Jon Hunt: As cunning as Foxtons
The tactics of the UK's most ruthless estate agency are out. But nothing will stop its shrewd boss
Sunday 26 March 2006
Any organisation as royally stitched up on national television as estate agency Foxtons was last week might be expected to hang its corporate head in shame and quietly pledge to clean up its act. The BBC 1 programme Whistleblower showed staff forging signatures on tenancy agreements and bragging about misleading clients, among other sins. But the brash young Turks who work for London's biggest and noisiest agency are not as other men and women. According to one insider, last week they were carrying on as if nothing had happened - even as the media storm roared around them.
But then Foxtons' owner and chairman, Jon Hunt, who last year moved into "Billionaires' Row" in Kensington Palace Gardens and promptly restyled himself Jonathan, is not a man to be embarrassed by his employees. Not unless they start to affect business, that is. And in the past few days staff say there have, astonishingly, been no signs of that. "Far from it," says one employee, "it's as if the publicity has helped us."
Previous revelations about Foxtons's illegal fly-boarding and other dubious business practices have done nothing to hinder its inexorable growth. The simple practice of overvaluing properties continues to pull in clients, even if those high prices are not then achieved at sale.
Foxtons even advised Tony and Cherie on the purchase of their £3.65m property in Connaught Square, and then won the job of letting it, presumably claiming they could get the eye-popping £15,000 a month. Predictably, and embarrassingly for the Blairs, this was later reduced to £8,000 to get shot of it after a dearth of takers.
Overall last year, Foxtons earned £60m in commission, and even after Hunt paid himself a £4m dividend (plus a £302,171 salary) it made £1.78m in profits. Now said to be worth £350m, at first sight the reclusive 52-year-old does not cut an imposing figure. Slightly built, obsessively neat, with understated suits and ties, he is rarely photographed and has gone to great lengths to keep his name, and especially his wife and their four children, out of the press. So it is not unknown for him to be mistaken by visitors for a junior employee.
But even the briefest of conversations with him quickly demonstrates that behind the white-tooth smiles, there is an inner steeliness that has made him top dog in the world's most vibrant residential property market. As the head of one rival agency, Ivor Dickinson at Douglas & Gordon, has observed, fellow estate agents are "very scared" of criticising Foxtons. "It's like being rude about the Kray twins."
Former employees, who only speak anonymously, also describe him as someone to be feared. "Jon is the most single-minded, determined man I have ever met," says one. "He has a lot of charm, but there's something icy about him."
This rigid singlemindedness saw him lose his long-time right-hand man, last year - managing director Peter Rollings. Foxtons' seemingly softer public face and fixer used to deal with the all too regular complaints and is no doubt sorely missed at the moment as dirty secrets such as the doctoring of landlord agreements, lying to customers, and inflating values are caught on camera for the first time.
But Rollings resigned from his £250,000-a-year job reportedly because Hunt refused to give him a share of the business which to this day he owns outright. His departure was said to be amicable, but Rollings, who then teamed up with Irish money to buy rivals Marsh & Parson, is refusing to be drawn. Although by no means poorly paid, it was no doubt uncomfortable for such an ambitious, driven man to compare his comparatively meagre trappings of wealth with Hunt's.
Last year, Hunt swapped his elegant £4m townhouse in Kensington Gardens for something more fitting for the international tycoon he hopes to become with his new operations in the US. Now his neighbours in his £14m, 1840s mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens include Britain's richest man, Lakshmi Mittal.
A multi-million pound revamp of the seven-storey, eight-bedroom Grade II stucco house is planned. The property, on a 125-year lease from the Crown Estate and bought with a mortgage from Schroder, has a car museum with space for more than a dozen of Hunt's beloved Aston Martins.
But his London address is by no means his most opulent. The country pad is a Palladian stately home, Heveningham Hall, nearly Walpole in Suffolk, with 25 bedrooms, 19 bathrooms, and 12 receptions - notably the celebrated vaulted hall, once described as "the most beautiful room in England".
In the 469-acre gardens once landscaped by Capability Brown, Hunt is recreating more than a mile of the original lakes, a bridge, boathouses and a new garden of fanned grass terraces. It was at Heveningham that Steve Hewitt, who has convictions for theft and violence and had allegedly been hired by Foxtons to tear down rival agents' for sale boards, suffered a serious accident while riding quad bikes with Hunt. He then sued Hunt, but the Foxtons boss was cleared of any blame for the accident after his lawyers accused Hewitt of blackmailing him.
Hunt's career started as a 17-year-old working for an estate agency in the Guildford area. He observed the industry, its old-fashioned working practices, its inconvenient opening times, lack of hard sell and reliance on what Hunt contemptuously refers to as the "walnut-veneer brigade" of old-school negotiators.
At 28, he struck out on his own in 1981 with a secretary and a phone line, in a former pasta bar in Notting Hill Gate. He took only one day off a fortnight and worked 12-hour days for the next eight years. Hunt did not shut up shop until 9pm, a full four hours after his competitors, a masterstroke, combined with his luck in choosing a run-down quarter of London on the brink of being transformed into one of its most fashionable.
He set up a second branch in Fulham and hired Rollings. By this time the Hunt/Foxtons philosophy was already well ingrained: work longer, sell harder, do whatever it takes to get the business and then sell the property. Foxtons' internal motto was already in place: "Our clients want us to go to war for them".
So, although last week's docu- mentary caught some of Foxton's less admirable practices on film, it may not spell disaster for the agency at all. Those who use Foxtons probably even expect their estate agent to be less than perfectly honest - so long as it negotiates the best price. As one admirer of Hunt's puts it: "He has a way of doing business that doesn't appeal to everyone but certainly works. He doesn't need to be liked to succeed."
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