Real estate, alternative real assets and other diversions

Reminiscences of an estate agent Alan Howick looks back on his five decades of experience

The Agent

Monopoly houses balanced on one pound coins

This November I clock up 50 years as an estate agent – and what have I learnt or gained from this experience?

Well, I have tried alternative business options over the last five decades but still ended up selling second hand houses for a living, and have I enjoyed it? On reflection, yes, made many good friends and some bad ones (!) plus experiencing human frailties by the bucket load.

It all started in 1967 when I worked for a local newspaper, the Harlow Citizen, in Essex. Monday to Friday job, cricket and/or football every Saturday and Sunday. A lovely job, then I popped into a recruitment agency to collect copy for their next advert, and I only asked, “What’s a negotiator then?”

Forty-eight hours later, I am attending an interview for a job I know nothing about or am even interested in. Whoever heard of estate agents anyway in the late 1960s?

The job interview was with Arbon & Upton, a major player in those days, with eight offices up and down the A10 and A11 on the Herts/Essex borders. I met up with Paul Arbon, also a founder of the National Association of Estate Agents. What a gentleman, no wonder his staff ‘loved him’. He was a perfect man. I immediately wanted to work for him, whatever the job was!

I didn’t get a ring or letter back for a couple of weeks so I thought, I’ll chase them up, left a message and as a result I was offered another interview in the Bishop’s Stortford branch with their manager, Stan Bennett.

Another lovely person. I was hooked and got the job as a trainee negotiator, still wasn’t sure what that meant but I had to pack up football and cricket on Saturdays, that was for sure. Then, to my shock and horror, they decided to open Sundays as well! Winter games out the window.

Stan had three young children, so for a packet of 25 Peter Stuyvesant I learnt all about babysitting. “It’s a career move,” I tried to convince my girlfriend!

I spent two very happy years with A&U until tragically, Mr Arbon died in a car crash somewhere in southern France and the agency was never the same again. At the time they had a great crop of young ‘lunatic’ negotiators such as Malcolm Scott, Mike Nicholas, Rodney Short, Bernie Almond, and the Norris brothers. All crazy. I was the kid in the firm so I stood back in amazement and watched how they all enjoyed life and ‘the firm’. Everyone, from the youngest to the seniors and oldest, was good friends.

So, time to move on and join the local whiz kids of the industry, an agency known as ‘Adrians’ in Bishop’s Stortford, two young twenty-somethings both called, yep, Adrian, who appealed to me with their flash E Type and TR4s – that is the agency for me! I enjoyed five years of learning how to use the ‘curve ball’. It was an education and well worth every moment of my stay.

At the time, my closest agency friend was Mike Miller who I first met at A&U and who later joined Adrians when they opened up in Chelmsford. We both got on well – big brother little brother syndrome (I was the little one!) – and eventually after talking about it ‘for ever’ we decided to do our own thing and opened up our own estate agency in Epping, Essex in August 1974.

Married only three years previously and with an 18 month old daughter, it was not the brightest idea to start up (also the economy was not in a very good state), but we jumped in with both feet and managed to float through the difficult times and build a solid agency adding the risk of expanding into Harlow which at the time was a ‘new town’ with very little private housing. But the Thatcher government changed all that with the introduction of the ‘right to buy’ for council tenants – changing Harlow, almost overnight, from the council rental capital of East Anglia to a potential buzzing housing market and thankfully we were there at the very beginning and still so, some 40 years later.

Mike and I had a good 10 years or so together but time was running out on on us both and we decided to go our separate ways. He wanted to be a builder, I didn’t want to get my hands dirty!

I was joined as a new business partner by Barbara Brooker who was working for me at the time. She bought herself into the company by buying a new Minolta photocopier.

So, reinvented again in the booming 80s then a certain banking institution knocked on our door just as the market was showing signs of a downturn. Although they thought otherwise!

I could not believe my ears with their confidence in the industry and the boom times to come, even after the Chancellor at the time announced tax relief (in the March statement – 1988, do you remember?) for unmarried couples to be abolished the following August so the market went even more potty for the next six months.

Figures were crazy, we were all over performing in a false marketplace but the bankers thought otherwise so we took the money and chucked the keys over the desk pretty quickly.

A bit of luck though: a mate of mine at the time, who had recently sold his agency to a car dealership (!!) slipped into the agreement for a ‘first refusal’ buyback, so I decided to do the same. “Why?” said the banker. “Well, you never know, do you?” was my instant reply. “But,” said the banker, “you have a new career for life with us!”

My modest business forecast of about a 15% drop in revenue turned out better than the banker’s modest and very optimistic 5% increase for the coming year. Coupled with their redistribution of staff ‘from round pegs to square holes’ principle meant we just about returned a 50% drop in revenue!

A telephone call came through from head office, “So-and-so from somewhere up high wants to see you urgently!”. Fine, nothing else to do, no cricket at Lords to sneak off to watch so might as well hang around for the big man to land in my office.

An interesting conversation developed – the big man wanted me to buy back the agency! “You’re bloody kidding,” was my reply. “You said I had a job for life! And besides, I love working for you guys!”

After some real hard arm twisting Barbara and I relented (in about five minutes) but I pointed out the business was worthless thanks to the bank’s dreadful management skills and hopeless business knowledge of our ‘cottage industry’ which their MD described as “a bunch of corner shop entrepreneurs that trade in a world I have no idea existed”! When I pointed this out I felt a sharp kick on my leg from the lady sitting next to me!

Anyway, 11 months, three weeks and 11 hours later we were ‘out of the door’. In fact it was our door once more and in less than twelve months! Freedom and fresh air, so to speak.

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