James O'Brien meets Birmingham property expert Elizabeth Oliver.
Few people can say a series of signs literally pointed out a career route for them but in the case of DTZ surveyor Elizabeth Oliver, that really happened.
She heeded the signs and they carved out an interesting and challenging job for her.
"The driving force was that I was frequently noticing boards put up by developers and I was intrigued to know what career opportunities there were in all this work I was seeing," says Elizabeth, now aged 38 and a director in DTZ's consulting department.
But her career decision to become a surveyor was almost too late.
She had already started at the University of London, where she came out with a degree in geography and economics.
After graduating in 1990, she had the opportunity to study for an MA in Barbados, with her course centred around chattel housing - houses which the occupants could move to another site if they got another job or decided to live in another area.
But, with the signs still pointing to a career which would mean another three years of training to qualify as a surveyor, she decided to forego studying in the West Indies.
"Part-way through my first year at university," she recalls, "I realised that I wanted to qualify as a surveyor but it was too late to start afresh but I could take my qualifications in geography and economics forward."
After university, she went back home to Leeds and got a job as a graduate surveyor with Donaldsons in Leeds, working alongside a partner in the company who specialised in local authority development.
At that time, Donaldsons was one of the few companies specialising in that sector. "I was an unknown quantity and very few young women were applying for jobs as graduate surveyors," says Elizabeth.
"A year after I joined the company, the property market was in decline and, as a result, the recruitment of graduate surveyors and recruitment generally stopped."
She started on the bottom rung and gradually qualified her way through the grades and found herself working in the public sector with local authorities.
At the time, local authority development was a niche area. Donaldsons was one of the few firms specialising in that kind of work.
In those early days, Elizabeth was part of the agency and development team, handling everything from selling redundant hospital sites to valuing funeral parlours. "I was doing all this under supervision, which included writing the property opportunities and ordering boards for the sites," says Elzabeth.
"Then, as a practice, Donaldsons won the TSB Bank portfolio valuation which was a massive contract.
"We had thousands of banks to value in a six-month period and that was a tremendous job - and I was assisting a valuer.
"We were measuring up five banks a day. I was learning on the job how to do measurements. It was a steep learning curve but all that work was to stand me in good stead.
"At the end of it, TSB was able to put a value on its bank property estate."
Before the work could begin, Elizabeth and her colleagues had to undergo security checks - part of the work entailed going into the banks' vaults.
Elizabeth's work was mainly centred around measuring the premises of trustee savings banks in Halifax and Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire.
As she worked her way through the qualifications to do her job, she started taking an interest in feasibility studies and so-called health checks, which identified potential development sites and the viability of a completed development.
One of her first projects was in Halifax town centre - and her first big project was not too far ahead. When the challenge came in 1997, it was a site in Redcar which was in line for the compulsory purchase order process so that it could be redeveloped into a new shopping centre.
By now, Elizabeth was qualified as a senior surveyor and had become an associate in Donaldsons business.
People on the project noticed that Elizabeth was earning a reputation for getting things done and, in this Tees Valley development, she was working with four of the five local authorities involved in the planning applications as well as all the work that comes with a major project.
"Generations in the same families had relied on the chemical and steel industries for work but that as a job source was coming to an end in the recession," says Elizabeth.
"This Redcar development was my first lead... it became my life and I lived and breathed it for five years. I was in Redcar twice a week - sometimes more often.
"The development was not totally welcomed by some of the population and their objections had to be monitored and dealt with in a sensitive way."
Major funding for the development came through the government and part of Elizabeth's work involved preparing reports for The Treasury and visiting London to attend meetings giving details for the government's position. Four and a half years later, the job was done.
"During that period, developments were largely retail lets," says Elizabeth.
"Now it is mixed use. In the 1990s, regional development agencies were becoming more involved and they had the money to pay for work to be done. If I took a new site forward in a deprived area, the development agency had to be involved.
"But shopping was becoming fashionable and more of a leisure pursuit even if the public did not always intend to buy.
"This helped to generate interest from developers and retailers who wanted to expand and were well aware of what was happening. It was also justified by offering employment in areas which had seen their industrial base vanish.
"Funding was becoming more available and it gave a kick-start to developments and at the same time increased the confidence in a town where new projects were brought forward."
Sometimes it was local politics that had to be handled. At other times, it was national politics because some of the money and approvals came from that direction.
"I badgered and badgered in some instances to get things done but at the same time there is a due process in these matters and those have to be encountered and gone through to get the development up and running," says Elizabeth.
"There are committee meetings and reports to be done, often six weeks before the meeting was due to look at them and discuss the contents.
"One of my phrases was 'make sure you have all the ducks in a row.' Cross-party support was still important to make things happen and also having on your side a chief executive to help drive it all through."
All these aspects came to the fore in another major scheme in the Darlington Gateway. The town was keen to position itself as the gateway to the Tees-Valley. It had very little industry and was an attractive place in which to live.
Elizabeth was asked to bid for a serious piece of study work and the timeframe was short. Donaldsons was selected and Elizabeth identified nine main development sites, leading a Donaldsons team that included specialists in planning, economics and traffic engineering.
"We came up with the idea that Darlington could become the Gateway to The Tees Valley and it would become a point to attract inward investors," says Elizabeth.
"We wanted to tempt office functions out of London," says Elizabeth. "It was the quality of life it offered in the west of the Tees Valley with its residential areas, schools and how incomers could work in Stockton-on-Tees or Middlesbrough.
"That became part of the strategy for the Tees Valley and I identified two development sites to bring forward."
Elizabeth worked with Darlington Borough Council and Tees Valley Regeneration to deliver the two sites - a business park close to the A1 and Central Park, a scheme with a residential element in the heart of Darlington - to promote education and business activity.
The serious talking started in late 1999 and, according to Elizabeth, it took a long time to get sites moving through a complex system of planning stages.
She worked on other schemes in West Cumbria and was one stage she was handling three main regeneration schemes for Allerdale Borough Council.
In 2001, she became a partner in Donaldsons and in 2004 Elizabeth moved from Leeds to Birmingham to establish the Centre West Consulting team, broadening Donaldsons' public sector advice in the West Midlands and promoting its Birmingham office.
She was also a member of the consulting board responsible for maintaining and improving Donaldsons' reputation and position in the public sector. During her first day in the Birmingham office at One Colmore Square, she had a briefing meeting with representatives from Worcester City Council and now finds herself negotiating opposite Worcestershire County Council.
Birmingham City Council is another Donaldsons client and she is part of the team advising on a mixed-use urban village at Shard End as well as a large team giving its advice on a "big plan" for the city centre.
That huge project is Birmingham's city centre masterplan, which will shape the future development of the city over the next 30 years.
The workload keeps expanding and Elizabeth - married to Nigel, now running the largest property team at DTZ, and mother to 15-month-old son Daniel - is looking at a number of strategic projects.
Elizabeth found a changing situation on her own doorstep when Donaldsons was acquired by DTZ. This has produced the opportunity to amalgamate its predominately private sector-oriented business with Donaldsons' public sector client base.
"One of the reasons we were bought by DTZ was our reputation in the public sector - we advise one in three local authorities in England and Wales," says Elizabeth.
"It is nice to see Advantage West Midlands taking us forward with important schemes and we are not always operating in the most attractive areas."