How – and why – do some planners make the step into self-employment and build their own business as an independent consultant? Tim Ferguson of Ferguson Planning tells his story.
Tim Ferguson (TF), founder of Ferguson Planning, started his Galashiels-based consultancy in 2012. Now an employer of three other planners across two Scottish offices and a third in Northern Ireland, he’s going from strength to strength.
Why did you become self-employed?
TF: “I have always had a strong desire to establish my own planning practice but at the same time was aware that it takes time to truly understand the mechanics of what it entails and the importance of having the necessary experience.
“After fifteen years in the industry building up my skill set in a variety of development sectors and with it a strong contact/client base I was keen to establish my own practice and ultimately move from a large corporate approach to applying my own ideas and style that clients seemed to like.
“We went through some tough times during the recession which affected me but it was a catalyst for me to move forward and take things into my own hands and within a very short period of time I established Ferguson Planning.”
How long have you been self-employed?
TF: “I have been self-employed now for just over four years and now employ a further three people who assist greatly in the day to day running of the business from our Galashiels and Glasgow offices.”
“It is essential to be proactive and keep an open mind as to where contracts may come from. I never thought that I would have gained work from other planning consultants, for example”
How have you gone about establishing your business?
TF: “I think one of my main bits of advice is not to try run before you can walk. I established the business in steps starting working from a room in our house and then moving onto purchasing our own office in 2015. It was important to keep everything as tight as possible financially and ensure the business had a sound footing going forward rather than getting carried away with perception.
“I never had any preconceived ideas or end point in terms of the business, more seeking to grow naturally. Our success rate is strong and on the back of that we continue to secure new contracts and that recently led to the opening of a new Glasgow office and a satellite office in Northern Ireland.
“Specialising in retail planning has provided a sound foundation throughout my career and while not the only sector we work in it did lead to a significant commission when first setting up and took some of the initial pressure off regarding the whole risk of going independent.”
What sort of marketing and promotion do you do, if any?
TF: “It is essential to be proactive and keep an open mind as to where contracts may come from. I never thought that I would have gained work from other planning consultants, for example, but have been referred on numerous occasions now.
“We have held a number of planning seminars and events around the office openings that have been significant in terms of company awareness and gaining new contacts. Advertising has been part, but a small part, to our approach. My preference is more based on delivering projects and that then leading onto repeat work for certain landowners/developers or referrals from other professionals involved in the same projects.
“We try to treat all clients, big or small, in the same way by ensuring we understand their requirements fully and delivering permissions in a timeous and cost-effective manner. This then allows relations to grow and hopefully lead to repeat work as the most efficient way to run a business.”
“What I think is essential is that you have built up good experience in a variety of planning sectors and with this a strong contact base”
How has business been, by and large, and how do you cope with periods of slack and periods of glut?
TF: “Luckily business to date has been extremely positive and obviously aligned with the pick-up in the market over the last couple of years. There have only been limited periods of slack but we have tried to ensure there is financial savings just in case and when there are periods of down time we try to keep positive and proactive and use that time wisely in getting out there and meeting new developers and consultants, and generally promoting our services to the industry.”
What advice would you pass on to someone who is considering becoming an independent?
TF: “Each person will be unique and to me there is no right or wrong time to setting up your own practice. What I think is essential is that you have built up good experience in preferably a variety of planning sectors and with this a strong contact base.
“Understanding how a business works is essential, particularly with regard to financial arrangements and being aware a wage slip doesn’t simply drop on the floor each month! Ensure an element of savings are in place to enable that flexibility with regard to potential late payments.
“Being independent is not a 9am-5pm job, that is for sure, and a lot of hard work and long hours are involved. For me the pros far outweigh the cons and there is a lot more flexibility on how you can plan out your working week. Having a young family, getting the work life balance right is a constant challenge but as we grow the practice I have learned to take that educated risk and take on new staff to help you manage the workload and ultimately grow the business.”
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