The future of FCI, an interview with Geoff Offen
How long have you worked in the industry?
I’ve worked in the conveyancing and searches industry since the mid 1980’s, originally developing coal mining searches, and by around 1999 developing environmental searches for conveyancing and due diligence. In the UK as well as in the Netherlands, I’ve created information systems and reports for both environmental and mining searches, and in 2004 I was out in the Netherlands developing and databasing all of the environmental risks and providing searches for the real estate agents who carry out due diligence. I have also been involved in environmental searches in Germany.
What do you see the challenges to be within the marketplace?
For legal professionals it’s all about being efficient and meeting the growing expectations of clients for both residential and commercial property transactions, by constantly providing more information for the information hungry customer. There seems to be an ongoing shortage of property solicitors, particularly those who specialise in commercial property transactions, so it is important for them to have slick processes in place as well as mitigating any risks like mortgage or ID fraud. The legal professionals have a very important role to play and they offer a lot of value in both the home buying process and throughout the commercial property lifecycle.
So, what inspired you to start FCI?
When I came back to the UK from Germany and Holland, I realised that things hadn’t changed within the industry for 16 years. The environmental reports that the legal professionals were used to getting had grown in weight and in numbers of pages, but were essentially the same structure, whereas to my mind the conveyancing world had moved on. So in starting up FCI, we felt it was time to have a reappraisal of what was required on environmental due diligence. So we set about understanding what the customer wanted by organising customer focus groups, and the input from them has led to a completely different set of environmental reports in the market in 2016, as opposed to 1999.
How has a focus on what the customer wants shaped the structure and design of the FCI product?
Well, as a result of the focus groups, we learned that our customers wanted as short a report as possible, with a professional opinion across the whole report, and no intangibles – so black and white with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ risk answers. So we ended up with complete data sets, with a risk opinion on everything and our largest report is only 8-10 pages. To get the equivalent data and content from other suppliers on the market it is often 10 times the number of pages and they can be a lot harder to read and understand. We have also included insurance with our product to provide additional certainty to our clients and consumers, as opposed to contaminated land remediation contributions which are voluntary and can be withdrawn at any time.
And with the FCI reports, you’ve created a product that’s easy to use and interpret by both the solicitor and the end user?
Yes, we worked hard on the wording to make our reports easy for both legal professionals and their clients to understand, so that they don’t have to spend time explaining the reports to them. Actually, one of the members of our focus group panels said “This is a report I can read and understand easily, and I know that when I give it to my client I won’t expect many questions coming back from them.” So I think we’ve achieved that.
FCI is an RICS regulated company, what value does that bring?
Being regulated by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors brings us closer to the surveying profession and gives us a different way of thinking. Alongside thinking about lawyers and their compliance requirements, we also have much more of an insight into valuers and their compliance and regulation environment, which is also important for our developer and surveyor clients. Also, working closely with the chartered environmental surveyors who provide a professional opinion on our reports, we’re much more in tune with the guidance issued to valuers working on mortgage lending, as well as the guidance for the legal profession. Since lawyers and surveyors work very closely together and the professions are very aligned on the same transaction, we think that is a big plus point. In addition to RICS, of course we’re also regulated by the Property Codes Compliance Board and comply with the Search Code.
What is the key thing which sets FCI apart from other environmental report providers?
I think really it’s our company ethos, which is about providing complete information, full risk assessments and easy to use and read products that save money for the consumer, whilst also trying to help save time and cost for the professionals within the due diligence process. Our whole focus is on delighting the customer and ensuring that they have a great experience when they use FCI.
With FCI, both clients and consumers can have peace of mind knowing that our reports comply with the Law Society Guidance and Practice Notes on Flooding as well as being regulated by the RICS. Each report has a professional opinion on all the data that is included and the clear, concise layout allows clients to feedback to consumers quickly and efficiently.
FCI is celebrating its two-year anniversary in July. So what does the future hold for FCI?
Well we’ve had a fun two years! To my mind it’s been enjoyable because we’ve got some great products and have worked really hard to bring a fresh approach to Environmental Reports which is reflected in the market share that we’ve achieved so far. We’ve got a great team and are partnering with some really proactive resellers that share the same customer focus that we do, whilst also seeing the value of our proposition. We believe that the company is going to at least double its market share this year, and are looking forward to becoming much more of a major player in the searches market soon. We’re going to carry on with our product developments and refinements, whilst listening to what the market wants. The future is looking very promising.