David Nurser has a voracious appetite for risk-taking. First he set up the surveying firm CNP in a recession. And now he’s a year into his second venture, Paragon (more great timing)

Some risks are enough to make you cry. But David Nurser knows that the biggest of all are the ones that will make your wife cry.

In his case, the cause for tears was his decision to set up his own building surveying firm, soon to become known as CNP, in 1993, long before Norman Lamont’s green shoots were visible to the naked eye.

“I remember getting home the night I resigned,” he winces. “We had two young children and I had to tell my wife that despite earning a decent wage as a director where I was, I was leaving to set up on my own. We were off on holiday the next day with a couple of friends. They kept trying to reassure her saying, ’Oh, I’m sure he’s got loads of work lined up’ and she wailed ’No. He hasn’t. He hasn’t.’ It was an interesting holiday that one. But it all turned out fine in the end. And I haven’t looked back since.”

Now Nurser’s gone and done it again - mid-recession, of course - with Paragon, his new consultancy.

Admittedly, setting up this second company has been done under somewhat different circumstances. After 14 years spent growing his first business, Nurser left CNP in August 2008 after it had been bought out by US firm LandAmerica, with disastrous consequences. A little less than a year later, in May 2009, Nurser set up Paragon just as his former firm was forced into administration by its parent.

When the proverbial hit the fan, Andrew Chisholm, Nurser’s former business partner and co-founder of CNP, was left looking for a job. But first he decided to take seven months off “to lie down” (Building, 4 June). In January he joined building surveyor Malcolm Hollis as a partner. So the two former directors were rivals and there were rumours of fights over clients and business.

Both men deny there was any animosity. When Building interviewed Chisholm in June he said his relationship with Nurser was good. “Not love, love but not hate, hate either.” As for the 52-year-old Nurser, he sees too preoccupied with his new venture to want to chew over the past - although he obliges by giving his side of the CNP story before going on to talk about Paragon and the future.

The departure lounge
Nurser’s departure from CNP wasn’t entirely his decision, although the details remain hazy. “I wasn’t keen to leave, put it that way,” he says, sitting in his new central London office just off Oxford Street. “At the time I didn’t have any plans to go and do anything else so I thought I would relax for a bit.”

He says that once he had left he felt a sense of relief because of the stress of having spent a year watching a profit-making firm crumble under the weight of a failing parent company. Ironically, it had been the rapid success of CNP that had led LandAmerica to buy it in September 2007: “It was a great opportunity in the first instance,” says Nurser. “Nobody was sent over from the States and we were left to get on and grow the business across Europe. But as we all now know, circumstances changed.” Indeed, the parent company’s income came, in the main, from title insurance in the US residential market, which fell off a cliff in September 2007.

What was particularly frustrating for Nurser and Chisholm was that when CNP was put into administration in May 2009, it was still making money. But Nurser is philosophical. “We went into that business deal with open eyes and we did sell the business,” he shrugs. “So you have to accept you are no longer masters of your own destiny.”

Separate ways
The same month CNP collapsed, Paragon was born, although Nurser insists that the firm was not the result of a grand plan he had spent months hatching. “I can see why there might have been speculation,” he says. “The business was set up very quickly but there really wasn’t months of planning. People from CNP had been approaching me in the weeks before it went into administration saying they thought the company had a limited life, and I had initial discussions with two other directors. In May, we set the business up with 10 partners. And the clients we took with us were with the full knowledge of the administrators.”

It was, of course, the divvying up of clients that was of particular interest to the industry: watching who went where became something of a spectator sport. Nurser is quick to play the whole thing down: “There were a couple of high-profile clients at CNP whom we didn’t get work from but you can’t win them all and even those we are still talking to. And there will come a day when hopefully they will start using us again. There are many others that have come to us. Our client list is fantastic. On the institutional side we have Scottish widows, Roxbury and Aberdeen Property Investors, to name a few, all big clients for us.”

And his feelings towards Chisholm? Nurser sportingly laughs at the question: “I have absolutely nothing personal against Andrew - we developed a good business together. He was a big part of my life for the period we were at CNP. He isn’t a big part of my life now. I’m quite happy to pass the time of day with Andrew and have a drink with him. That doesn’t mean I have to see him every week.”

The future
And so to Paragon. A success? “This is a tough time for a new firm,” he says, “but if you’re good then you have an advantage at times like these as you are fighting against fewer people. We have a good client base and a good spread of work. Turnover for the first year was £1.9m - that was after 11 trading months. And we made a profit last year, too, which is pretty impressive for a start-up. Our targeted turnover is £2.5m for year two - we’re at the end of month five and have already secured £1.9m of that. So it’s a healthy position to be in.”

Nurser says Paragon will be focusing on core building surveying in the first instance and won’t grow too fast. He is keen to offer clients senior members of staff for as long as possible and, as he points out, with 10 partners out of 17 staff in total, Paragon’s clients are unlikely to expect anything less.

That’s not to rule out expansion into other areas. “We have taken on an M&E services engineer and we have an environmental surveyor on board to support our core building surveying practice. In the future maybe we will take on more QS expertise but we should never lose sight of the fact that we’re a firm of building surveyors and project managers, and that’s what we’re good at. In terms of business areas, we want a spread with a focus on commercial. The resi we do is on a commercial scale - projects worth about £12m. That’s commercial as far as we’re concerned.

“We’re focusing on institutional clients and property firms - these two areas both provide about 30% of our turnover.”

So what will ensure Paragon’s survival and prosperity in a market with so many rivals? Nurser says it comes down to showing initiative and offering more than one service: “The only way we can raise our profile as a profession is by demonstrating to the client that we can add more value to his transactions. I don’t want to be cruel to the whole profession of building surveyors but I do think we make a rod for our own back - we’re not out there enough; we’re too happy to sit in the background.

“It’s all about keeping the work stream going by building a good relationship. But obviously if you live by the sword you die by the sword. If you do an acquisition survey and say a property needs £3m worth of work, then you come back and do the specification and it turns out to be £4m, that would be bad news.” Indeed it would. But it’s the sort of news Nurser appears confident Paragon can avoid.

Not least to save his wife any more tears.