Estate agents are under enormous pressure. Rising business rates and ever-increasing rents, the looming fees ban, a choppy sales market and competition from hybrid agents are all hindering revenue growth.
In response, some agents are considering moving to a ‘hub’ model and centralise activities in an off-high-street office.
Orchards of London
One of the leaders in this movement is Orchards of London, which closed its four branches in West London and relocated to an open-plan hub near Hangar Lane.
Orchards was founded ten years ago and is now part of a wider empire, Hogarth Property Group which includes a design and build arm, another that buys agencies and lettings portfolios plus a financial services operation called Paul Alexander.
Orchards’ new hub is at the top of the Westworld office block in London, where the future of estate agency is there to see.
30-plus managers, directors, negotiators and admin staff all have desks in an open plan office dominated by technology; a bank of screens blinks in one corner recording telephone call levels, revenue progress and the efforts of its sales, lettings and property management team – and where all its field staff are to be found, displayed on a map.
At another end of the office is an open-plan boardroom where its three key directors sit – Group CEO Paul Connolly, Group Managing Director Liam Doherty and Group CFO, David Diggins.
“With High Street footfall dropping year-on- year we were asking if it was necessary to have multiple offices. We planned ahead, ensuring we had break clauses in our leases and could be fleet-footed when the time was right,” says Connolly. “Four years ago Liam asked me if I’d do anything differently if I was starting from scratch. I said yes, I’d reduce the number of offices and centralise, covering a larger territory without multiple high street premises.
“We had 10 weeks to pull this off after we made the decision in October 2018.”
The senior team created a roadmap of things to do – 260 items. The task of finding a new office fell to Connolly. “We needed it to be in West London, but from which our staff could get to viewings and appraisals in a reasonably short space of time,” he says.
The new office is on the top floor, from which, on a clear day, all its territories are visible, including Ealing, Acton, Chiswick, Shepherd’s Bush, Alperton, Greenford and Perivale.
“It was a good opportunity for us to review everything we did and improve the customer experience,” says Diggins. “One of the advantages for customers is not having to hunt around for high street parking spaces and pay £4 to visit us. We have free visitor parking and break-out areas and private meeting rooms downstairs.”
Some things haven’t changed, including where the agency’s leads come from, and the directors stress that the estate agency is ‘not online, not hybrid’ and that they are still a traditional agency but without a high street presence.
“We made a point of speaking to our clients to tell them what was going on – consequently we didn’t lose any instructions,” says Diggins. “We’ve had a really positive response to the move so far.”
“This is not a cost-saving exercise,” says Connolly. “Of course, we won’t be spending as much on premises and equipment, but that money is being reinvested and we’re spending it on hiring more digital marketing staff and tech, so I’d say our spend has remained the same.”
Orchards wants to use technology to scale the business, which “with our old model was not possible to do quickly, particularly in the current economic environment”, says Connolly.
“This is a game changer for us. We’re already up on last January in a difficult market. We have plans to expand and establish more hubs.”