I am not entirely sure that it is usual to have an instinctive sentimentality towards your first employer, but for some rather strange reason I do. Despite spending much of my career subsequently as an independent estate agent, it was a youthful Bob Scarff (then Area Director with Taylors – part of Countrywide) that offered me my first job in estate agency.
For those who don’t know, Bob Scarff subsequently progressed to become a Main Board Director of Countrywide, whilst his rather hapless raw recruit of only four years his junior muddled his way to a rather less illustrious career – but that as they say, is an entirely different story.
Bob left Countrywide last year for reasons as yet not fully disclosed – but undeniably linked to the appointment of Alison Platt (formerly of BUPA) as CEO. His departure is significant, not only because he was the only member of the Main Board of Directors who had actually once been an estate agent but also because he had enjoyed his entire 30 year plus career with Countrywide and had borne witness to its evolutionary growth from a metaphoric acorn into the colossus it is today.
Now it is not always usual or indeed preferable for a CEO to have some direct practical experience of the business that they are managing, but what is less usual is for the entire Board of Directors to be similarly devoid. Now before I hear a collective chorus of “How hard can it be?” to understand and manage a national property services business, as we all principally know what an estate agent does – however, history teaches us that the answer is “Not that easy”.
You see one of the few benefits of age and experience is that I have a long memory, and the last national estate agency group of over 1000 offices to run their business with similarly minimal practical experience at board level was Prudential Property Services (PPS) in the mid/late nineteen eighties – which ended in financial disaster for their parent company, Prudential Assurance.
Now whilst there are similarities with PPS in terms of scale, Prudential rebranded all of their acquisitions, whereas Countrywide currently comprises of scores of individual regional high street brands such as Hamptons for example, many of which are successful and market leading.
If we are to accept (given its construction) that Countrywide is ultimately as strong as the sum of its parts – then to be successful Alison Platt and her team will need to start to address the relevance and performance of a considerable number of their weaker brands – some of which are well past their collective best.
Even the mighty Prudential were forced to acknowledge that “estate agency in the UK is essentially a corner shop business” when commenting on why their venture with PPS had ultimately failed. Meaning that the general public selected their appointed agent more commonly on the basis of local profile, rather than national presence. In appointing Hamptons for example, it is not relevant who Hamptons are owned by or how prolific they are outside of the area in which the seller has an interest.
I genuinely wish Alison Platt the best of luck with her corporate re-shaping of Countrywide, but would strongly advise her to take heed of history, and understand that whilst she might change/ streamline a great many things on a national level – understanding the local nature of the core business is essential, and indeed for all UK estate agents (Corporate or otherwise) it has ever been thus.
The author of this article is Peter Nicholls, CEO of ideology consulting. For more information call 0333 939 8010 or go to www.ideologyconsulting.co.uk .