One year ago, Andrew Chisholm shut the surveying firm he had spent 15 years building up, then took a seven-month break. But now he’s back with a new company – and a lot of his old staff

Last year Andrew Chisholm took seven months off work between June and December “to lie down”. The former founder and managing director of building surveyor CNP was drained. And with good reason. He’d spent a year watching helplessly as LandAmerica, the property firm he’d sold his business to, was flattened by the US sub-prime steamroller. His worst fears were realised when it decided to shut down its subsidiaries, and in May last year CNP was put into administration. “I’d been holding things together for a year while the Americans slowly wound the business up,” he says. “There was a huge sense of responsibility trying to do the right thing by the staff. But after all that time, I was exhausted. I had to take some time off.”

Now, after a “late-in-life gap year” of motorbiking, golfing and early evening pints, he is back. Only at a different company. The 44 year old has been a partner at surveyor Malcolm Hollis, one of CNP’s former competitors, since January. He plans to help grow turnover there from £10m to £30m in three years by developing the firm’s due diligence and project services offerings. Unsurprisingly, these areas fared particularly badly in the recession, but Chisholm is convinced that they are about to take off as investment in property increases. In the words of Scarlett O’Hara: tomorrow is another day.

The collapse

When CNP founders Chisholm and his old friend and business colleague David Nurser decided to sell their 15-year-old firm to “de-risk”, they had no idea that the sale would prove to be most hazardous thing they could have done. Indeed, it was swiftly followed by the group’s collapse.

Selling CNP to the US property and financial group in September 2007 was a career high for Chisholm, and he stayed in place as managing director. But it was followed swiftly by his biggest career low as the US parent company began to sink. CNP, which had a turnover of £14.5m, was still operating successfully, and its directors fought hard to save it. In the end they had no option but to propose a management buyout. This was rejected by LandAmerica, at which point Chisholm and his team knew they had to accept defeat: “It was very tough to close down a business I had set up myself but that was my job as the managing director. I tried to do it with my head held high.”

The toughest part, of course, was facing the staff: “We had to stand up in front of them and say, ’we’ve failed in our attempts to protect this business and these jobs’. It’s still hard to comprehend having to do that.”

There was also the fall-out. Nurser had left CNP in September 2008, setting up building surveying consultancy Paragon eight months later: “I wasn’t involved in any discussions about that,” says Chisholm. “But I wouldn’t have wanted to be.” Really? “It’s fine,” he insists. “We never had any aspirations to set up together again. The relationship between us is good. Not love, love, but not hate, hate.”

He treads carefully around the reported squabbling among former directors as clients were divided up after the administration: “If some of your previous clients are looking for another service, you’d step up and contact them,” he says, in measured tones. “This is what David did, I imagine. I’m not really interested in how or why.”

Chisholm adds that his clients were approached by a number of firms after the collapse of CNP, but that 70% of the top ones ended up with Malcolm Hollis. This was the result of a meeting of minds between Chisholm and John Woodman, senior partner in Malcolm Hollis, which led to an abortive attempt to merge the businesses.

Fresh start

“Returning to the market, I wanted to come somewhere I could have an influence over services like due diligence and projects - my strength areas,” he says. “These make up about 20% of Malcolm Hollis’ business and our aim is to grow that significantly. I think we can really push these services to create three almost equal revenue streams: due diligence, projects and landlord-tenant.”

The timeframe is ambitious: three years isn’t long to find £20m, but Chisholm is confident: “We’ve just had some fantastic commissions off the likes of [developers] Great Portland Estates and Threadneedle and they’re giving new project and survey instructions almost on a weekly basis.”

And he adds that he is on the look out for good staff to deliver the services - and quick: “There are huge opportunities for people without work or who have taken pay cuts and are looking to move. Or …” he smiles slyly, “guys who, after a business administration, for example, have ended up in jobs they don’t love and are looking for other opportunities.” Clearly Chisholm has not forgotten the staff injured in the fall of CNP, many of whom have now turned up, “as if by osmosis”, at Malcolm Hollis.

Chisholm’s time off work has given him the energy to drive forward his new firm’s business: “Hopefully that gap year, my hippy, weed-smoking period (obviously I’m joking there; please don’t take that out of context) coincided with the point in time when these services were at the bottom and now, eight months on, they are coming back. And after all the ups and downs of the last couple of years, it’s good to be back in the market.”

After the fall

Before I took those months off some clients advised me to meet John Woodman from Malcolm Hollis. The two firms had been competitors, so there were obviously some similarities, and on closer inspection we saw there was a natural synergy. We got a date in the diary for lunch in Delfino’s in London, a very romantic Italian. It felt bizarrely date like - all very sweet!
So we talked about what I was doing and where CNP was and we looked at joining the two businesses. Sadly, a deal couldn’t be done in the end. But plenty of staff ended up there anyway.

And I felt strongly that clients we had worked with for years shouldn’t be left in the mucky stuff just because CNP was being closed so John and I went round to most of them and said “we are looking to find a solution whereby your work is uninterrupted”. In the end, no repeat clients from CNP were left without someone to do their work whether they went to one of the several spin offs from CNP, like Paragon. But more than 70% of the largest clients of CNP are now providing work for Malcolm Hollis.

Original print headline - As one door closes…