Taking the bull by the horns
by Clare Bettelley
With 48 years’ experience in the property business, Robert Jordan has worked his way up to executive chairman of his own business. He talks to Clare Bettelley about getting to the top.
Robert Jordan has a conundrum. The 64-year-old executive chairman is holding the fort at his firm, Jordan’s Residential Lettings, while William, his son and managing director of the firm, is holidaying with his family in Australia, his wife’s homeland.
At the same time Jordan is busy looking after his own wife, with whom he has just celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary - she recently suffered two nasty falls, resulting in a broken ankle and serious shoulder injury.
Nevertheless, this was not going to stop the keen yachtsman from racing on the Solent during Cowes Week with his daughter and her husband. This is unsurprising given Jordan’s determination to live life to the full and exploit every opportunity thrown his way, of which there have been numerous throughout his career, not least one that enabled him to become a managing director at the tender age of 29.
Jordan became managing director of UK developments for Stockport-based property services firm Dean Smith in 1972. He had done business with the firm while head of commercial and professional property services for his previous employer, Wilmslow-based firm J R Bridgfords & Sons. He worked at Bridgfords for two years until Dean Smith approached him with an offer he said he could not refuse.
“The firm offered me great prospects and a big Rover car,” he laughs, “which at the time was a good status symbol.”
This was a far cry from Jordan’s first step into agency in 1960, when he joined Samuel Rains and Son - now Reeds Rains - as a rent collector, with little idea about his future career path.
“I was collecting two and nine pence from tenants, some of whom could not afford it.
“There was no money, so properties were patched up – they had earth floors, outdoor toilets and roofs that leaked. I found two tenants dead – poor housing must have been a contributory factor.”
Jordan says this experience at least helped him deduce that he did not want to remain a rent collector all his life, so he was transferred into the firm’s commercial property team, which was where he started building the commercial experience that led to him being headhunted by Dean Smith.
It was a desire for a qualification that led Jordan into the property market. Aged 16, he went to live with his grandparents following the death of his mother, and was reluctant to follow in the footsteps of his father – who had left to remarry – as an engineer.
“I had a burning ambition to have a qualification in something and engineering didn’t hit the mark,” Jordan recalls. Hence his decision to respond to a newspaper advertisement for the rent collector position at Samuel Rains and Son.
During his seven years with the firm, he fulfilled his quest for a qualification via a correspondence course with the College of Estate Management – now affiliated with the University of Reading - and qualified as a chartered surveyor.
Jordan claims to have helped Dean Smith generate £350,000 in profit in 1970, after which the firm was bought by Francis Parker, a property business created by venture capital firm Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation - now 3i. The deal was instrumental to Jordan’s decision to launch his own business.
The managing director of Francis Parker offered Jordan the role of managing director of the newly merged firm’s commercial property division and a seat on the management board.
“But when the deal was only a month or two old, he came to see me and said he hadn’t realised I was only 29 and the main board of directors was a lot older, so he would have to retract the offer.
“I told him there were two things he could do: pay me a lot of money to go or wait for me to go and see my lawyer.
“The firm gave me £10,000 to leave.”
It was a time Jordan says he will never forget because it coincided with the birth of his son, William.
It was in the following year, 1974, that Jordan established his own commercial property surveying firm, Jordan Impey & Co. This was also the year in which there were two general elections, the three-day working week, thanks to the power supply worker strikes and the implosion of the commercial property market.
But no sooner had Jordan informed his secretary that he had no idea where their next contract was coming from he won a contract with a clothing company, which wanted help fitting out a newly acquired warehouse.
Jordan recalls: “That year taught me a great deal, namely, overheads are very easily acquired and hard to get rid of, and cash is king – if you have a positive cash flow you will make money.”
The clothing contract was followed by the purchase of a Buxton-based estate agency office from a former colleague at Bridgfords, and the opening of offices in Stockport and Macclesfield, which led to the firm evolving into a residential sales and commercial property company.
Twenty one estate agency offices later, in 1986, Halifax snapped up the business for around £3m – not bad for a business that had been driven more by intuition than planning.
“It didn’t matter where it was that we diversified, we did so to survive. These days I would come up with a business plan, but then it was based on gut feeling,” laughs Jordan.
He says the timing was perfect.
“I had started to get nervous because the market was overheating and I had gone out on a limb in terms of expansion.”
Jordan then decided to launch a chartered surveying business in Macclesfield, Robert Jordan & Partners. Once again opportunity knocked and he was instructed by the North West health authority to dispose of some of its land and redundant property, which he says kept him incredibly busy.
Though a chartered surveyor by training, Jordan sees himself essentially as a businessman at heart.
In 1988, the managing director of Bridgfords, which had since been acquired by Hambro Countrywide, approached Jordan with an offer for him to return to the firm to tackle its professional services division, which was suffering huge losses.
Savvy negotiations by Jordan, yet again, led to Hambro Countrywide snapping up his business, appointing him as North regional chairman of its commercial division, tasked with reviving the professional services business.
Jordan insists it wasn’t as much a diversion in his career path as it may seem.
“It was a different role, but there is a thread [running through his career]. I am a businessman who happens to be a surveyor, rather than the other way around.
“I love business. I love creating businesses and making them work ethically and well and to be profitable, and none of these is mutually exclusive.”
Jordan spent two years of a three-year contract transforming the professional services division into a profitable business through the implementation of robust management changes and the consolidation of a number of its departments.
But it was not all good news for the opportunist – he had decided to take shares for the sale of his business for Capital Gains Tax purposes, rather than cash, which was unfortunate given that the share price of Countrywide Hambro then plummeted.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Jordan informed the firm that he would not be renewing his three-year contract, having fulfilled his objectives. In the same conversation he was told that if he left the firm would close its residential lettings business because it was too complex to run and it couldn’t see a future in the lettings market.
“I said they should sell it, to which they asked who would buy it, and I said ‘I will’.”
Terms were agreed – Jordan bought it forone month’s turnover plus its net asset value (“less than £100,000”) - and the deal was completed within a month.
It was a bizarre move, given that the business, by Jordan’s own admission, was a shambles and the lettings market in 1990
was yet to be professionalised.
“There is an element of luck, I accept that,” Jordan admits. “But I like to think that it is also about timing and a fair amount of professional knowledge.”
Jordan says he “took the business by the scruff of the neck,” organising and growing it to eight branches by 2004. It was also in the same year that Jordan was approached by property service firm Erinaceous Group, which wanted to turn the lettings firm into a national company. The deal was signed and sealed and the business became a 22-office franchise in just three years, at which point Jordan semi-retired.
But this was short-lived – Erinaceous breached its banking covenants in 2007, which led to Jordan buying back his business in January 2008 for 10% of the £2.8m sale price the group had paid him just four years earlier.
Erinaceous went into administration in April.
When Jordan first bought the business in 1990, he embarked on a drive for professionalism, which led to him turning it into a quality assured firm with the British Standards Institute. He also became a member of the Association of Residential Letting Agents in 1991.
He says: “As a chartered surveyor, I thought that it was regrettable that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors had little interest in residential lettings, which ARLA had.”
That said, he claims that ARLA was in desperate need of an overhaul when he became a council member the following year.
“It was like a tennis club – members were lovely, well-meaning people for whom I had great respect, but it had a long way to go.”
He says his Northern roots alone created a learning curve for the Southern-based organisation. Jordan recalls a meeting at which he was asked to ‘pop over’ to Newcastle from the North West, as part of its regional work.
Jordan went on to have two spells as ARLA president, with the first in 2003 – the gap was a result of him contracting viral meningitis, which he attributes to his efforts in overhauling the trade body. This included the creation of a centralised administrative hub in Amersham, which integrated all the work being undertaken by ARLA’s individual council members.
Of all his efforts, Jordan says his stipulation that at least one staff member within each UK lettings firm should hold ARLA’s minimum qualification is one of the greatest achievements of his presidency.
He describes his decision to merge ARLA with the NAEA to create the
National Federation of Property Professionals last year as ironic, given that ARLA had been born out of a determination to create an improved service to that being offered by the NAEA at the time.
“But they [NAEA] were struggling to support members in a way they would have wished because of a lack of in-house knowledge, so we thought it was a good idea to merge the two organisations.”
Jordan attributes his business acumen to two of his former bosses – Michael Rains and Tony Dean Smith, chairman of Dean Smith.
“Michael was a formative character in my career – he taught me a lot of values, particularly in being scrupulously honest with people, even if it counts against you, and that’s what I have always done, even if it is to my detriment.”
He adds that Dean Smith taught him to have a professional outlook on life and to undertake every aspect of business to the best of his ability.
With his son William now running the business, Jordan says he will continue to concentrate on strategy, which is currently focused on a new rent-to-buy scheme, designed to help prospective buyers onto the housing ladder while generating income for landlords. Meanwhile, he will continue to perfect his work-life balance and prepare for the next opportunity to come his way, as it inevitably will.
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