27 June 2016
Interview with Brian Collins: The making of B P Collins
B P Collins was born on 1 July, 1966. In a special interview for the anniversary edition Insight, senior partner Chris Hardy speaks to its founder, Brian Collins. Earlier this year, Brian spoke to Chris about how he transformed the firm from a one-man practice into a modern and successful organisation with a reputation for service and professional expertise.
Brian began his law career in London but, after being admitted as a solicitor in 1963, he returned to the family home in Gerrards Cross, and began working for sole practitioner Hollands & Co in Chalfont St Peter. Here, we pick up with Brian just as he has bought the practice from David Hollands and is ambitious to make changes:
Chris: Having grown up in this area, I know there were many established firms that had the market to themselves, you had a much more modern approach.
Brian: I was 27 and I wanted to get on and do things. If I had been articled locally I probably wouldn’t have recognised the opportunities in the same way. I could see from my experience in London that it was no longer good enough to be a sleepy local firm where most solicitors did some probate, some conveyancing, some court work etc., the time was right for specialists and things needed to change.
Chris: I think that’s right, and it’s because you understood that, that the firm has grown in the way it has. How did you start to make a difference?
Brian: On 1 July 1966, I had a secretary, a part-time bookkeeper and a little office in Chalfont St Peter and the freedom to do what I liked with the practice. If I had been ten years older, I would probably have carried on as I was, but I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that had been presented to me and develop the firm to offer a full range of services to individuals and businesses alike. It certainly involved some risk, a great deal of hard work, long hours and some sacrifice from my wife and family.
Chalfont St Peter wasn’t big enough to support a larger firm so I decided to take on more staff and open in other nearby towns. Edwin Heath joined me first, he had grown up in Gerrards Cross and was very well connected. I sent him off to open an office in Cippenham, near Slough - it was a former butcher’s shop in the Bath Road, opposite the Slough Trading Estate. His father was a property developer and he helped us convert it into an office. We were on a shoestring, we even took carpet from a show house of his and put it down ourselves - I have to say, we didn’t make a very good job of it!
The objective behind opening there was to attract some commercial clients, businesses in Slough who didn’t want to pay London prices for what was often quite small scale work. We picked it up and it gave us a foot in the door.
It was a big risk and we worked hard to make it successful. A lot of credit must go to Edwin. Because he succeeded in quickly building up the Slough practice, it gave me the incentive to march on and open other offices. My idea was to develop more specialisms in different aspects of the law while still doing conveyancing and other work that came through the door.
Chris: How did you fund the investment?
Brian: I always tried to find a bank that didn’t have another solicitor as a customer. They would be keen to get hold of our client account monies, which were quite considerable, and in return they would give me an overdraft which was usually sufficient to see us through until that particular office became self-financing.
Chris: I joined in 1983 and there seemed to be a pattern developing in terms of recruiting people?
Brian: Yes, I wanted to work with people who shared my views and reflected the values of the firm, this was very important. All the solicitors who took over running an office, or latterly a department, or providing a specialist service; were given the opportunity to progress to becoming a partner without having to pay anything for goodwill. After all, the firm had not been in existence long enough to establish any goodwill, but the package was obviously sufficiently attractive to persuade most of them to remain with the firm throughout the remainder of their careers.
When Philip Hutchins joined us he was very interested in matrimonial work and other court work. He successfully opened an office in Amersham for us, as that was where the court was. He made a big contribution to the firm, but sadly he was killed in a hot air balloon accident.
All our growth was organic, apart from when we took over the Beaconsfield firm of Geoffrey Green. Ian Johnson had joined us by then and he went to run the Beaconsfield office with Geoffrey as a consultant. Ian had only just qualified, so it was a big thing for him to take over the running of an established firm and he did an excellent job.
Opening the High Wycombe office followed and then Maidenhead. I decided we needed a specialist commercial lawyer because the quality of our work in that sector was increasing. David Stanning approached me, he had been working for a big commercial practice in Australia and had the specialist commercial expertise we needed, so we took him on board.
Later, we opened offices in Marlow, Farnham Common, Chalfont St Giles, Burnham and one on the Cressex Industrial Estate in High Wycombe. We chose the last of these because most of the local solicitors had offices in the town, whereas being on the industrial estate, we picked up more commercial work.
As the commercial work was increasing in both quantity and quality, we moved from the converted butcher’s shop to much larger premises in the Bath Road in Cippenham, still opposite the Slough Trading Estate. The other local firms must have thought we were completely mad, but by being on the doorstep of the estate, we were able to attract good volumes of commercial work.
Chris: There was also an Aylesbury office.
Brian: I had a client who was a senior surveyor for the Milton Keynes Development Corporation. He kept trying to persuade me that Milton Keynes would be as big as Birmingham and wanted us to open an office there, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so in a place I had hardly heard of.
I thought opening a branch in Aylesbury would give us the chance to pick up some commercial work from the Milton Keynes area without actually being there. However, it wasn’t successful as we were too far away from the centre of activity. Most of the work was private client or conveyancing and, when we consolidated the business, it was handed over to the partner who was running the office. He is still a very good friend.
That brings us up to the late 1980s/early 1990s, when the firm was restructured and moved to its current premises here in Station Road. In our third and final instalment in October, we will hear more about those days and how the legal landscape has changed in the intervening years.