Estate agent bosses set to bag millions in flotation

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The Independent Online

The UK's biggest estate agency has fired the starting gun on a £650m float which could net millions for the company's top executives.

Countrywide, which operates 931 branches and agencies including London's Hamptons and upmarket Sotheby's, sells one in 11 of all homes which change hands in the UK.

It is returning to the stock market after an absence of more than five years, when it was taken private by the buyout firm Apollo for £1.1bn at the peak of the market in 2007.

The offering will raise £200m and catapult the company into the FTSE 250.

It follows housebuilder Crest Nicholson's return to public markets last week as the Bank of England's Funding for Lending scheme boosts conditions in the property market.

Countrywide went through a debt restructuring in 2009 which left the private-equity investors Oaktree, Apollo and Alchemy with 88 per cent of the shares.

Depending on the eventual value of the float, managers, including its chief executive Grenville Turner, will hold between 4 per cent and 10 per cent of the equity.

All managers and private-equity investors in the company have agreed to lock up arrangements preventing them from selling shares for a year.

Mr Turner said more than £200m in costs had been stripped out of Countrywide since 2007 while the company has also made 41 acquisitions, including Hamptons and Sotheby's which increased its presence in London and the South-east.

The company has also boosted its lettings business.

"There is more to come," said Mr Turner. "Even in the downturn there are opportunities for companies with strong balance sheets... we've seen a half-size market for the last five years so there is a lot of pent-up demand," he added.

The proceeds of the float will be used to pay off £250m in bonds taken on in 2009 which cost Countrywide 10 per cent a year in interest, taking its average debt costs down to 3 per cent.