Countrywide estate agents CIO Ivan Brooks streamlines datacentres

Moving house is frequently listed among the 10 most stressful ‘life events’ and with so many hurdles to leap before you cross the threshold of your new home, it’s little wonder technology has been able to step in and make the process of choosing a property, finding a mortgage and dealing with the legal aspects of buying a house much smoother over the past decade.

Estate agents were among the first to use digital cameras in anger, those glossy photos stapled to fact sheets replaced by printed images and more recently uploaded to that new shop window, the website.

The right mortgage is easier to secure thanks to the arrival of the comparison site, and an efficient conveyancing lawyer is never far away – you can even read what others think of their services before dispatching an email for a speedy quote.

The move to an online marketplace has forced smaller agents to seek strength in numbers, often under an umbrella brand like Countrywide. Founded in 1990, parent to familiar local brands like Taylors, Bairstow Eves, Gascoigne-Pees and Fulfords, and now the UK’s largest property services company, Countrywide’s five business divisions can guide you through the property-buying journey, from finding a property to offering financial, surveying and conveyancing services en route to completion. There’s also a lettings division that links landlords with prospective tenants via some of the 1200 agency offices.

This rapid growth, and the fact that the five divisions operated as independent silos, meant a reorganisation was required to reduce costs, increase efficiency and drive Countrywide forward into its third decade. In 2006 new group CEO Grenville Turner recognised this and brought in a new management team which, from August 2008, included CIO Ivan Brooks, who moved to the firm’s Milton Keynes headquarters after 13 years at the McDonald’s restaurant chain.

Brooks realised that what was needed was a group-wide IT department, cutting out duplication between the siloed divisions and moving towards a single centralised IT organisation backed up by a common datacentre and single data network.

The tender for the data network was won by Virgin Media Business. Virgin boasts the UK’s most advanced fibre optic network, and worked with Brooks’ team to plan Countrywide’s implementation down to local branch level.

“We worked hand-in-hand to plan the implementation,” says Brooks. “You don’t want to put the same connection into every location: a branch on the high street is very different in terms of technical requirements to a head office. So they worked with us over the planning and then we left them to it. Roll-out went pretty smoothly.

“At the end of the day we’re talking about a piece of infrastructure which sets us up to make smart decisions in the medium to long term. The network is about reliability and scalability – if we want to open a new branch it’s clear where we go for a network connection; it’s plug-and-play I suppose.”

As well as the data network, Brooks consolidated information assets into a single datacentre, and the combination of these two moves have put Countrywide in a position to save almost £1m at once and plan further efficiencies across the IT function.

“The datacentre and the data network go hand-in-hand. It gave us a chance to bring people together and move equipment which could have been in any one of our offices, and which wasn’t appropriate for running serious business systems.

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