Brothers in arms

Brothers in arms

David and John Alexander combined their property businesses to become one of the largest firms in Scotland. Karen Peattie joins them for lunch to find out if any sibling rivalries remain post-merger.

Tennis stars Andy and Jamie Murray and rugby’s Gavin and Scott Hastings are among the famous Scottish sibblings who have made their mark on the world of sport. But what about the sphere of business?

Step up to the stage the Alexander brothers – not the internationally-renowned musicians who at one point were Scotland’s biggest variety entertainment celebrities – but David and John, stars of the residential lettings sector.

David arrives first at The Wee Restaurant in Edinburgh’s New Town, the venue for our business lunch. He’s been before and is looking forward to something more substantial than his usual sandwich. “No-one does the ‘business lunch’ thing anymore,” he notes, adding: “Even journalists.”

Well, we have our moments, I tell him as John strolls in, apologising for being slightly late.

“We’ve only had the one bottle of wine,” David jokes, bringing him up to speed on the previous conversation before they peruse the menu and opt for starters of ham hock terrine and chilled gazpacho with Scottish crab. Selecting mains of wild mushroom spelt grain risotto and grilled sea bass, spiced crab and spring onion risotto, the brothers are ready to rock and roll.

Showing no outward signs of sibling rivalry – at least in public – the brothers are joint managing directors of their Edinburgh-based lettings and property management business, DJ Alexander, and are known as both industry experts and trailblazers. David set up DJ Alexander in Leith in 1982 and John founded Edinburgh Property Managers (EPM) in 1989 but they also worked together, finally merging the two businesses in 2012.

Now the largest lettings agency in Central Scotland with offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the company has been leading the property services pack for nearly 35 years and continues to grow. Indeed, their combined experience of the sector is surely unrivalled North of the Border.

“We’re in a good place just now,” says David. “Business isn’t without its challenges but it’s buoyant, we’ve moved into new markets and we know exactly what our clients and tenants want, and what the demands of the market are.”

So why did these two independently successful businessmen decide to become brothers in arms? “It wasn’t something we had long and hard discussions about,” David points out. “We were operating very much in the same space and we felt we could achieve more by working together and pooling resources and experience. It made sense to join forces.”

Their roles are clearly defined with David very much the ‘face’ of the business, looking after the front end of the operation and John focusing on technology systems and implementing the structures that make DJ Alexander run efficiently. “I’m useless at all the things John does,” says David. “We both do our own thing but equally make the joint decisions – it works for us.”

John has been less high-profile than David and admits he has found a new lease of life since the merger. “I lived in France for a number of years and when I came back I threw myself into the coalface – I found that very invigorating,” he admits. “As David said earlier, we’re in a good place with the business just now.

“I’m 51 and David’s 56 so we’re at a stage where we’ve notched up serious experience, which gives you the confidence to do things you might not have been brave enough to do 20 years ago. We worked together early on in our careers and it’s good to be back together again – we’re comfortable in the knowledge that we’re still hungry to move things on to the next level.”

Alexander 02Last year, the firm appointed its first director from outside the family, promoting head of business development Rob Trotter to the new role of associate director. DJ Alexander also secured substantial funding from private and institutional investors to drive an acquisition programme that has seen the firm take over a long-established Musselburgh agency, Regimental Properties. Much of our growth over many years has been organic and we’ve got clients who have been with us for the best part of 30 years but we’re aware that we need to look beyond client recommendations,” David continues. “We place much more weight now on online marketing and we’re amazed that our website gets almost 50,000 visits every month from more than 130 countries. We’ve also advertised on TV and launched an advertising campaign with STV last year, which ran for eight months both locally and nationally.”

With its estate agency and solicitors’ arm operating under a separate company launched in 2014, DJ Alexander Legal, the business effectively offers a one-stop shop for anyone looking to rent, buy or sell property. “We’re seeing a lot of interest from people wanting to invest in the property market just now,” says David. “Interest rates are low and people have a bit of money in the bank.

“Ten to 15 years ago getting your foot on the property ladder was the holy grail for many people but now it’s not so easy to get a mortgage there’s a different culture around renting and that opens up opportunities for investors as well as providing more suitable properties for rent,” he continues. “There’s a generation now that aren’t thinking about buying – their peers are renting so there’s not that same pressure to become a homeowner.”

John agrees. “It is not seen as a negative thing to rent and the ‘Rising Damp’ image of renting is long gone,” he says. “It used to be that people would buy a property to let then fill it up with granny’s old furniture and a second-hand fridge and washing machine – that’s no longer acceptable to renters and that school of thought is something we’ve worked hard to consign to the past.

“However, there are some landlords, particularly first-time landlords who are dipping their toe in the water, who get too emotionally attached to the property they’re letting out and go overboard with the way they decorate and furnish it. It’s fine for you to like floral curtains and patterned wallpaper but prospective tenants might not share your views when it comes to interior design and that’s what we have to manage – it’s about finding a balance.

“Landlords also need to understand that their tenant needs a quick resolution to any problems that arise,” John goes on. “So if the washing machine leaks or the central heating breaks down it has to be dealt with as soon as possible – your tenant can’t wait for you to get back from your fortnight’s holiday to give us the go-ahead to get a repair carried out.

“There’s a lot to think about before you become a landlord and it might actually not be the investment for you – but we can advise you. And, of course, it’s not our job to tell you that you have to use an agent although it’s a bit of a minefield to find your way around without one.”

For many people, it makes sense to rent, particularly at the top end of the market, John points out. “There’s a strong economic argument for renting,” he says. “You can rent a property you could not afford to purchase. For example, if you know you’re going to be working in Edinburgh two to three years it could prove expensive to go through the process of buying then selling again in what would be a relatively short space of time.”

With around 5,000 properties under management across its Edinburgh and Glasgow offices, DJ Alexander knows only too well the myriad legislation facing everyone renting, buying or selling a property. “Legislation has always been a challenge in this business,” says David, who describes some of the red tape facing landlords as “unhelpful”.

“I don’t disagree that there should be legislation to protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords but the government has to remember that for every rogue landlord there’s a rogue tenant. Of course, tenants need protection but so do landlords.”

The Private Housing (Tenancies) Bill is designed to offer protection against the threat of unfair eviction and big rent increases although the Alexanders urge caution. “I think the danger with legislation is that it could discourage private landlords from entering the market,” suggests John. “We’re dealing with many big investors with multiple properties who aren’t affected but others are. The new raft of legislation is the biggest shake-up we have seen in the market for a very long time. Tenants get a much better deal today than they did ten or 20 years ago and I think the government must be careful to find a balance so as not to discourage investment.”

Meanwhile, in a market where demand still exceeds supply, the focus for DJ Alexander is on providing the best possible customer service for the client. “We’re both passionate about customer service and that’s always been at the forefront of what we do,” says David. “We have a great team of staff who share our passion and it’s great to be able to say that many people have been with us for more than ten years. It’s satisfying to watch people grow and develop with you.”

As lunch draws to a close and the Alexander brothers head off to separate meetings, it’s clear that this duo won’t be leaving the property stage anytime soon.

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The Wee Restaurant, Edinburgh

Having opened The Wee Restaurant in North Queensferry, husband-and-wife team Craig and Vikki Wood quickly attracted a loyal clientele from both sides of the Forth Bridge. Yet the Fife restaurant had to wait ten years for its sibling to come along.

The Woods chose Edinburgh’s New Town as the location for their next baby and their second Wee Restaurant was born at 61 Frederick Street – the former site of Fleur de Sel – in April.

Sharing the same ethos of the original restaurant, The Wee Restaurant Edinburgh offers “simple good food and wine” coupled with efficient, friendly and informal service. For Craig, it’s all about delivering great food that’s based around the seasons, cooked with care and passion. He’s very much on a mission to showcase Scotland’s larder. Spending his time between both kitchens and very much taking a hands-on role, this talented chef works closely with his head chefs – Sam Dorey in Fife and Michael Innes in Edinburgh – as well as writing menus, designing new dishes, tweaking old classics, training staff and overseeing the quality of the cuisine. Edinburgh-born Innes comes to The Wee Restaurant Edinburgh from the three-Michelin-star El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain where he was head of production. The pair worked together at Edinburgh’s Malmaison 15 years ago when Wood was executive chef and Innes was a commis chef.

The Wee Restaurant Edinburgh opens for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Sunday offering
an a la carte menu as well as a set price menu du jour at lunchtime and until 5pm on Saturday. It is closed on Mondays.

The Wee Restaurant is at 61 Frederick Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1LH.
Find out more at www.theweerestaurant.co.uk or call 0131 225 7983