When we told friends and colleagues that we were heading up to the West Yorkshire spa town of Ilkley, we were met with a series of approving noises. Having never been to the town, we weren’t sure what to expect. Let’s just say that we liked everything about Ilkley.
The picturesque town is not the only thing that we’re going to be impressed with today. We’ve headed just a couple of minutes away from the heart of Ilkley, to look at the new headquarters of SmartSearch. Formerly based just along the railway in Guiseley, a short hop from Leeds, SmartSearch is the rapidly growing AML business. Not sure what that means? We weren’t altogether certain either. Thankfully, the company’s MD, Martin Cheek, is happy to tell us more.
Martin explains that, back in 2004, he and his executive team created one of the very first electronic individual Anti Money Laundering (AML) verification services, in response to the 2004 Money Laundering Regulations. Back then, the regulating bodies and a number of organisations didn’t recognise electronic identification as a viable alternative to documents such as passports, driving licenses and utility bills – but how things have changed! Today, electronic verification is widely recognised as the most reliable, secure and efficient source of information for identity solutions – and SmartSearch’s groundbreaking Anti-Money Laundering (AML) verification platform is used by more than 3,000 businesses across the world. SmartSearch is the only organisation in the UK with the ability to verify individuals and companies, all in a single platform. It screens for ‘politically exposed persons’ (PEPs) – those that present a higher risk for potential bribery and corruption.
Serious stuff then. Not that you’d know it by the warm, friendly and generous welcome we receive from Martin and the team here – or from the buzz of this impressive new SmartSearch home. Of course, one of the reasons for this lovely welcome (apart from the fact that the SmartSearch team is such a happy, friendly bunch) is that we’re accompanied by Andrew Jackson of Opus4 – the design firm responsible for this forward-thinking workspace.
Andrew tells us more about the origins of the project: ‘It’s been incredible working with these guys. The leadership team they put together worked really well together. As part of the ‘getting to know you’ phase, we went out to a local Michelin star restaurant and we paired up into twos and cooked a course each with the chefs – that really set the tone for the six-month collaboration phase.
‘Initially, they looked to go out to a number of firms – and we had been recommended by two separate sources. So we felt we had a USP over a number of the other firms.
‘We took an initial brief – and SmartSearch felt that we were the only ones who really listened to them. They also felt that we had gone away and come back with the closest scheme to what they had in their minds. Like I said, we had a good six months’ collaboration. There were slight changes to the actual design during that phase, but it was more about the product specification. So we went back to Clerkenwell and showed them various furniture items. It was a real blank canvas – and they very much made their own minds up. For example, when they saw Senator’s Hive product they said, ‘We’re having that!’
‘If they liked it, and saw the value in it, they went for it. This was great for us, as it allowed us to bring together an eclectic mix of products from the majority of the mainstream manufacturers, rather than trying to shoe-horn products in from just one. And the manufacturers were all great too. There is often politics at play where, if a certain company knows there is more furniture to go for, they can get territorial or greedy and push for everything. That really didn’t happen (too much).’
This eclectic mix of products includes pieces by Senator/Allermuir, Frovi, Gresham, orangebox, Sven Christiansen, Spacestor, Ocee, Boss, Connection, Receptek, Vantage and many more.. There’s nothing random about the selection, however, with everything suiting and dovetailing to produce a fantastic choice of work, meeting and social settings.
‘As you’d expect from a furniture consultancy perspective, we came in and learned how their various departments worked,’ Andrew continues. ‘We paid particular attention to acoustics in the call centre area and factored in future expansion.’
Future expansion is hugely important here. As we mentioned earlier, this is a rapidly growing business. Having far outgrown their former facility in Guiseley, the SmartSearch executive team was determined to find a new home that would accommodate not only the present numbers of staff but also imminent growth in the future.
With this in mind, SmartSearch have taken the ground and second floors here at Mayfield House (the first floor was already in occupation). While the hub of the business is situated on the second floor, the ground floor is split into two wings, with expansion space on one side and an amazing social space on the other. When we say amazing, we mean amazing! There are no formal work settings here, instead we find a cool gaming zone, pool and table tennis, informal booths, a large kitchen/bar facility and plenty of seating options for staff to chill, eat, drink and play.
Although space for expansion, attraction and retention of good people and improved productivity were only prerequisites for SmartSearch, looking after their people is clearly at the very top of the agenda. Andrew tells us that the directors went above and beyond when it came to ensuring the people were looked after here. ‘Everybody in the business was invited to put suggestions forward for what they would like to see in the new workplace – and their ideas were taken on board and implemented. On the first day here, everyone had a personal message and a present on their desks, welcoming them to their new home and letting them know that their requests had been listened to. They really involved and engaged the staff.
‘To be honest, since joining Opus in 2002, I’d say that SmartSearch have given us our best ever client experience. They really bought into the importance of workplace design in influencing and improving culture and wellbeing. This resulted in a much longer design consultancy period than normal. Their project team was very hands-on and so receptive to ideas. They love people to hear their story and explain the decisions they took and the subsequent benefits the staff has got from the space. We’ve taken seven separate visiting companies to see the space so far, five of which have engaged with us – while we’re still awaiting decisions from the other two.
‘One of their directors and our Head of Design were in tears on the final day because we had got so close on the project journey. It was a real labour of love for us.’
The results are, indeed, pretty special. There’s a great flow to the second floor, with the bright, colourful reception in the middle of the space, while to our left we find another smart kitchen/diner facility, accompanied by a collaboration table and elegant soft seating solutions, as well as an elegant boardroom.
To the left, departments are cleverly delineated with the use of acoustic and domestic-styled products, subtly breaking up what is a large open plan floorplate. Again, the space is bright and energetic, with the aforementioned Senator Hive at its heart. The design is underpinned by a series of angles, which also help to break up and delineate the space – while adding a dramatic flourish to the scheme. The friendly, smiling girls on reception admit that this is a different world from their former home – with both staff and clients loving the new facility.
We meet up with Martin again, who entertains us with his story of picking up the Queen’s Award from Prince Charles, before telling us all about the business – even giving us some eye-opening examples of how SmartSearch’s innovative products work. ‘Our goal is to make everything faster – and our previous building was stopping us from doing that. Now we can really fly,’ he smiles.
‘It was a fabulous experience,’ Gareth Allen, Operations Director, tells us of the process. ‘We felt that Opus’ thinking really mirrored our own. We liked them as people and we liked how they ran their business. After coming to see us initially, they came back to us with one phone call to check a couple of things – to make sure that they knew what it was were really after. So either they’d listened really well or understood us. Everything gelled straight away. We trusted them from the start.
‘It was a concern for us that we were moving from Guiseley – from further away from Leeds – but we really liked this place and it’s on the same line. To be honest, we’re delighted that we found somewhere far better than moving closer to Leeds. We did, however, want to make sure that everything we put in place here would convince people to stay with us – and everybody moved, no questions asked!’
And why wouldn’t they? The fact that Ilkley is a lovely town only adds to the appeal. When a company looks after its people as well as SmartSearch clearly does, they could relocate to the moon and still keep the vast majority happy. There is, however, a much better atmosphere here!