by Anh Nguyen
ESRA Residential Lettings has quadrupled the size of its property portfolio since its 2004 launch. Here, the Turkish sister trio behind the Cambridge-based business, shares its journey with Anh Nguyen.
Family is the focus of ESRA Residential Lettings and what the sister trio believes differentiates the firm from its local rivals. Susan Osman is one of the three seasoned sisters running the Cambridge-based agency, which was short-listed as a finalist in the Lettings Agency of the Year category at The Negotiator Awards 2008 for almost quadrupling the size of its property portfolio since its inception in 2004.
On their approach, Osman, aged 50, explains: “Like I say to our new landlords, if it doesn’t work for you, it won’t work for us. If it doesn’t work for us, we won’t be here in five years’ time and I’m personally too old to start all over again.”
One of Osman’s two sisters, Sharon Karaibrahimoglu, attributes the firm’s success to their service standards, which she says are helped by their father’s Turkish roots.
Osman agrees, adding: “Being foreign, we understand the service industry. There’s never ‘no’. We’ll always find a solution to it [any problems].”
As property investors themselves, Osman and her sisters are well-positioned to understand their clients’ needs. They own five new-build properties in The Triangle development, a new-build scheme on Station Road in Cambridge, which they bought off-plan as long-term investments for their retirement funds.
The firm’s name stands for Efficient Service Reliable Agent, though Esra is also the name of Osman’s adopted, 13-year-old daughter. The six all-female team responsible for the firm’s success is based in a typically bleak business park, 10-minutes outside Cambridge’s city centre. But Osman explains the choice of location was intentional; lower than the city centre, the rates allow her sufficient funds for advertising. She says: “We found the office by chance and it is absolutely perfect for us because all our enquiries are through the internet or telephone. We advertise with about 15 different portals.”
ESRA manages a portfolio of properties with a monthly average rent of £1,000, ranging from £700 a month for a one-bedroom unit to more than £1,000 for a two-bedroom unit. The two-bedroom units are mainly new-builds, and all the properties are located in Cambridge and its surrounding villages, within a 15-mile radius. ESRA’s clients are typically relocation tenants, comprising business professionals and academics from across the UK, as well as overseas, with an average age of 35 to 40 years.
“They have more money,” Osman claims. “I don’t want [tenants with] housing benefits – we deal with quality properties and quality tenants, which makes it a lot nicer and easier at the end of the day.”
Osman claims to have taken heed of the learning curve along upon which she’s travelled in establishing the business. “We were quite naïve about legislation a couple of years ago, but we went to the Association of Residential Lettings Agents, sat quite a few seminars, became a member of the Residential Landlords Association, and it’s done us a world of good,” she explains.
Accordingly, ESRA has joined the National Approved Letting Scheme to become a member of the Tenancy Deposit Scheme.
Prior to establishing ESRA, Osman owned Anglia Accommodation Services, an agency that still exists today on Regent Street, a main thoroughfare in Cambridge. She founded the company in 1989 with a sleeping partner, to whom she sold the company in 1994 to concentrate on being a mother to Esra, the three-and-a-half month-old baby she had adopted from Istanbul. Osman’s consequent divorce forced her to return to the family home Arbury in Cambridge, where Karaibrahimoglu and their mother also live, and to reassess her life and find a way to be more self-sufficient.
This led to the founding of ESRA in May 2004 with Karaibrahimoglu and their youngest sister, Shermin Herting.
Karaibrahimoglu previously worked as a manager for a residential home for the elderly, followed by 15 years in accommodation and welfare services at three language schools in Cambridge, and joined ESRA in its second year. Herting, a trained accountant, manages the company’s accounts and works mainly from home. Osman describes Herting as the “tightest” of the three sisters, hence why she’s best placed to manage its finances.
“Sharon is an equal partner, as I am, as is Shermin,” explains Osman. “So, the more we build this property business up, the more we benefit – and we all benefit because we’re the same family. To me, this business is all about the family, supporting our family and enjoying it.”
In the business’ first year, Osman worked with just one administrator, building up a portfolio of 50 properties by 2005. By 2006, this had doubled impressively to 100 and in 2007 they had 145 properties on their books. Now, they have around 215 properties.
“I’ll be honest with you, in the first year I would eat, s*** and sleep ESRA – I was consumed with it,” recalls Osman. “Now, I can relax a bit more.”
ESRA offers a broad range of services for its tenants. Want international moving and storage services? Check. Au pair or babysitter? Check. Too busy to do the laundry or could do with help with the cleaning? Check. Can’t tend to that traditional English garden? You guessed it – ESRA will take care of it for you. In-house service provision is core to the business. In April 2008, ESRA set up Tilly’s Cleaning Company, named after Shermin’s daughter Tilly, and then shortly after, Cambridge Inventory Services, to scoop up the potential extra revenue.
“It’s very easy because we already have a database for properties – CFPwinMan – which does everything for us,” says Osman. This allows the team to allocate work to their service staff accordingly. The agency employs one cleaner for a set number of hours a week, paying her extra for any time above the contracted hours.
Osman adds: “It [the service] is much better organised, because we know what’s going on and it definitely brings in revenue to the business.”
The new inventory company also contributes to ESRA’s revenue and works off the same database system as the cleaning business. Initially used solely for ESRA’s own properties, the services are now also being used by three other local agents.
ESRA is now considering opening a second office, also in Cambridge.
“I think things are going to get a lot busier, but it depends where most of our properties come up – we can’t control that,” explains Osman. “So, if they’re all in the south [of Cambridge], we might open an office there.”
With an established position in Cambridge and expansion plans on the horizon, ESRA, with its tightly-knit, all-female team, is geared for the year ahead where housing market performance is anyone’s guess.