In the following monthly series of articles Oliver Ash tells the story of his initial steps in the field of real estate, how this took him overseas to a new life, how he navigated the financial crises of 1991 and 2009, how real estate operations became stadia consultancy and how stadia consultancy became several sports businesses, leaving real estate behind. The first article describes how he unwittingly found himself in the property world.
When I took my first hesitant step into the world of real estate in 1980 at the age of 21 it felt like the end of my life. Taking a job as an estate agent, even as a stop-gap, was not something I had ever imagined doing. I was convinced nothing good would come of it and my friends would all laugh at me and delete my name from their Filofaxes. After all, weren’t estate agents the most detested professional grouping in the country, along with traffic wardens and tax inspectors? Where had it all gone so wrong that I found myself having to do this ?
Let me put it in context. I had left St Andrews University a few months earlier with different career intentions. I had been living the life of Reilly, savouring a sabbatical year as President of the Students’ Association, chairing the Student Council, sitting on the University Court, mixing it with celebrities like Frank Muir, John Cleese and Tim Brooke-Taylor, playing in a rock band, acting in and directing plays, and of course playing golf.
When I returned home to South Buckinghamshire at the end of my year in June I had dreams of going into theatre or television or radio, I had done interviews at the BBC, and applied to Drama and Film Schools. However nothing concrete came of all this and after a few months of relative inactivity and a return to a student-like existence where much of the day was spent under the duvet, my mother decided to take control. She knew a friend of a friend, who was Senior Partner in a country estate agency close by, and who apparently would be open to taking me in as a trainee surveyor. My mother dismissed my protests that she was plotting to ruin my life by claiming it would only be a short-term thing. I would get a lot of experience and a bit of money and I could leave when I wanted. So reluctantly I agreed.
Despite my initial reservations I quickly got used to this new life. There followed three good years and no regrets, a first-class introduction to the world of work and the start of an understanding and even an appreciation of the diversity and scale of the real estate world. The firm was Hamnett Raffety, based in High Wycombe and my boss was George Kendall. George, or GLK as he liked to be called, was a true gentleman. Well-spoken, well-connected as a former Sheriff of Buckinghamshire, confident, charming and persuasive, he was also friendly and generous to me immediately. I was certainly lucky to have him as a first boss, although he had a hot temper it was wise to avoid stirring.
GLK became my mentor, teaching me the basics not just of surveying but of business in general, of running the firm, of negotiating. He ran the Country Houses and Farms Department from High Wycombe, where there were also residential, planning, commercial, management and valuation departments. He oversaw ten further branch offices. I was one of two personal assistants working on all and any country house or farms matters. The other one was Graham, whose main claim to fame was that he had graduated with a third class degree from Oxford. We were regarded as the strange ones in the office as we didn’t really have a department, we were just the odd job men, working secretly for the boss on all sorts of different tasks. We mixed it with other branches too, whenever the work was relevant to our supposed knowledge and skill set. Mind you if our work was hard to define then so was everybody else’s as far as I was concerned. Apart from the basic residential work, which seemed to be more about selling than anything else, most other functions, like management or planning services, were a complete dark space to me. I didn’t have a clue either about what the guys in the commercial department got up to, or how dealing in offices or shops might be different to matters of the countryside. That part of my real estate education would come later.