by Ivan Brooks

The CIO Questionnaire: Countrywide estate agents CIO Ivan Brooks

May 23, 2010
CareersIT StrategyNetworking Devices

Plugging into Virgin Media’s network and building a central datacentre has allowed Ivan Brooks of property services firm Countrywide to streamline the group’s IT function

Q. Where were you born? A.In Derbyshire, in a village where community life was closely tied to the coal mining industry. Had I been born a generation earlier I think there’s a good chance that I would have worked at the pit.

Q. How many people work in your IT department? A. We have 165 IT professionals on the payroll, who were historically working within our separate operating divisions. The company is made up of five core divisions; estate agency, lettings, financial services, surveying and conveyancing.

In estate agency and lettings we operate 1200 offices trading under some of the biggest and best-known names in the industry, which include Bairstow Eves, Sotheby’s, Frank Innes, Slater Hogg & Howison, Mann Countrywide, Dixons, Bridgfords, Fulfords and John D Wood & Co.

We’re also the UK’s largest mortgage broker, with a team of more than 700 consultants, and we’re one of the largest residential conveyancers and surveyors, working with the UK’s biggest lenders.

Supporting this complex and ever-evolving infrastructure is a challenge in itself and one of the main reasons that I joined Countrywide was to take on the task of establishing a new central IT department, which then provides technology services back to the business divisions and local teams.

Q. What is the size of your annual IT budget? A.Operating expenditure is £20m, down from £25m in 2007.

Q. What is the basic structure of your IT department? A. The vast majority of staff are engaged in delivering, developing and supporting our core application platforms and infrastructure.  In addition, we have a team that focuses on understanding the needs of our business units and on managing the resultant change programmes.  The Internet is our primary communication route to customers and its importance is such that we have a dedicated group of people to drive our exploitation of the Online space who have gone on to launch our site

Q. Who are your key suppliers? A. Many of our suppliers are specific to the property industry. We also rely on Microsoft, Dell, HP, Citrix and VMWare to help us deliver our applications, which we host in a datacentre provided by Servo. For data, voice and mobile comms we use Virgin Media Business, O2 and Claranet.

Q. Who has been the most influential person in your career? A.I have been lucky enough to work with a number of amazingly talented people and I think it’s fair to say that they have taught me pretty much all I know, and I’m still learning of course.  One person in particular stands out though, René Carayol, who was my boss for a period in 1994. René is often in the papers, on the radio and TV and is usually referred to as a ‘business guru’. I learnt an awful lot about communication and leadership from him in a short period of time.

Q. What has been your biggest mistake? A.I developed tunnel vision when working on one particular project.  I made the mistake of driving hard to deliver without paying enough attention to the evolving business case.  In the end the project imploded, because it was no longer viable.  It taught me a very painful lesson about project management – more than a month long Prince 2 bootcamp!

Q. How do you maintain a balance between your work and home life? A. It’s a question of being strict with myself and planning my time effectively.  I believe a balance has to be achieved to remain healthy and productive, although I admit that I don’t always get it right.  There’s no easy answer because both are important to me…. and both can be very demanding!

Q. What profession would you most like to attempt? A.I’d like to have a go at acting. I enjoy public speaking and I hope to get around to joining the local amateur dramatics society at some point in the future.

Q. Do you have a sport you practise or team that you follow? A. I decided to retire from playing football in the local veterans’ league a couple of years ago, mainly to keep my knees intact! I enjoy following Derby County, but I only manage to make the trip to Pride Park once or twice a season.

Q. What career advice would you give to people who are aiming for the top?

A.Use every day to make a difference; for your people, your business partners, your customers and yourself, as you work towards your goals.  Don’t waste a single opportunity, or a single day.

Q. What aspects of your job do you find most motivational? A. I get the biggest kick from helping individuals to progress and be successful in their careers.  Seeing the team’s knowledge, skills and attitude develop over time is incredibly fulfilling, and nothing is more important to our success.

Q. What do you see as your biggest challenge? A. Ensuring that hardware, software and support services always meet and often exceed the ever-changing needs of Countrywide. We’ve come a long way but there’s still plenty to do.  It’s tough, but also incredibly rewarding.