Humberts may not be the last agency acquisition that the new owner makes, its new chief executive has hinted.
Speaking to EYE, Matt Spence, who has purchased Humberts with other undisclosed shareholders, is to transform the business into one that manages people’s lifestyles as well as their properties. Instead of operating from branches, it will work out of ‘hubs’.
Yesterday, he said he would be interested in turning around the Countrywide brand.
Spence said: “Countrywide needs to be broken up quick and fast. You can’t change something that big.
“I would buy the whole thing off them for a £1 – we would take it private, though, and split it up.
“It needs an overhaul of culture and only then can it change direction.”
He said the main issue former boss Alison Platt and others will have faced was resistance to change from those running their own firms within the brand.
Spence said he would also be interested in buying other firms and insisted there were funds available to do so – although his other business has lost money for the last two years for which it has filed accounts – but said he would never do a stock market listing.
Spence also owns holiday cottage lettings business Natural Retreats, which lost £837,000 in the year to December 2015, and £1.6m in the year to December 2016.
He says his property experience is self-taught from building and managing cottages on his parent’s farm and running his holiday lettings business.
Explaining his ethos to EYE, Spence said estate agency was behind other industries in adapting to consumer needs, but insisted this isn’t about the online versus high street debate.
Spence said: “The current format is completely irrelevant.
“I love the high street, it is awesome, but the issue is that you can have a branch with four empty desks by the door as everyone is out working.
“The last thing a British person wants to do is open a door and have four desks looking at them.
“I open the door and they all want to eat me, it’s all just a transaction, I’m just money to them, and that’s what is wrong with the industry.”
Rather than branches, Humberts’ offices will be transformed into hubs in a similar way to We Work-style shared offices that offer on-site coffee, yoga classes and pool tables.
He told EYE that Humberts staff will no longer just sell homes but offer a full lifestyle concierge service.
Staff will no longer be described as agents, with a name still under consideration, and will be based in hubs that Spence describes as “aspirational places where you can talk about everything to do with your home, even if it’s just to get a gardener”.
He said: “It’s about becoming a client even before you want to sell or buy, we will be central decision maker.”
Spence said Humberts would focus on rural areas and hubs will be moving from “irrelevant to relevant locations”.
He insisted this wouldn’t mean job losses as more staff were needed for the hubs and pointed out that many branches don’t have room for the headcount required.
He admitted some staff may decide to leave if they disagree with the strategy, but predicted that Humberts, in every county it currently operates in, will double in size over the next six to 12 months.
Spence said he was keen to maintain the Humberts heritage and would display a picture of founder Charles Humbert in each hub.
He insisted the Humberts brand and its Laura Ashley-style logo, “with a little tweaking,” will remain.
Spence said he has met little resistance since taking over the firm. The changes will also apply to franchisees who Spence said would have to give up the brand if they disagreed with the direction.
He said: “I was expecting resistance. I have sat with pretty much every employee, a few found it difficult and may not last through.
“I said ‘If you love it stay, or you can go. What is the alternative? Print a thicker brochure? Charge less? Persuade sellers that I’m better than the next agent or better than Purplebricks?’ Or do I just decorate my shop and hope that helps?”
Spence said vendors would still pay at the end of the transaction but said the argument over high street versus online and commission versus upfront fees was irrelevant and agents should be focusing on the service offering.
He said: “The transactions aren’t the most profitable part of the business.
“There is no other industry other than estate agency where you get access to the home.
“We are better placed than anyone to get a range of services set up as home owners will just leave us with the keys.”
Spence said he admired the Foxtons brand and said it was along the right lines with the layout of its offices, but added: “They just offer a fridge with some water bottles and extra seating, it needs to be more relevant.”
Rather than branded Minis, Spence said Humberts staff would drive around in a Land Rover Discovery.
The business is owned and run separately to Natural Retreats but Spence said Humberts will now have access to holiday lettings as well as the technology.
Spence said the financial performance of the Natural Retreats business was irrelevant and not a reflection on how the underlying properties are performing.
He declined to give further details of how the Humberts transaction was funded, only insisting that an administrator wouldn’t have sold to him if he couldn’t afford it.
The overhaul is already under way with the first hub opening in the Prince of Wales’ model village of Poundbury, Dorset, in late September. A Humberts press release yesterday boasted of an existing connection with Prince Charles, saying it had advised him when he bought Highgrove.
Clients will have a property consultant within a close radius as well as access to a premium first-class club lounge style hub, where they can expect an open plan office, hot desks and lifestyle concierges.
There will be further hub openings in Tunbridge Wells, Cirencester, Exeter and Bath.