EYE exclusive: Countrywide founder Harry Hill says ‘little prospect’ of business regaining status as market leader

Legendary estate agency figure Harry Hill, who bought what became the Countrywide business for £1 and went on to build it into the UK’s biggest estate agency, last night exclusively spoke to EYE.

He told of his heartache at seeing the business he built up into theUK’s most successful agency going into such difficulties,  expressed astonishment at the alleged pay-out to departing chief executive Alison Platt, and said it had ‘little prospect’ of being the success it once was.

Referring to the departure of Platt, Countrywide founder Hill – who also founded Rightmove – told EYE  he is “very sad” to have seen the developments.

He said that in building the Countrywide business from scratch, he had spent not one penny where one halfpenny would have done. There had been no funding, he said.

Hill spent 23 years in various roles with Countrywide: he bought the former Nationwide estate agency chain for £1 and was Countrywide’s chief executive until 20o6 before becoming chairman for the next three years,

Asked by EYE about his feelings, Hill told us: “I have been gone from Countrywide now for a long time, and almost all my very senior colleagues, with whom I ran the business (of which we were all proud and totally committed) have either retired, or been ‘moved along’ by the recently resigned CEO, who I never had the pleasure of meeting.

“Naturally, having spent over 20 years of my life as CEO of Countrywide, until it was sold, debt free, for over £1bn to American private equity, I feel very sad to see its current demise.

“However,  I haven’t been close enough, or sufficiently interested in the business to know quite where the ‘faults’ lie.

“What I do know however is that during my stewardship, supported almost all the time by a chairman – Christopher Sporborg of Hambros Bank very sadly now deceased – we always placed shareholder value as our paramount concern and never to the best of my memory spent one penny when a halfpenny would do.

“Looking from the outside in, it appears that many of those disciplines have been abandoned by the current board and senior executive team, evidenced perhaps by the announcement that the  chairman, who has observed the rapid destruction of shareholder value, has been paid £180,000 pa, and is now, temporarily until a new CEO is appointed, going to be paid £360,000 pa! Astonishing!

“No doubt the departing failed CEO will be similarly generously treated.”

Hill went on: “The greatest personal sorrow that I have is for staff at relatively junior levels, many of whom will have been with the business for many years and have observed what was by some margin Europe’s leading agency business, both in terms of scale and profitability, slowly become an ‘also ran’  with a market cap now of buttons, high debt and little prospect of ever becoming the market leading business that it was.”

The entrepreneurial Hill, who has continued to back other agency ventures, said: “Personally, I’ve moved on and having enjoyed my time at Countrywide hugely, now similarly enjoy a portfolio of interests across a range of public and private businesses.”


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  1. Hillofwad71

    Using borrowed monies to purchase  existing practices to pay out huge capital sums based on a multiplier on profits earned  in healthier times which quite often are  golden goodbyes for senior directors for their past achievements  doesn’t make a lot of sense

    It seems that listed agents who have expanded by chequebook are like politicians whose careers ultimately end in failure.

    Especially when the existing management  is unable to apply any synergy to improve the business and the “brands” acquired shut down or name immediately changed.


    More importantly its a people business and you would have thought that  amongst all those  talented individuals acquired there is a potential Harry Hill lurking who having  established successful businesses would be capable of  taking a seat on the board and driving the business  forward


    There seems to  have been   a glass ceiling for senior figures amongst CWD to the main board.That can’t be good for staff morale

    The board is populated by individuals who hold a clutch of directorships like cub scout badges  far removed from the  property industry They  seem to have handed over full responsibility to Platt and adding little to the party .No accountability for the disaster at CWD  . Too slow to act in the removal of Platt  and stop the rot .Off with their  heads


    2 directors who have arrived from the major shareholders are effectively fund mangers who must have been twitching on their  seats  having seen their investments plummet

    1. Bless You

      Like to see him do it now fees have been obliterated by the payanyway idiots.  The  govt should start taxing for every area they operate in. Only people winning are google adwords at moment.


      Countrywide is like a hamburger with a dry, stale seed bun… they still havent realised everyone else is serving brioch buns these days . 



      1. Bless You

        ‘Never be a Market leader’??  if it was Pbricks it would be calling itself the biggest ‘real’ agent in the UK..
        I ll give this one for free to whoever gets the job of CEO..
        1) You need to rebrand under 1 name ( yes i know if 1 agent in cornwall gets sued the whole brand gets it in the neck..but hey all advertising is good advertising….Again..refer to Pbricks manual. 
        2) You need to look at your mortgage business for profit..not selling houses…
        there you go…10% please. 

  2. GeorgeOrwell

    Ah Yes, the “Legendary Harry Hill”?

    Having worked for Countrywide when Harry £1 was in charge I witnessed somewhat different corporate practice from that glowing picture painted by Harry.

    Shuffle off Harry, I can’t bear your self back-slapping. You were far from perfect.

    Harry £1 was a lucky man at a lucky time, he never built a business from scratch, he bought Nationwide Estate Agents which was a very substantial brand.

    As I say, shuffle off Harry rather than gloating from your imaginary ivory tower.

    1. AgencyInsider

      Say what you will about Hill – and he isn’t one of my favourite characters – he played a significant role in the building of a mega-brand that was highly successful in its day. His views on the debacle of recent times are valid.

      1. Bless You

        Didnt he leave about same time they couldnt make £3k off every mortgage like in the good old days?

    2. Hillofwad71

      That’s a little unfair he built a business up refurbishing houses in his teens moved to an estate agency geographically removed from his stomping ground  into E Anglia at 20 built that up and cleverly sold ito one of the first expanders Mann &  Co for a healthy sum.
      Unlike senior figures today at CWD was able to progress to board level in the main group

  3. Robert May

    Staff do amazing things when their back is against the wall and are given the opportunity.  Someone needs to give the staff at  #local branch level a chance to sort this out.

    Independent agents have a perverse advantage over their corporate colleagues when the market toughens up, if the don’t sell they don’t eat, there is no room for the complacency of a salary.

    I’m not saying targets, targets, targets and procedures is an easy life but it’s possible to do just enough to get by, independent agents can’t rely on just enough, it never is.

    I have a unique helicopter view of the industry, I know what you are all doing, my conclusion is the same sort of bonkersness that makes Purplebricks worth £4 is the stupidity that has Countrywide at £1.

    This is a stock market thing not an agency thing, its nothing a good dollop of leadership and  boost in morale won’t  sort out.


    1. Philosopher2467

      On the money (again) Bob!

      hunger is a powerful motivator. Good management is a beautiful thing

      1. Robert May

        You flatter me,  I switched from agency to serving agency in 1994 so went through the post 88 MIRAS crash as a commission only associate, with a young family. I know what it’s like to  clear and clean a repossession of human and dog mess just to put food on the table or pay the community charge. We survived as an agent  while GA, Black Horse and Prudential reverted  back to independent agency in the area.

        We have seen this before someone just needs to look up the history books or their diaries to work out what works and what doesn’t. If they don’t Countrywide will revert to the independent agencies that made it

  4. g4lvo17

    I was there under Harry’s stewardship too and you are correct in what you say, they wouldn’t spend a penny and simply rode the boom until they could flog the business, the one difference to now though was the fact that they realised the need for experienced estate agents in the chain of command, something Platt couldn’t fathom

    1. Ricardo43

      Countrywide has been an appalling company for years well before Alison Platt arrived on the scene, They have never been able to outperform the market and hence when the market is tough their failings exposed. The boards idea of building shareholder value has always meant cost cutting with no regard to impact on staff quality, staff morale and quality of customer service. Estate agency is about marketing, sales, customer relationships and customer service. You do not need to be an Estate Agent to run Countrywide, you just need to invest in those four pillars. Countrywide board has always invested in themselves, not the business. Can’t wait to see it die.

  5. Philosopher2467

    Harry, in my experience, was a man of few words. Those words though when spoken were wholly relevant and meant something. He is a man of huge integrity and honesty, something that has been missing from CWD in the last 3 years. I hope for those decent hardworking staff that remain, that they get a proper leader at the top and throughout the structure. Those that are there today, I do not believe are ‘fit for purpose’.

  6. El Burro

    ‘we always placed shareholder value as our paramount concern’, there is a telling statement and the fundamental reason why so many of the corporates, including CW, punch well below their weight.

    CW are nowhere, and weren’t before Ms Platt’s stewardship, in this area and the primary reason is the way they treated those that worked there. They have consistently been unable to keep good people and that happened under Harry Hill’s watch as well.

    Those people are the key in our business when primarily you have to sell yourself.

    If you have, and keep, top quality teams at the coalface, you will be better than the opposition, do more business and make more money as a result.

    As for not spending one penny when a halfpenny would do, I’ve always believed in spending a £1 to get £10 back. That may be why even as a sizeable business we have no external investors and no borrowing.



    1. surrey1

      Agreed. Too much focus on the shareholder, not enough on their customers or employees. They’d be better broken up and back to their original states I suspect.

  7. whatdoiknow58

    I too was there in the Harry Hill days together with the likes of Anthony Ekins et al. Yes times have changed but the fact remains Estate Agency remains a people business and Countrywide has been recently led by the wrong people with seemingly little or no understanding of what was required to adapt in a challenging market and to take on the on-line threat. I have no idea who was to blame for the current mess but a collective responsibility from the former CEO downwards is where it lies. Too many people feathering their own nests and probably agreeing to a strategy  that they knew was risky at best but could probably see an opportunity to rise up the ranks on the descenters departures. Lets not forget that most and i suspect all of the high earners who either left or were pushed walked away with a nice pay off and left everyone else below fearful for their jobs and career. A business that will still produce circa 60 million profit is far from a busted flush and with better leadership and focusing on sorting out the Estate Agency/Lettings shambles can probably point things in the right direction pretty quickly in my humble opinion.

    1. AgentV

      Presumably they still have substantial amounts of profit to reinvest in training, marketing and product/proposition development. I would look at it from the point ‘what couldn’t I do, if I had that level of resources to hand?’


  8. ChippyJames

    The bigger the firm the more difficult it is for staff to show individual flair.  A good computer system can help manage a lot of the little bits that make up agency, but they cannot talk to customers at their level and manage what is a very stressful process.

    The corporates have always struggled to keep the best talent.  In my youth Mann & Co in Reading were known as a numbers team that trained up staff and then after a year they would leave to go to a local independent to make the real money.  At the moment a lot of smaller CW branches are running with very few staff.  The one closest to my Gloucestershire branch seems to only have 1 number of staff.  Investment has been going into the online process (big computers and bigger software) while the retail branches that should have been funding the works have been dying off due to lack of funds, mostly staffing.  How many times will a client go back if the office is always closed.

    If I was in charge I would split off the premium businesses, Hamptons and LSH (is it irony that after 30 years they end up paired up again?).  Together, you could probably get some private equity money for them to lower the group debt and simplify the business.

    And then merge John D Wood with the retail businesses as one very large estate agency business, along with the surveying, conveyancing and financial services businesses.  They have already been doing a lot of ‘John D Wood in partnership with …’ work in the regions, accelerating that would provide a more coherent message and management team.  From there you could empower the staff to bring in the business using local brands backed by a strong IT system infrastructure.

  9. Mike Bidwell

    I can’t profess to fully understand the machinations of publicly quoted PLC’s (other than like many others I still can’t get my head around how consistently loss making businesses are ‘worth’ such exorbitant sums) but I don’t think anyone can genuinely question Harry’s remarkable success with Countrywide.  Having been fortunate enough to work for him in the 80’s and ’90’s, like many others, I know him as an outstanding estate agent, smart thinking businessman and leader of people.

    Is there anyone more respected or better qualified than Harry to comment on the demise of a business that has impacted so greatly on the working lives of so many fellow agents?  I left in 1993 but still retain an interest in the business I worked in for 11 years and take pride in the ‘education’ from the many top quality agents that I was privileged to work along side during my time there.  If it hurts the likes of me to see it suffering like it is then that will be nothing in comparison to those that gave very significant parts of their working lives to build it into the remarkable success it once was …. and Harry was top of that tree.

    He certainly doesn’t suffer fools so if he has ruffled some feathers and upset a few people along the way then that’s because it comes with the territory of running such a large and demonstrably highly successful and profitable business.  He has coached and mentored some of the best ‘names’ in the business and retains a remarkable ability to both remember and take a positive interest in the fortunes of the (very) many of us that had the pleasure to work with/for him so if anyone has concluded that he isn’t a people person then in my humble opinion you are plain wrong.

  10. hill70

    Thanks Mike!!


  11. GeorgeOrwell

    Mike? Just to ensure balance in relation to your “glowing” reference for Dear £1 Harry…..

    I remember him in the same light as Del Boy, a yachtsman, sailing oh so close to…… I found him self-interested apart from keeping his band of *rse l*ckers very close and always with the feeling that he was waiting to cash-in having lucked out with purchasing a fantastic Brand. He made an extremely ill-judged comment in relation to his £1 purchase and alienated swathes of hard working individuals.

    I went on to be a very successful estate agent albeit I didn’t manage to line my pockets as Harry £1 did…. however I retained 100% of my integrity versus Harry’s which is literally worth a £1!

    So, when I think of £1 Harry that values him perfectly in my books.

    As always, the troops in the trenches are most often the casualties whilst the so called “leaders” skulk away.

    Do us a favour Harry, close your cupboard door and continue gazing a that little £1 in your hands, we don’t need your “glowing memories” of times past. You got lucky Harry. End of!

    1. Philosopher2467

      I do not wish to offend anyone as anyone who reads my posts should know ( unless that is people who perpetrate nonsense of course). Nationwide a good brand???? The odd branch here and there may be, some good people definately but, the brand……… not on your nelly! Spent fortunes on nice ‘work stations’ in their branches but as far as ‘doing the biz’, it didn’t happen which is why they ditched it for the £1 they did. No offence G but you’re in realms of the fiction your have had most success from with AF & 84.

      1. GeorgeOrwell

        P2467 You’re entitled to your view, you can read below, that sums up mine. 

        I’m done discussing Harry£1 because it’s not worth the time discussing his unremarkable acheivements. 

        Other than to say, timing plays a big part in life, buying a business with a household name is another.

        If a Monkey with a £1 had bought Nationwide EA I doubt it would have done less well than Harry£1.

        I guess if they had simply put a £1 Note in the chair back then the result would have been the same.

        Harry£1 Says it all for me  

  12. whatdoiknow58

    Probably the most uncalled for and snide attack on a well respected individual ( apart from you clearly ) I think I have read on this blog. Given the time it was posted I suspect you must have crawled home from the pub. For your information the purchase of a loss making business from the Nationwide Building Society in 1994 for a nominal £1 which they could not off load quick enough was a hell of a gamble and could easily have backfired big time. Fantastic brand? I was a Branch Manager of one of their midland offices so speak from first hand experience I guess you were not a Nationwide employee so how would you know what we were thinking at the time? We were almost over night rebranded ( as part of the acquisition ) to Bairstow Eves who no one in my neck of the woods had even heard of and as for any of us being alienated by the takeover we were delighted not only to secure our jobs but to actually be acquired by a company who knew what they were doing. Believe me working for Nationwide was soul destroying and being asked at one point to hand out cuddly snoopy toys to customers took the biscuit. Harry I met a few times and he seemed a decent switched on bloke if he walked away with more money than you then tough. He certainly has more than I will ever see and if I met him again ( unlikely ) I would shake his hand. Cheers.

  13. GeorgeOrwell


    I don’t drink, I wasn’t returning from the pub, I was actually working late, it was the 1st time I had the opportunity to post my comment to balance the *rse l*cking comments that had been made about Harry £1!

    To correct your inaccurate assumption, I worked for Nationwide! They certainly didn’t get everything right, that is for sure, however the were and are a fantastic brand, still going strong today, versus £1Wide! Of course Countrywide was known by a different name back then, 4 letters replacing the 1st 5 and removing the O is a sufficient clue.

    Of course I couldn’t shake your hand because it’s so far up Mr £1’s Portal. I don’t care how much money he made, because I value integrity way above financial worth.

    Settle down with your Harry Love Blanket and reminisce however I saw 1st hand the Harry £1 era and I wasn’t wearing your rose tinted glasses.



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