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The entrepreneurial spirit

To be a great entrepreneur, says Paul Gratton, CEO, SDL Group, you need passion, in-depth knowledge and determination to turn your idea into a success.

Paul Gratton

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SDL Group, an innovator of UK property services, was ranked 58th in the 2017 Sunday Times Profit Track 100. Nearly 30 years ago, in 1989, the then Direct Valuations was a very different business. I had just developed the idea with a co-founder and it was a small, single focus business venture, which was just a sideline project. I was unsure how much of a success it could have been, but I was excited by the challenges and opportunities it presented.

Listen to those who say it won’t work, go and refine it some more and prove it can be done.

Direct Valuations provided a panel of property valuers to carry out mortgage valuations for banks and insurance companies, with clients including Virgin Money, Direct Line and Standard Life. It invented panel management, which is now a key aspect of the residential valuation industry.

It occurred to me that, with a permanent figurehead, we could really take Direct Valuations forward and begin to challenge the conventional approach to property services as a whole, rather than just in valuations.


It was clear that we needed to have more than one product and a more diverse client base – as we were only two or three calls away from not having a business. We needed to strengthen our valuations business while transforming ourselves into a more rounded property services company. That’s what we have been working towards over the last 10 years, all the while sticking to the goal that had made Direct Valuations so successful – revolutionising the customer’s experience of property services.

Shortly after I took over the day-to-day running, we worked with the largest chartered surveyors in Scotland, J&E Shepherd, to create our own firm of surveyors which, combined with our pre-existing panel management model, opened us up to a wider range of lenders, and higher margins. In doing so, we created Shepherd Direct Ltd, which we shortened to SDL Group in 2016.

Diversification has been the key to our growth, and a selection of multifaceted businesses were added to our offering in 2016, which included auction networks CP Bigwood and Graham Penny. We also began to develop management and administration services for letting agents, and today manage over 4,000 properties nationwide.


Ultimately, as an entrepreneur it can be tempting to get seduced by the excitement of your new idea. Of course, fresh ideas and agile innovation are critical to success, but having the benefit of being surrounded by people who have different skills and share an appetite for risk is essential.

Make sure you are passionate about your idea, then go and seek out people who can help you make it real and listen to those who tell you it won’t work – then go and refine it some more and prove that it can now be done. Never be afraid to be agile and don’t ignore the need to diversify.

It’s also important to pick your relationships carefully, working with other businesses that share your fundamental values and ethics. No matter your size, it’s important that you, your people and your clients know what you stand for and buy into that. At the SDL Group, we are committed to revolutionising the customer’s experience of property services, to make their lives better and easier and that filters through everything that we do from our service levels, to allowing employees the time to engage in charity work.

Another commitment that we at the SDL Group are very passionate about, is creating new entrepreneurial opportunities for others. As a result, last year we launched SDL Auction Partners, which creates collaborative partnerships with estate agents to promote sales by auction, particularly through online auctions, as an additional service and revenue generator while enabling them to maintain vendor relationships.


Later in the year, we also launched SDL Property Partners, the industry’s first property management franchise. The scheme enables property managers to start their own business with the resources, expertise and support of SDL Group and also represents another potential earning opportunity for agents looking to diversify their business, as we have at SDL over the years.

For me running your own business is an amazing experience so if you have the ideas, the energy and discipline required to make it work, have a go. We are working on a number of other incredibly exciting deals at the moment, continuing to diversify our offering and provide great services to our customers, and that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. Work really can be fun!

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