by Anh Nguyen
David Pollock swept the board at The Negotiator Awards 2008, wowed judges of The Sunday Times 100 Best Small Companies to Work For list for two consecutive years and has expansion plans under way.
Greene & Co is proof that behind every innovative estate agency is one truly inspirational leader. The North West London-based agency swept the boards at The Negotiator Awards 2008 with a whopping four wins, one of which being awarded to the firm’s managing director, David Pollock, for being Estate Agency Leader of the Year. The judges were unanimous in their opinion that not only is Pollock’s professionalism and tenacity responsible for the success of his 24-year old firm, but that these attributes are those to which all agents should be aspiring.
Staff testimonials highlighting Pollock’s inspirational leadership have not only helped him secure his success at The Negotiator Awards, but also earned his agency a ranking in The Sunday Times 100 Best Small Companies To Work For list in 2007 and 2008, proving that Greene & Co must be doing something right for its employees and clients.
Not only does Pollock, with his patriarchal approach to the business, give employees time off for their birthday; to move house; and for undertaking charity work, which is strongly encouraged, but he never hesitates to go far beyond the call of duty as a leader.
Jenny Khan’s story is a case in point. After discovering a lump in her breast, the Greene & Co employee was informed she would have to wait six weeks for an appointment for tests. Pollock summoned her into his office and informed her that he had booked her into a private London hospital and that he would pay for all the tests and whatever else she needed thereafter.
As if that wasn’t enough, when Khan’s son was run over and suffered severe head injuries two years ago, Pollock found a London-based flat in which her Scotland-based family could stay while they were visiting to support her.
To further enhance employees’ well-being, Pollock employs a life coach who regularly liaises with all his staff, including those in administrative roles, on a one-to-one basis about any issues or challenges they may have with delivering the customer service he expects. This may surprise some critics of Pollock, who have their reservations about his portrayal of estate agency standards since he appeared in a BBC documentary in 2004.
Pollock says he learnt about high standards of customer service from his friend, Julian Richer, the owner of Richer Sounds, an electrical appliances retailer.
Pollock says: “Its [Richer Sounds’] customer service is unbelievably outstanding. The starting point for any business on customer service is never to feel or think that you deliver fantastic customer service; you attempt to, you aspire to, but you should never believe that you actually deliver it.”
Hence, Greene & Co has many incentive schemes to encourage staff to devise ways to improve the company’s service levels. This includes a staff suggestion scheme, which involves a breakfast once a month for his 70-strong team at which they brainstorm ideas to progress the business, with Pollock paying staff for each idea. Employees can earn between £5 to £25 for each idea, with the originator of the best one each quarter receiving a prize, which in the past has included a day at a Champneys Spa and a day in a helicopter. Pollock says: “I achieve two things with this: a continuous reminder to everyone in the company that we are highly focused on customer service and secondly, I get a whole raft of good ideas a year.”
Staff are also rewarded £25 for every unsolicited thank you letter they receive and £25 for going out of their way to help a colleague or a member of the public.
Perhaps the oddest initiative is the £25 awarded to the employee who makes the biggest blunder of the month. Pollock believes that this enables staff to learn from the mistake while reminding the offender of their error. All staff are also entered into a colleague of the month competition.
But Pollock insists that mistakes are limited due to regular training. Staff attend training courses twice a year, which are coupled with external speakers and trainers brought in to host talks and provide in-house training in techniques, such as answering the phone. Pollock monitors staff progress through client questionnaires. “We send out customer service questionnaires on absolutely everything, from how we took on an instruction to how we dealt with a client when they registered to buy or rent,” he says. “We monitor everything to see how we can improve it.”
Pollock is refreshingly self-deprecating, which is surprising given his success. His humble acceptance and gratitude at winning The Negotiator awards, for example, was endearing.
A framed school report highlighting his academic failures prominently adorns one wall of his office, serving to shed some light on his demeanor.
Pollock says it serves as a constant reminder of his roots and of how far he has come since. “I didn’t do very well at school,” he laughs. “I was OK at PE, but that was about it.” Pollock left school at 16 without a clue about future employment, hence why he exploited the opportunity to enter estate agency after discovering that he did not require any qualifications to become a negotiator.
“I knew nothing about it [agency], other than having an uncle who was very successful at it, so I thought that’s what I should do,” he recalls. “I walked into one estate agency on the local high street, which claimed it didn’t have any vacancies and told me to try a competitor three doors down. So I walked in there and said cheekily I’d been highly recommended and they gave me a job.”
Pollock’s agency career thus began in 1976 with J Maunder Taylor and Sons in Whetstone, North of London, with him earning just £15 a week for doing whatever the firm required of him, from making tea to showing properties. “I hated making tea, so I used to make it really badly so they [the staff] wouldn’t ask me to make it again,” he confides.
Pollock’s tea making days were cut short after 18 months when he left the firm to join Glentree Estates, an agency which he recalls as being “highly innovative, aggressive and successful”. He stayed three years before going it alone at the tender age of 21.
Pollock’s entrepreneurialism got off to a rocky start when he was forced to close his first business after just 18 months. “I mucked it up totally,” he admits. “I learnt masses from it. I didn’t have an office in the right location – it was the first floor of a building on the Finchley Road in North London; I tried to do any kind of property I could, rather than specialise; and I spent too much money on advertising rather than solidifying the foundations of the business.”
Pollock was forced to find an employed position to pay for the debts he incurred on folding the business, which is what led him to Greene & Co. The business was founded by his friend Michael Greene in the early 1980s, with Pollock joining in 1985 with the task of opening up a second branch; the two soon became joint partners.
When Greene decided to leave estate agency, Pollock drafted in sleeping partners to help him buy the business: Harry Handelsman, chief executive of Manhattan Loft Corporation, which specialises in loft conversions in London, and John Hitchcox, a co-founder of Manhattan Loft Corporation and chairman of Yoo, an international branding, design and investment property company. The canny Pollock soon capitalised on his partners’ expertise when in 2000, led by their knowledge of the loft market and its trends, he bought Urban Spaces, a Clerkenwell, North London-based estate agency dealing primarily in loft conversions and contemporary living spaces.
In 2001, the management team then decided to experiment with the business by launching a new type of estate agency in Belsize Park, in North West London, called Home.
“We didn’t want to call it Greene & Co at the time because we were experimenting with how it operated,” says Pollock. “It was the first estate agency to operate as a shop, not an office.”
With Home Pollock wanted to create a more relaxed shopping environment for clients; one in which they felt comfortable just browsing the agency’s properties without feeling obligated to officially register their interest. The initial success of the venture led to Pollock incorporating some of its elements into branches of Greene & Co.
“Traditionally, you’d walk into an estate agency and you’re met by rows of desks and it’s very intimidating,” says Pollock. “We formed this brand so you could just walk in and see everything displayed, with sweets and drinks available, too.”
The Home concept soon caught the imagination of the BBC, which featured it as part of a documentary on a different kind of estate agency. Pollock was tempted to reject the interview request for fear of negative publicity until Handelsman changed his mind by insisting that it would be hard to put a bad spin on estate agency when people had such low expectations of agents anyway.
But Pollock was criticised by some who consider his interview to have painted an aggressive and uncaring approach to agency; the antithesis of the service standards Pollock preaches and in which he claims to spend so much time and money.
“I don’t think I did [represent agency as aggressive],” he insists. “I think that what we showed was the pressure involved in selling the properties on agents and the difficulty agents have in balancing the needs of both purchaser and vendors.”
The criticism is hard to accept when in the presence of Pollock’s staff in their North London offices, who clearly hold his leadership in high esteem. What’s more, initiatives such as the Greene & Co Goodwill Charter make it difficult to concede that he runs a business that is anything but in the interest of clients.
The Charter, also known as the Anti-Gazumping and Gazundering Tool, is a legal document that the agency has created to discourage vendors and purchasers from entering into sales unless they are committed to honouring the agreement. It is based on a lock-out agreement whereby each party is required to stump up an agreed sum of money, which they lose to the other party if they withdraw from the sale without a genuine reason. Each party is refunded their deposit on exchange; the money is still returned if a sale does not reach exchange through no fault of either party, providing both parties keep to the agreement for a defined period of time. Pollock claims that the number of abortive deals his business suffers from a client simply changing their mind has consequently plummeted.
“We found that the number of abortive deals has dropped drastically by something like 70%, thanks to the Charter.”
Pollock plans to further expand his business. With four branches of Greene & Co already under his belt, plus one Urban Spaces office, he says he is eyeing an area for at least one other Urban Spaces branch. “I’d like to acquire a number of shops,” he says. “I’ve got some very talented people in the company and I’d like to be able to keep pushing them.”
As The Negotiator Online exclusively reveals this week, Pollock is currently eyeing a London estate agency chain for acquisition.
As for his learning curve in agency, he says: “I’ve learnt over the years that it’s about having talented people first and then getting the shop – not the other way round. We once opened a shop in Islington [North London] which didn’t work out because we couldn’t get the right people in there.”
His entrepreneurial flair and personable nature have stood Pollock in good stead throughout his career, so it is unsurprising that he is unperturbed about the recession. “One always has to adapt and learn and improve,” he surmises.
“My responsibility is to the business as a whole and with the economic climate; I can’t let my heart rule my head. For instance, I can’t keep employing people if it jeopardises other people’s jobs. But if there was a continuation of a downturn, we wouldn’t be afraid to make hard decisions.”
He adds: “It’s always very dangerous for people to confuse niceness with softness.”
The recession means that staff motivation will be key for all agents this year, but for Pollock, as always it seems, he is already ahead of the game.