New Humberts owner reveals plans to turn agency into a lifestyle business operating from hubs

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.

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12 Comments

  1. smile please

    Car crash.

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    1. P-Daddy

      When the source of funds can’t or won’t be confirmed, it’s a worrying sign that ‘entrepreneurs who think they are venture capitalists’ are at work, or is that chancers!

      They are trying to justify picking over the carcass of a badly injured business and hence have come up with a winning argument. They are stripping out a lot of costs, get it, concierge and cross selling, no! They just don’t sell enough units to earn enough and the sale process as we know is so drawn out and the number of properties not selling and being withdrawn, cash flow will kill them again unless this is a vanity purchase and someone doesn’t want to see their money again.

      They may draw in a few more rural holiday lets, but look at the scale you need to be able to mine data/cross sell and monetise it effectively, think Zoopla. The Humberts business in Jurassic coast land is strong I can see a parallel for his holiday lets, but his loss making business will now have double costs and if the brain drain that he expects to happen will not produce the returns. Its interesting how an old world name like Humberts became the play thing of all these smart money men who saw something that no one else…where are they now…Max Ziff,middle eastern money…Chesterton Humberts et al!

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  2. Shaun77

    Lost the plot

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  3. AgencyInsider

    ‘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.’

    a) If it was a pound even I could afford it.

    b) BHS & Dominic Chappell

    ‘Humberts staff will no longer just sell homes but offer a full lifestyle concierge service.’ WTF?

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  4. ArthurHouse02

    I wouldnt mind this change having his view and trying to give us advice if his existing business was raking in the money….but it isnt. He’s losing money hand over fist.

    Just another chancer who thinks he knows everything. I feel really sorry for the Humberts staff….

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  5. Bless You

    Good luck to him. I think there is a formula in estate agency which pb have confirmed to me.

    You spend £1 you get 80p back… repeat…  unless you own the business and kill yourself every day or u have a nice lettings income to hide your poor selling skills.. no one makes money. #shareholders are key.

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  6. whatdoiknow58

    ” I know what went wrong at Countrywide ” Quote. Really? You have about as much idea of their decline and fall as i have of picking this Saturdays lottery numbers. Since when were you employed there and how do you know anything about running a business of the size and depth of Countrywide? They clearly have to sort out the sales and lettings business ( which needs people who actually know what they are doing – a new CEO would help ) and away you go. The rest is profitable with for example the largest surveying arm in the UK together with the largest Conveyancing company in the UK by volume last time i looked. Oh and a pretty sound Financial Services business and Life back book to boot and there is always LSH, Hamptons and JDW to fall back on if you need  quick cash i guess. Dream on.

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  7. Peter

    “Staff will no longer be described as agents, with a name still under consideration,”

    I can suggest a play on words and a stereotypical view some consumers have:- how about Humbugs

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    1. Chris Wood

      A rose by any other name

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  8. johnpotter18

    Unbelievable!!

    Here is someone with no industry experience running another loss making business, just seemingly throwing ideas around without understanding the business or margins. Without doubt, This will fail!

    It’s like a school boys project on running a business…. ohh I known we can all drive around in Discovery’s… ohh and everyone wants to be able call into an office for coffee and yoga!!!!!

    a shame as Humberts have always been a respected brand and had potential in the right hands.

    I will confidently state that the Humberts business won’t be here/ or certainly they will be taken over again within 24 months

    Utter madness!

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    1. smile please

      I almost feel sorry for him (almost).

      Anybody coming into agency thinks they can the industry, and it to be admired.

      BUT is sheer arrogance and lack of experience the reason these guys fail. Pool tables, Yoga, Coffee – All sounds lovely but where’s the money coming from to pay for it all.

      I would hazard a guess that a Humberts office is £12,000 per month just to breakeven (that’s a poor performing one).

      I would also hazard a guess the average fee in £ is £5,000 for a sale.

      Humbets aim to be a top quartile agent looking at the top 25% of the market in sleepy towns / villages.

      The part of the market hardest to sell at present.

      You want to take negs (or whatever you want to call them, maybe lifestyle consultant?!) away from listing and selling property to help recommend gardners, handymen where if you are luck can achieve a 10% markup to add into your ‘pot’

      Best of luck and i mean that for the staff as opposed to the new owner but he really should have spent at least 3 months in the industry to see how difficult and time consuming just doing the basics are.

       

       

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  9. LizzieB09

    It all just sounds completely bonkers. BUT when you start reading the stats that 80/90% of jobs in 20/30 years time have not even been ‘invented’ yet it makes you think. He’s either completely mad, or a complete genius. If the latter e/one will be following suit. If not, the current format of agency is on the cusp of failure and only a few will survive (shareholders). We all know that PB are not making money, but that is not their business model, they are there to crush the other agencies and when they have, they will raise the fees, they’ve already announced their PB PLUS service (utilities) – who’s to say that in 10 years time PB will actually have a high street office (revised from the current format), rather than working from serviced offices, but I guess with the way things are with the high street agency is currently in a headlong dive to the bottom on fees, and that doesn’t pay the office rent/staff. Even accountants are realising that their business needs a shake up to become more relevant in today’s society, roll on the conveyancing process and roll on the housing market in general. Something needs to change and we’ve know that for years. In the meantime I’m off to get a Pimm’s…

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