Entrepreneur life: Building Lester Campbell an independent conveyancing firm
17 February 2020
There are over 3,000 property transactions in West Yorkshire every month and whether you are buying or selling a residential property you need to instruct a conveyancer to handle the “legal bit”. Let’s be honest – moving house is stressful! Did you know that finding a fantastic conveyancing firm should be top of your list? They can really make a huge difference to the speed and smoothness of your property transaction.
For this month’s blog we caught up with Jade Campbell, one of the founding partners at Lester Campbell, an independent conveyancing firm based in Leeds city centre. Over the past few years they’ve earned an excellent reputation for providing an efficient and personal conveyancing service to their clients and partners alike. An impressive result given the complex and competitive marketplace they operate in! The Lester Campbell story so far is a glowing one and we are curious for all the details.
Hi Jade! Was there a specific trigger or moment that made you decide to go for it and set up your own conveyancing firm?
Yes. Whilst I was employed at Gordons LLP as the Conveyancing Department Manager I was approached by Rodney Lester and Ben Jacobs to see if I would be interested in joining them in setting up a new conveyancing firm.
I had known Ben since being employed as a Saturday assistant (alongside my training contract at Ison Harrison) when he opened the first Stoneacre branch in Chapel Allerton and subsequently acted for him and for clients introduced by Stoneacre on various conveyancing transactions following qualification. Ben introduced me to Rodney who was planning to retire from Lester Morrill, the firm at which Rodney had spent pretty much his whole legal career and was Senior Partner from 1988 until his retirement and was looking for a new challenge before retiring altogether.
That sounds like an amazing opportunity. How did you feel about setting up a business with a partner?
Although I had previously contemplated writing a business plan for my own firm, I hadn’t begun to put pen to paper or look into how I could fund it. I don’t think I ever really thought it could happen as I don’t come from a wealthy background and my family, although all hardworking, are typically employed and not entrepreneurs. They certainly wouldn’t have been able to fund the start-up of Lester Campbell!
Rodney funded the start-up and I have Ben to thank for the introduction. I am very grateful to them both. It isn’t every day you get to play with somebody else’s money and without Ben, Rodney and I may never have met.
What were the first steps you took to create Lester Campbell?
Rodney and I began to write a Business Plan so that we were ready to get going as soon as Rodney’s retirement deal was finalised. After about 12 months of planning Rodney retired from Lester Morrill, I resigned from Gordons LLP and Lester Campbell LLP was born.
Did you work any other jobs whilst building Lester Campbell?
Yes, I was working at Gordons LLP until the end of January 2016, so I did a lot of planning with Rodney in my free time, and Lester Campbell LLP opened its doors at the beginning of February 2016. I had hoped Gordons LLP might put me on garden leave when I resigned in October 2015 but wasn’t so lucky!
What are you most proud of Lester Campbell achieving to date?
Our business plan for the first 3 years was pretty much bang on in terms of predicted costs and income. The business was also set up with a very modest investment from Rodney of £50,000 and without any overdraft which our business plan had predicted we might need to dip into 6 months in. Given that the cost of our case management system and indemnity insurance for the first year swallowed up about half of the initial investment we really needed to hit the ground running and we literally did just that!
What’s the best thing about running your own company?
The ability to be yourself and do things your way. Actually, that’s not strictly true as I do still have to persuade Rodney to try my ideas and that is not always easy, although he usually agrees in the end! So definitely the ability to just be yourself and focus on you and your team and not worry about whether you are doing a good job in your employers’ eyes.
What’s the most challenging part of running your own business?
Last year was particularly difficult. We had to move offices at the end of August and decided to upgrade our case management system, IT systems and phone systems all at the same time. Business contracts are often on rolling terms and getting everyone to work to the same deadlines proved impossible. Our previous office was let on a tenancy at will which meant we had to vacate on short notice and didn’t have much time to organise ourselves. We could have done with a Project Manager to oversee the move and all the administration and other complications that went with it.
On top of the practicalities of the move, although the change of case management systems was supposed to save us money, the overlap in contract terms and increased office rental costs resulted in our costs for the year being much higher than anticipated. In addition, we did not hit financial targets which we believe was primarily down to Brexit and uncertainty in the market leading to dips in instructions whenever a Brexit deadline loomed!
The increased costs associated with the office move and reduced instructions in periods of political uncertainty resulted in cashflow being incredibly tight and 2019 not being the most profitable of years. However, we now have everything in place for a fantastic 2020 and beyond!
Is there anything that you know now that you wish you knew when you started Lester Campbell?
We had a business plan so pretty much covered it before we started. I would advise anyone contemplating starting their own business to write a plan first! I studied business studies GNVQ at Royds 6th form so had some experience of writing a very basic business plan. Rodney also had years of experience managing his own firm and so, between us and with the help of the accountants to finalise the financial forecasts, we were able to produce a plan which worked.
When did you realise that Lester Campbell was going to ‘work’?
The biggest worry when we first started out was that lenders would not allow us on their panels which would have meant we were not able to act for purchasers who needed mortgages with those lenders. Unfortunately, there was little we could do to plan or this and it did take up to 3 years for some lenders to admit us to their panels. This could have ruined us before we even began! We are now on all major panels with only a few smaller quirkier lenders panels refusing to admit us (typically these lenders ask for a minimum of 4 partners so there is no room for negotiation – we only have 2). I think the moment I realised we were going to be okay was once we had secured membership to all the major panels. A CQS Accreditation, previous experience and assistance from the Law Society with an appeal to one major panel all helped to secure lender panel membership fairly swiftly.
We are not out of the woods yet however. We are about to enter our 5th year and hope this will be the turning point whereby we achieve healthier profit margins and are able to secure a much more stable future for the firm.
So, launching Lester Campbell was a bold move. What’s a “panel”?
If a client requires a mortgage to buy or remortgage the conveyancer usually acts for the lender as well as the client. Each lender has its own, “panel,” of conveyancers permitted to act on their behalf. If you are not on their panel, you cannot act, which means you usually cannot act for the client either! Some lenders allow separate representation but this is a costly option for the client as they have to pay both their own and the lender’s conveyancing fees and the transaction usually takes longer as there are more parties involved.
Lester Campbell launched in 2016. Is your business easier to run today compared to the ‘start up years’ (first 3 years)?
Yes and no. The first year I was working crazy hours, not going to the gym, and was pretty stressed. Today I am much more relaxed, working more normal hours, and back at the gym regularly. However, cashflow is still very tight and we still have a fair way to go to achieve long term stability.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how tough is it to build and scale a conveyancing firm?
8. It’s tough without cash in the bank. Even if you were to hire an experienced conveyancer with their own following of loyal clients and able to support themselves with work you need to be able to cover their salary for at least 3 months whilst they get going.
We have so far trained or are training all of our conveyancers in-house but this takes time and growth is slow as they are reliant upon you for work and generally not generating new sources of work themselves.
We also did not want to become a low-cost-high-volume firm and so decided not to buy-in work by paying high referral fees and being tied in to terms set by introducers. We wanted to retain control over our Price Lists (which are published on our website) and workloads to ensure better stability and profit margins in the long run.
In addition, we had no budget for marketing and therefore growing our client base has been a slow process. I am pleased to say that, since instructing Vicky at Hi Digital in summer 2019 to manage our social media and Google accounts, Google enquiries in particular have increased significantly and we are attracting more new clients directly. Previously our client base was primarily existing clients, recommendations from existing clients, and introductions from estate agents and mortgage advisors who recommend us.
How has the conveyancing landscape evolved over the past 3 years?
The conveyancing landscape is always evolving, particularly in view of the ever-looming threat of being targeted by money launderers and fraudsters. Conveyancing firms are consistently having to review their processes and look at new technology for reducing the risk of falling victim to fraudsters. This is an ongoing challenge and many smaller firms have decided that the risk is simply too high for the return and have left the market place with the low-cost-high-volume firms increasing their market share.
Please share your advice for budding entrepreneurs that want to start their own business:
Write a business plan!
What does success look like for you as a small business owner?
Happy staff, happy clients, a good work-life balance and money in the bank!
What’s next for Lester Campbell?
We have some exciting plans this year but I can’t say too much at this stage as I wouldn’t want to jinx them. You will have to keep an eye on our social media accounts!
We are avid supporters of independent businesses like Lester Campbell and every entrepreneur, like Jade, has a unique story to tell. Running a business and building a brand takes time and a lot of drive, but if you are passionate about what you stand for and can deliver it then you’re set to thrive. We know that Lester Campbell will continue to grow and standout for all the right reasons on Yorkshire’s conveyancing scene. If you’re buying or selling a property soon, please check out their website and contact their friendly team of conveyancers for advice and a quote.
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