Woolwich sells agencies

WOOLWICH LEFT the estate agency market yesterday when it sold a network of 167 branches to Alick Smith, the property entrepreneur, at a pounds 9m loss.

The mortgage bank sold its business for pounds 23m to Winterthur Life, one of its financial services partners, which immediately sold it on to Mr Smith, chairman of Spicer McColl, the independent chain of estate agents.

The sale allows Woolwich to exit a market dominated by smaller agents, which have taken business from big chains through better local knowledge.

Woolwich entered estate agency in 1987 and expanded its network in 1991 when it bought 190 branches from Prudential. It has since scaled back its network in an effort to cut costs.

The sale follows similar moves by Abbey National and Lloyds, which each sold estate agencies built up in the late 1980s. The businesses tend to have high overheads and can struggle to make a profit when the housing market is slow.

Spicer McColl, a 104-branch chain before the deal, was founded by Mr Smith and his son Paul in 1993. Spicer will continue to introduce new mortgage business to the Woolwich through a link with Winterthur.

A Woolwich spokesman said: "We have always made it fairly clear that the main reason for being in estate agency is that it is a good source of business. From our point of view we are confident that we can maintain that. Now we have effectively got the business without the cost of running it."