Wragges’ surprise signing: can he do the business?

Emma Vere-Jones on Adrian Bland’s Midlands defection from Eversheds to arch rival Wragges.

Adrian Bland’s departure from Eversheds last month was a shock to most in the Birmingham real estate market – although not as much of a shock as it was to most of the lawyers at his new firm Wragge & Co.

Apparently, some of them are a trifle nervous about what Bland’s arrival will mean for them. Of course, this is not the first time a Wragges property group has felt the brush of a Bland.

But last year’s appointment in London of former Herbert Smith partner Gerald Bland probably seemed far enough removed for Wragges’ 140 Birmingham real-estate lawyers.

However, the revelation that they were about to be joined by their arch real-estate rival – a man who was thought to be ‘Eversheds through and through’ – has certainly rocked the boat.

Understood to be a hard taskmaster, some say Bland has been brought in to sort the wheat from the chaff – and to instil some order to a group that has largely been running under its own steam. Not surprising, then, that there’s been some grumbling in the Wragges ranks.

Bland’s first objective on his yet-to-be-agreed arrival will be to merge the three property sub-groups – property development; retail, leisure and other property; and property investment.

As a result Dan Hemming, who currently heads the property development group, will return to his former role as head of planning, while Sarah Thompson has agreed to step down from her position as head of the retail and leisure group.

For the team it will mean a move from a very loose structure, where opportunistic lawyers and big billers such as Robert Caddick had free rein to do as they pleased. Now it will be a much tighter structure, under the eagle eye of a new big boss.

The difficulty for Bland will be ensuring that he can get Wragges’ lawyers to buy into his way of thinking. One also has to wonder if a Bland

Bland power struggle is a potential time bomb.

The Wragges party line is that Gerald, as a “non-executive chairman”, will continue to spend a larger proportion of his time on fee-earning and developing the London base; whereas Adrian, as real estate chief executive, will be much more focussed on internal matters, such as bringing the team together, training procedures and recruitment.

But Wragges must also hope that Adrian Bland will provide the key to unlocking some important clients in the Birmingham market. Perhaps surprisingly, Wragges has failed to capitalise on its home advantage in the region, being easily outstripped by competitors such as Eversheds.

Only between 20 and 25 per cent of Wragges’ approximately £25m real estate turnover is actually Birmingham-based work, whereas Eversheds’ Birmingham office pulls in around £14.5m in real estate alone.

Wragges is no doubt hoping that Bland can achieve in Birmingham what he has previously achieved for Eversheds. But perhaps that’s exactly where Wragges may have something of a gamble on its hands.

Certainly, Bland was integral in securing some key clients while at Eversheds, including English Partner-ships, P&O Properties and the Birmingham Mailbox scheme. He is also known to have close relationships with Argent and Hammerson.

Similarly, he is something of an icon in the Birmingham business community: he was previously the chairman of private sector organisation Birmingham Forward, he is currently a chair of the Ikon Gallery and is also on the team for the European Cultural City 2008 bid. But will all this translate into work for Wragges?

Bland’s chums at Eversheds certainly don’t seem to think so. No doubt they’re gambling on the fact that Bland hasn’t been fully committed to fee-earning for the past five years or so; and although he remains close to a number of key real estate clients, other partners in the firm have been doing that work for quite some time.

Now he faces a head-to-head with his protégé Tim Webb, who is in charge of the international practice and the property department of Eversheds’ Birmingham office. Webb and fellow partner Parmjit Singh were groomed by Bland and now face the prospect of having their former master fighting for work on their back doorstep.

But Webb and Singh both hold quite a strong grip on Bland’s former contacts. Singh, for example, has been the lead partner on the Mailbox scheme and the massive Birmingham Bullring project, an alliance between Hammerson, Henderson Global Investors and Land Securities. Similarly, Webb holds close to his chest relationships with Henderson Global and Hammerson, and has more recently become the client relationship partner for Lend Lease. Bland certainly has his work cut out.

For Bland, the move no doubt represents an opportunity to once again be king of the roost. After his decision to pull out of the Eversheds managing partner race last year, and with his role as senior partner of the Birmingham office being phased out, it seems as if he was really left with nowhere to go at Eversheds – despite being offered a London-based position as group chairman.

There also remains the question as to whether Bland will have the support in departments such as tax, finance and litigation to really build the practice. If Wragges is going to achieve its rather surprising aim of being the UK’s number one full-service real estate firm by 2006, it’s not just the Bland boys that will have to pull out all the stops.