Corporate Profile: Harry is king of the hill

He doesn't wear white socks and his staff aren't given mobile phones, but the boss of Britain's biggest estate agency knows his profession will never top the popularity stakes. None the less he is making record profits, and they're not all from selling houses
Click to follow
The Independent Online
HARRY HILL could lay claim to having one of the most hated jobs in Britain. With the country again in the grip of a housing boom, and as property prices rise at their fastest rate for more than a decade, there is one profession that is derided above all others - estate agency. And Harry Hill is Britain's biggest estate agent.

From relatively humble beginnings, he has fought his way to the top of one of the toughest and most competitive businesses. As the managing director of Countrywide Assured, he has built up a chain of nearly 750 estate agencies across Britain, including John D Wood, Taylors and Bairstow Eves (nicknamed Bairstow Thieves by envious competitors, or disgruntled customers). He may look more like the Army officer he once aspired to be. But, make no mistake, this is a man who is a survivor in a world of sharks - and he is determined to ensure he remains the biggest fish in this pond.

"I want Countrywide to make an annual profit of pounds 100m by the time I retire and I want to retire in three and a half years when I hit 55," says Mr Hill, no mean feat when that is almost double the amount of money the company made last year. And his ambitious target looks in reach as prices of three-bedroom houses soar to new heights across the South-east. But a housing boom also brings an avalanche of bad press for the profession as a whole.

The word "gazumping" has re-entered the vocabulary of the chattering classes, and the smooth-talking, mobile-phone-toting estate agent is again seen as a hate object. Just last week, the Office of Fair Trading warned that "undesirable practices" were again appearing in the estate agency business, including buyers being led to believe that if they did not organise their financial services or sell through the estate agency their offers would not be passed on to the property owner, and sellers being required to sign agreements with an agent when there is no such obligation.

Like most estate agents, over the years Harry Hill must have built up a rhinoceros-thick skin to deal with public prejudices against his profession. But one senses his frustration that the job in which he has spent almost his entire working life is on a popularity par with being a traffic warden or a Jehovah's Witness.

"It is impossible to change the image of estate agents in the same way as it is impossible to change the image of second- hand car salesmen," he says. "It is true we try to sell rather than wait for things to sell. Some estate agents still wear white socks - but not many, and if they have a mobile phone it is not one I've given them. Most of them are just ordinary people."

Harry Hill has masterminded one of the most efficient financial operations in the country. Almost half of the people who buy a house from Countrywide also take out a mortgage, insurance or life assurance at the same time, and Mr Hill believes he can raise that ratio to two in every three. This type of cross-selling is all the rage, the Holy Grail so many financial companies are chasing, and the rationale behind NatWest's bid for Legal & General (before Bank of Scotland stepped in). But Countrywide has been cross-selling for some time and doing it better than most.

The company wants to be a one-stop shop for house-buyers. The idea is that you visit a Countrywide estate agent for a house - and by the time you walk out the door you have signed up for anything from a mortgage to life assurance, and organised a survey and conveyancing into the bargain. In 1998, life assurance and financial products contributed total operating profits of pounds 44.5m compared with profits of pounds 765,000 from the pure estate agency business.

Mr Hill seems to have a point to prove, not just to himself but to his peers. He was brought up in Barnsley although he is largely detached from his roots and settled in the South-east. But that innate Yorkshire grit has helped him in his professional life. "I run the business aggressively but I am not an aggressive person," he says. "I think I am fair, and demanding."

He left grammar school with a desire, fuelled by his father - a colliery manager and war veteran - to join the Army, but he failed to get into a training school for Sandhurst. "I don't think I had the right breeding, my family was working class," says Mr Hill. "I realised everybody else at the interview had been classically educated. There was a part of me that wanted to be a on a par with this peer group and as my career developed it was clear that in many cases there was no reason why I couldn't outperform them." he adds. A trip to the career library led to a pounds 2-a-week job as a trainee surveyor, a post that consisted largely of holding tape measures and counting sheep on the Pennines.

Seeking more excitement, the young Mr Hill debunked to the Yorkshire coast and got into the more cut-throat world of selling houses. "It was very aggressive. You would knock on the door and say, `Can I sell your house, Mr Smith, I am the best guy in town.' I used to think it was an appalling way to run a business until I discovered Mr Smith was often quite pleased."

Later, fed up with buying and selling houses for other people, he found a profitable niche buying rundown Victorian terraced houses, sprucing them up and flogging them for a pounds 500 profit a time. With cash in the bank, he made his move down south to East Anglia, and became a partner in an estate agency business. The business grew quickly and was eventually snapped up by a larger rival - Mann & Co - netting Mr Hill a pounds 250,000 nest egg, mostly in Mann shares. This was around the time the big banks and building societies, keen to expand their own business empires and to take advantage of the buoyant Eighties housing market, began to buy up any estate agency in sight. Two weeks after Harry Hill sold out, Hambros, the blue-blooded banking giant, bought up the newly combined business. Mr Hill's nest egg doubled to pounds 500,000.

He stayed on and helped Hambro Countrywide, as the new agency was named, ride the housing market wave and by 1989 he was appointed joint managing director. It was a baptism of fire.

The Eighties' house boom turned to bust and the new Ferrari-driving breed of estate agents was taught harsh home truths. Countrywide could have followed many competitors and gone under. "It was a battle for survival, property prices disintegrated, repossessions were rife," says Mr Hill. "Hambros didn't put any money into us and we had to eke out a living with what we made."

He managed to survive the storm that swept away many others and when the ill winds of recession died Countrywide was in the ideal position to expand. The same banks and building societies that had leapt into the market emerged battered and bruised and wanted to get out. Harry Hill went around buying chains on the cheap, including the purchase of the Nationwide's estate agency chain for pounds 1.

"We have achieved a lot in our company in an industry that has not really achieved anything. Most of them [the institutions] came out with a terribly bloody nose. They weren't natural estate agents. It is not a 9 to 5 job, much of the work is in anti-social hours."

Mr Hill was rewarded with the job of sole managing director five years ago. But while he got on with building his business the blue-blooded bankers at Hambros became entangled in the infamous bid by the controversial entrepreneur Andrew Regan for the Co-operative Wholesale Society. Hambros was subsequently broken up and sold off. Countrywide was split from the bank and given its independence in the summer of 1998. Harry Hill found himself in charge of one of the top 350 quoted companies in Britain.

In any other industry he would be regarded as a hero in the City, but until recently investors were reluctant to back a business in an industry with such a shabby image. "Estate agents are seen as sharp if they are at the best end of the market and downright criminals if they are at the worst," he says. "In our business, we probably employ a crook or two out of thousands of estate agents. We also have 1,000 people selling mortgages and life assurance and there must be one or two bad eggs. But most of our people are honest and hard-working."

But last December a chill wind blew on Countrywide - it was left out in the cold by the stock market. The corporate raiders, Brian Myerson and Julian Treger, took a speculative stake in the group and were making noises about breaking up the company to make a quick killing on their investment. Harry Hill remained resolute. His detractors have now been silenced by the reversal in Countrywide's share price, up more than 50 per cent since the start of the year, faster than the value of a three- bedroom des res in Kensington.

The key to Countrywide's share price rise and its future prospects is selling more financial products. The company's pure estate agency business rarely makes a profit. In fact, much of the time it loses money - as losses of pounds 152,000 during the first half of 1999 well indicate. Not even a housing boom will help much. Despite the company as a whole recording record first- half profits, Mr Hill believes rapidly rising house prices are bad for business. Gazumping, he says, simply brings unwanted bad publicity; the real offenders are "greedy" house owners, he says.

So is Countrywide's success built on its ability to ram financial products down its customers' throats? "I am proud of our record, not ashamed of it," says Mr Hill. "It is not a reason to apologise. We now have 30 people checking that a 73-year-old granny has not been persuaded by a sharp salesman to buy a 25-year saving plan."

When Mr Hill retires, he will spend most of his time at his home on the Essex/Suffolk border, which he describes as a small farmhouse. But he can't resist being what he is, so that description takes on the estate agent's lyricism as "a classically located farmhouse - an ideal family home - just three miles from the A12 and a station to London. Priced at pounds 500,000 to pounds 600,000".

Until that retirement day rolls around, Harry Hill will not just be a sitting tenant at Countrywide - he is too ambitious for that. And too houseproud.


Market Capitalisation: pounds 558m

Turnover: pounds 257m in 1998

Pre-tax profits: pounds 56.7m in 1998

Main business: Residential estate agency and the provision of financial and property services in the UK. Countrywide Assured has 737 estate agencies and four main divisions: Life Assurance and Financial Services, Commercial and Professional, Estate Agency and Conveyancing.

Key Executives: Chairman, Christopher Sporborg; Group Managing Director, Harry Hill; Deputy Chairman, Colin Finch; Finance Director, Mike Nower

No of employees: 7,447


Mid 1980s: Hambros bank buys Mann & Co, an estate agency. It renames the business Hambro Countrywide and teams up with the Guardian Royal Exchange to provide financial services

1989: Harry Hill becomes joint managing director of Hambro Countrywide

Early 1990s: Hambro Countrywide plunges into the red as the housing market collapses

Mid 1990s: The group begins to expand its interests, including the purchase of the Nationwide's estate agency chain for pounds 1

1994: Harry Hill becomes sole managing director

1996: Hambro Countrywide returns to profit

June 1998: Countrywide Assured becomes an independent business, splitting from Hambros bank

December 1998: Countrywide comes under threat from corporate raiders Brian Myerson and Julian Treger as its share price stalls

1999: The company's share price soars as the housing market jumps back to life. It announces record profits of pounds 28.6m for the six months to June and predicts a double-digit rise in house prices this year.