Making it big in the small time: David Lawson speaks to estate agents whose businesses were bought up by giant corporations in the boom and who have returned - happily, in the most part - to their old patches

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The Independent Online
WHEN Nick Underhill's son has a lift home in his girlfriend's chauffeur-driven car, he prefers to be dropped off around the corner. Two years ago the limousine would have slid comfortably to the door of their six-bedroom luxury house. Now it sits rather incongruously outside the Underhills' rented home.

Nick was a hot-shot newspaper ad salesman head-hunted to flog north London homes. 'One of my clients got fed up with me trying to sell them space and made me an offer I couldn't refuse,' he jokes. By 23 he was a partner.

Then the sleepy, old-fashioned firm of Hampton & Sons came calling for his services. He rode the property boom and a tidal wave of expansion to a mini-empire. The fees at his office in Hampstead, north London, soared from pounds 100,000 a year to more than pounds 1m - a quarter of which went into his pocket. 'I thought I had really made it,' he says. 'A full partner of a major firm in my early thirties.'

A year later, Abaco, the investment group, paid more than pounds 15m to buy out the firm. Life remained much the same because Nick took shares rather than cash, aware that with four children at private school he had to think of an investment for the future. Two years later he left to set up his own development business, using the shares to guarantee loans.

Then the roof fell in. A new owner, British & Commonwealth, had moved in after Abaco faltered. Now it, too, went bust. 'They announced it at 8.30am and the bank manager was on the phone at 8.35. They took the shares and stopped paying my mortgage. In two years I had gone from millionaire to pauper.'

Now he is back to square one, working as regional director for Keith Cardale Groves, another agent. But he has lost his home and a few years of his life. 'I suppose I will have to do it all again,' he says.

Former colleague Linda Beany landed more squarely on her feet. She was still a Hamptons director when British & Commonwealth went bust, and helped put together a management buyout. The partners were devastated when Bristol & West building society grabbed the company - by now a 180-office empire - from under their noses. Despite an agreement with the new owners that they would not make the same mistakes as other financial groups, Linda quickly grew disillusioned and left in 1991.

'Institutions have a total lack of understanding about what makes agents tick,' she says bitterly. 'They seem to believe the industry can be run by the white-sock brigade.' It is a common feeling among many who took the millions doled out during the wave of big buy-ups, saw out their contracts and then bailed out. About a third of agents are estimated to have left the business since 1988, but many, like Linda, have set up again.

'I was lucky. I had no ex-wives or school fees to tie me down like some of the others,' she says. There was also money in the bank, as she had taken cash rather than shares, and that worked out to a tidy sum, even though it was split among 11 partners. Now she runs her own West End agency, Beany & Pearce, with another former Hamptons director.

Why not retire to the Bahamas? 'I'm not that old]' she exclaims. Just turned 40, she is happy to be back at the sharp end of the business - and her own boss.