub and when they move on they excpect to see the same person from Fleurets that they dealt with the last time - and they usually do.

"In an industry that is changing so much, that is worth something. It also means we've got better records of pub estates than some of the companies we have to deal with!"

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