Since the first Connells branch in Luton opened for business in 1936, how has the company evolved to become one of the largest and most successful estate agency groups in the UK?
Larry Connell, who opened his first branch in 1936, was an entrepreneur who recognised that the business he was in was as much about people as it was about property. I never met Larry Connell, he had sold the business in the early 1970s and I didn’t arrive at Connells until 1977. However, I am guessing a lot of the culture and ethos that I found at Connells when I first arrived was largely due to him and his partners.
Looking back, I can identify a clear marriage of entrepreneurship and innovation with attracting and keeping good people. It is this recipe that made Connells successful then, and has made Connells successful ever since.
So, there has always been this clear ethos and culture about developing the people within the business, giving those with potential the opportunities to advance and progress. There is, however, a very clear set of rules. Your ability to progress and advance is based upon performance; a very strong meritocratic culture has existed throughout Connells’ history.
As a result, we have some of the best people in the industry and good people stay here. Most of our management, local, middle and senior, have been with the company 10, 20, 30 years. You might think that my longevity within Connells is the exception, but nothing could be further from the truth, indeed it is very much the rule.
80 years of challenges – tell us about the most important
Innovation and a willingness to change has also been a key part of the Connells approach. Throughout our history we have demonstrated an ability to be the first to recognise opportunities and to pursue them. The list is endless, but there are lots of examples; we were the first into mortgages in the early 1970s; first into comprehensive training in the early 1970s; embracing technology from the early 1980s computerisation right through to the digital age, which has involved Rightmove, Zoopla, Hatched, Fixlo; in-house development of software solutions; hand held tablets for surveyors, the list goes on.
The acquisition of Hatched is a natural progression, certainly not a departure from traditional estate agency. We remain absolutely committed to our high street presence.
We started conveyancing over 15 years ago as just an idea, now it is a really big business and a fundamental part of our customer proposition. Through this constant innovation, we have evolved into the Connells Group – one of the UK’s largest and most successful property services groups. All of the above has to be set within the framework of never forgetting to provide excellent customer service that will distinguish us from our competitors, and to constantly remind ourselves that this is a commercial operation and that producing outstanding results is the lifeblood of the business and enables our future development.
The Connells business has learned to adapt to very different challenges. The cyclical nature of the housing market has created several booms and busts during our history and Connells has grown adept at making the most out of the ups and weathering the stormy downs. We remain very proud of the fact that we were the only major estate agency group in the UK to have made a profit in 2008, and our results since then show that we have been the smartest to respond and take advantage of a recovering market. I put this down to the level of experience and ‘know-how’ within the business and the continuity that our stable management team has provided.
From a fresh logo and office makeovers to contemporary boards and office fascias, why did Connells mark its 80th anniversary with a new look?
We were investing in a wider branch refurbishment programme and it just seemed a natural time to update our corporate identity which was in need of a little refreshing. We see our updated look more of an evolution of the Connells brand rather than a brand new look. We’ve retained our heritage colours and everything that is familiar and trusted with the brand but just made it a bit more contemporary. We now have more eye catching ‘For Sale’ and ‘To Let’ boards, our branches have greater stand out on the high street – putting us in good stead against our competitors – plus our colleagues and customers are enjoying more comfortable and inviting environments in which to do business. Behind our new image you can rest assured that we’re the same business, with the same people and focus as before.
Connells has embarked on an acquisition drive over the past 24 months; is this part of a strategy to increase market share and do you have a target number of high street branches?
Firstly, there is no target number of branches, but we are keen to grow and expand. We particularly like acquiring businesses where like-minded people can join Connells and together we can develop a business to become even more successful. I am particularly proud of the fact that where we have made acquisitions, the vast majority of the staff have stayed with the business and become strong members of the Connells team. But it isn’t just the acquisitions that are leading our growth.
We are opening new branches adjacent to areas where we are strong, we are growing our lettings footprint by opening lettings offices throughout our branch network and we are looking to build further on successful parts of our operation such as Land and New Homes, Mortgage Services and Conveyancing. There is no grand plan that says we have to have X number of branches by X year. It is simply about finding ways of growing the business in a sustainable way that will continue to deliver exceptional results and provide career opportunities for the talented people within our organisation.
We remain keen to make further acquisitions, whether this is residential estate agencies, lettings businesses or businesses that are related to the housing transaction. We want to acquire successful businesses with good people that have ambitions to do more, where we can add value and together create something that is better than it would have been with our input.
What new markets are you looking to extend your geographical reach?
There are no geographical limitations, especially where acquisitions are concerned. Again, we are interested in acquiring good quality businesses and to make them even more outstanding. We have a track record of being extremely successful with our acquisitions – bringing businesses into the Group, making them better, expanding them further and giving greater career and wealth opportunities to those who join us. As regards our existing offices, we’re keen to roll out further cold start openings that sit seamlessly alongside our current network of branches.
Is Connells’ decision to acquire the online player, Hatched, last year a sign that traditional high street firms are now taking onboard the threat of online firms?
The acquisition of Hatched was twofold – to further develop our presence in online only estate agency and to support the expansion of the Group into those geographical markets that our existing branch network do not currently cover. We don’t see online only firms as a particular threat and accept that they appeal to a different market and offer a different proposition so, through our acquisition of Hatched we are able to extend our market leading expertise to even more customers and innovate in this sector. Furthermore, we have always had an online presence, having co-founded Rightmove and been instrumental in the development of Zoopla. Hatched is therefore a natural progression for Connells and certainly not a departure from traditional estate agency. We remain absolutely committed to our high street presence, as is evidenced by our significant expansion plans.
What’s next for Connells?
The plan is to get better at what we do and to continue to expand the business. Whilst we are very proud of our heritage and our success, there is still so much more that we could be doing.
Whilst it is generally recognised that our results are pretty exceptional, I have to say that there are parts of our business that could and should be doing much better. There is lots of inward focus, as there always has been, to find ways to do things better, improve our customer service, and improve our results. But as mentioned earlier, we are keen to grow and expand the operation.
In 1936 we had one branch. When I joined in 1977, we had 20. When Connells floated on the Stock Market in 1984, we had about 100. By the mid-1990s this had grown to 135. Today we have 550 branches across our Connells Group network and employ almost 6,000 members of staff. But there is still a lot more we could be doing and our quest is to continue to apply what has been a very successful model and approach, in order to make it more successful over the next 80 years.