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Adversity is opportunity

Times are tough, but Roberts Newby MD Simon Roberts is still thinking about expansion. He talks to Clare Bettelley about weathering the storm and developing new initiatives.

Shoveling compost is all in a day’s work for Gerrards Cross-based agent Simon Roberts. As managing director of Roberts Newby, Roberts says the recent garden stint was unavoidable - it was the prospective owner’s request that the garden be cleared, which the owner at the time had not had time to do herself.

But offering such a personal service is surely a no-brainer for Roberts, who this year aims to charge fees of no less than 1.25% for selling local properties, which have little problem fetching around £950,000 – five times the national average.

Gerrards Cross is renowned for being one of the UK’s most expensive towns for property purchase, thanks to its Edwardian-style properties, good choice of grammar schools and proximity to London. It also boasts the desirable Camp Road, where the average property fetches around £1.5m.

Roberts says: “The typical buyer is aged between 35 and 40 years of age and a highly successful person, who wants to relocate out of

But even the high end of the market is not immune to the impact of the current downturn, as Roberts’ business levels prove – his sales are 65% lower than this time last year, with 128 properties on his book, compared with just 87 last year.

Buyer experience

That said, Roberts is perhaps better placed than most to weather the downturn, given his comprehensive knowledge of the house buying and selling process; he has worked both in sales and as a homesearch agent. He entered agency in 1986 as a trainee negotiator for the Slough office of Roger Platt and Partners, which was acquired by Royal Life Estates in the late 1980s.

“I enjoyed it immensely but it was a tremendous learning curve; hugely competitive and very cut-throat.

“When I was interviewed for the job, I had put on my CV that I had done Karate for a number of years, which the director said would come in very useful, given the competitiveness in Slough,” he quips.

Roberts was soon promoted to manager of the agency’s Gerrards Cross and Beaconsfield offices, having worked his way up the business in a number of locations, including Maidenhead, High Wickham, Marlow and Windsor.

He left to join the Giles Newby Partnership in 1991, which Newby, a former colleague, had set up, and they worked from his dining room until they found shop premises the following year.

But after three years as junior partner, Roberts decided the time was right to do something different, so he tried his hand at being a buying agent, searching for property for a wide range of clients, from footballers to actors, including Shane Richie.

“It’s very interesting. With sales, people feel they have to employ you but in home search they employ you because they really want to. They don’t want the headache of trawling round all the agents to try to find a property. They use you as their ally in their property search, so you become very close to them – you’re finding out what schools the children are going to go to, what the spouse is going to do.

“It was a lot of fun.”

No place like home

But it wasn’t long before agency beckoned and Roberts returned to Giles Newby as an equity partner, with the potential to increase his 30% stake in the company over time. Prior to leaving Giles Newby, Roberts had relinquished his minority stake in the business to enable new joiner David Giles – a coincidental name – to become an equal partner with Newby. Roberts became an associate partner.

“This almost directed my path for me. I left amicably and really enjoyed the relocation and the home search side of the industry; I met some interesting characters, but actually really missed agency,” he recalls.

“I think it is one of those things that is in your blood; one of those industries that you can’t seem to get away from.”

That said, Roberts’ home life made his decision to return to traditional estate agency a relatively easy decision – his wife had just fallen pregnant with their first child, Phoebe, after enduring the traumas of IVF treatment for some time. This left just Roberts and a colleague to run the business.

“It was a very small business but it was growing. At the time I was facing two choices: I either grew it or I didn’t. Then my wife fell pregnant and we had a choice to make. I was working hard, long hours, so I could have expanded the business to draft people in to help, which I was planning to do when Giles approached with terms to merge my relocation business with the agency.”

Roberts increased his stake in the company to 50% after Giles retired in 2000.

Expansion plans

In Roberts’ absence, Newby and Giles had established a lettings and management department, but the business had lost market share.

Roberts rejoined with the intention of running his search company.

“But we soon found that my time spent at a desk in a busy estate agency was better than that spent searching for properties. Being an estate agent was more profitable than being a home search agent.”

Roberts says his strategy was for the business to offer a more multidisciplined company, which meant taking another floor in the office premises. Having bought Newby out of the business in 2004 following his retirement, and increasing staff numbers to 20 across both sales and lettings, he now feels ready for more office space.

“Since [2004] the business has grown hugely. I’m now in the position where I have great people working for me and for the first time I can see myself developing the business further.”

Roberts believes he can weather the market downturn better than many of his peers.

“Unlike some, I haven’t drawn huge sums of money out of the business, so it’s in a good position. And even in this market, we are lucky in Gerrards Cross because it is a transient area, with financial and pharmaceutical industries fuelling activity.”

He adds that he made the decision to leave a lot of money in the business when he recognised the market would change.

He explains: “Last year, we did £200m worth of property sales; we couldn’t have done a lot more business. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that things had to change. Ironically, I prefer the market at the moment, because there’s much more opportunity.”

Roberts’ 'try before you buy’ scheme is a case in point.

He says that as a result of the market downturn, around 10% of his sales clients had opted to put their houses on the market with his lettings business at the same time as prospective buyers had delayed their purchases and were looking to rent, because of the market uncertainty.

“So, on a number of tenancies, we have set up agreements whereby the landlord can sell the tenant the property. From there, we have been marketing some of our properties for let on a try before you buy basis. There is a developing market of people who do want to buy but are waiting for their circumstances or the market to change.”

The initiative is based on a formal tenancy agreement, not a sales contract, with Roberts hoping to step in and negotiate a deal between the two parties once the agreement expires.

Roberts is himself renting a property, following an amicable separation from his wife, and expects to do so for at least the next six months, which will no doubt enhance the client empathy he clearly possesses as a result of his comprehensive sales/buyer market experience, and help fuel the try before you buy initiative.

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