They’re unusual words to find in the same sentence: property factoring and not-for-profit.
So much so that the man behind Ethical Maintenance can claim his growing operation is unique to Scotland’s – and perhaps the UK’s – private housing sector.
Kevin Wilkinson, a forester to trade, spent his early career with the Forestry Commission and Strathclyde Greenbelt, advising on how to green redevelopment sites in brownfield locations.
His transition to his current role was a natural one. “It sucked me in – if you were arranging to plant trees and landscape around houses, why do the grounds and not sweep the stairs or fix the front door?”
But he saw major flaws in the traditional factoring model used by housebuilders or existing communities. “They’re typically very top-down – residents are told what they’re getting, it’s done, and the bills are sent out.”
Not surprisingly, that model resulted in a lot of complaints, which culminated in 2011 when the Scottish Government brought in new legislation and a code of conduct for property factors.
Kevin says that helped residents, but not across the board, especially for those locked into a property factor agreement.
He cites statistics from a 2012 survey which found:
- 82% of owners said they wanted to able to hire and fire their factor, but couldn’t
- 72% wanted maintenance/repairs to be done in a way that was transparent and authorised by owners, but it wasn’t
- 65% wanted their factor to have a fair complaints resolution and debt collection process fair to those that were paying, but they weren’t available.
A further review of the legislation is under way, but it seems unlikely that radical change will happen across the sector any time soon.
So perhaps an alternative bears further scrutiny? Kevin deliberately set up Ethical Maintenance in 2007 as a community interest company, with profits reinvested for the benefit of customers, or producing rebates for them.
That brings an immediate financial boon for his customers, whose bills he estimates are around 25% lower than the sums charged by traditional competitors.
But the firm’s ethos goes far beyond fiscal efficiency, and revolves around consumer choice. “We offer a genuine partnership with our owners,” he says.
Kevin guarantees two on-site meetings each year to ensure customers are happy with their services, and provides flexible contracts as a get-out clause for any unhappy clients.
He says he doesn’t get many, in large part because Ethical Maintenance actively seek feedback from their residents, encouraging them to use an online dashboard to monitor regular or planned work, and post comments. A Facebook page for users is also in the pipeline to widen access for home-owners.
Kevin accepts that may be something of a hostage to fortune, but argues that the commitment to transparency is worth it. “We’ve got nothing to hide…we might not be perfect for reasons beyond our control, but we will always fix it, and communicate with the customer.”
His model is thriving, with clients from Aberdeenshire down the east coast to Fife, and new business emerging in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Ethical Maintenance have a core staff of five in Stirling, and employ 24 contractors around the country – the emphasis is on local workers, who tend to be more committed to their customers, and have a lower carbon footprint.
They’ll all be celebrating the firm’s 10th birthday later this year. For Kevin, the perfect present would be more – happy – customers.