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One to One: Rob Clifford, group commercial director, SDL Group

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Reasons behind a major rebranding strategy, the future for good-quality networks and how a magic wand would be put to good use

You recently rebranded Shepherd Direct as SDL Group. What was the thinking behind it?

Shepherd Direct was simply the name of our group holding company. Components of our group have operated since the late 1980s and, with our recent acquisition of Bigwood, we can point to a history that started in 1854.

Particularly in the past 15 years, we have launched several start-ups and made acquisitions and investments that gave us nine key businesses and associate businesses, all with their own identities. We never sought to alter the trading style of each operating company, even when we centralised many common functions, such as finance, IT, HR and marketing. Very few people would have had a clue that our various companies, despite their individual success, belonged to a common group.

Adding confusion to the matter, the group holding company was hastily named when J&E Shepherd, the Scottish surveying firm, joint-ventured with Direct Valuations about eight years ago. Meanwhile, our group had become known internally, and in some external quarters, simply as SDL.

So the time was right to both simplify the name and create a more deliberate branding relationship between our main operating companies. For instance, Shepherd Surveyors E&W is now SDL Surveying, and Central Lettings Solutions is now SDL Lettings.

But it is not just about the name. We are making good progress with our strategy to extend far more of our group services to our partners and corporate clients, such that we broaden those business partnerships and trade with them in multiple ways.

Following your investment in Stonebridge last year, what do you think the future holds for the network model?

I am still convinced that being an AR is the right model for most broker firms. With the criticality of scale, the need for leading technology and regulatory support, a quality network delivers in spades – if the principal gets it right.

In Stonebridge, we certainly get it right, as is obvious from the substantial growth in all key metrics. The bespoke and owned software solution, Revolution, is part of the Stonebridge crown jewels: truly market-leading and a great attraction for ARs. We now have over 400 advisers and the business is well positioned for even more growth.

The network model is a crucial component of the mortgage distribution and regulatory landscape and we’re ambitious for further growth and involvement.

What other plans do you have for firms within SDL Group over the coming 12 months?

The joint ventures, strategic investments and acquisitions in the past year or so have enabled us to make great strides in our strategy to become a much larger supplier of property services to our numerous corporate partners, such as lenders, property portfolio investors and other property players. We are far from finished in our ambition to become a major player in every market we serve.

Expect SDL to make more acquisitions and investments in property services businesses, plus yet more impressive organic growth in our key operating companies.

Which one thing would you change about your current role?

I often see prospects and partners missing commercial opportunities by taking too long to force them into being. So I need a magic wand to sweep away competing priorities in other companies that stand in the way of getting new deals under way.

As a child, what was your dream job?

I had a real interest in studying medicine. When I found, though, that I had more natural ability in the arts, my interest in science waned.

Do you have any secret talents?

I am not a bad keyboard and piano player. And before I got a proper job in this industry, I had a number of roles in musical theatre productions.

Who is your all-time hero and why?

It is hard to choose between Richard Branson and Bruce Springsteen. They have in common being highly respected and at the top of their game through old-fashioned hard work, dedication and belief.

What is the best advice you have received?

Put yourself in charge of your own destiny.

COMPANY PROFILE

Year established: 1989

Headcount: 400+

Turnover: £60m

Address:  Chetwynd Business Park

Regan Way, Chilwell, Nottingham

HISTORY

SDL is an integrated property services group that offers national coverage in risk management, surveying, lettings, estate agency, mortgages and insurance broking. Our many services include managing mortgage valuations for lenders, performing property surveys for consumers, providing back-office lettings services to landlords, estate agency franchising and residential block management.

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