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Interview: Gareth Samples, CEO, The Property Franchise Group

The Negotiator’s Nigel Lewis Zooms in on the new CEO of the UK’s largest multi-brand estate and lettings agency franchising group.

Nigel Lewis

Samples had only been in the top job The Property Franchise Group (TPFG) a few weeks following the retirement of his predecessor Ian Wilson when Covid struck and its brands such as Ewemove and Martin & Co were forced to shut down.

Now that the housing market is open once more and business is booming, we caught up with him to see how TPFG is performing, but also discover his views on the key issues facing the industry including RoPA, the spread of hybrid models, the portal duopoly and reservation agreements.

CURRICULUM VITAE

Gareth Samples
Age: 52 years old
Industry experience: 30 years

Samples joined LSL brand Your Move in 1992 in Derby as a young estate agent but by the time he left in April 2012 he was its Managing Director at a time when it was the largest estate agency in the UK.

While at the agency was responsible for its franchise operation as well as having overall control of financial services and lettings and the strategy of the brand.

Following his departure from Your Move he spent eight years helping industry multi-channel marketing platform BriefYourMarket.com develop, initially as its Managing Director and later as a consultant.

He also had interests in other digital businesses – an asset management firm, an electric goods company and a evictions platform – before joining TPFG five months ago following the retirement of former CEO Ian Wilson.

Is business booming in estate and letting agency?

“The numbers being produced are off the scale – June was busy but July and August have seen incredible volumes,” he says.

“I was expecting a 15 to 20 per cent surge after the market re-opened, but it’s been far higher than that and I think this mini boom will continue until March.

“But after March I think it could go quiet. We’ve been advising our agents to sell as many properties as they can and keep their pipelines full.

“If it does go quiet next year then at least they’ll have the money banked form these extraordinary times.”

Why is there a boom now, when there is so much uncertainty?

“Most of it’s being driven by 30-somethings or older parents who’ve been waiting since the EU Referendum to move home and who have been less affected by the Covid lockdown and furlough scheme,” he says.

“Once the housing market re-opened they wanted to move as fast as possible – many had been waiting three, four or more years for the opportunity.

“Add the stamp duty holiday, low interest rates and wide mortgage product availability and that’s why you’ve got a mini boom now.”

Will the Stamp Duty holiday be extended?

“I can see that happening – the government has said time and again that the housing sector is an important part of the economy so I can see the holiday being extended, or stamp duty reformed into a property tax instead of a transactional one.”

Has Covid changed the industry forever?

“It’s too early to say – everyone got excited about virtual viewings during lockdown but then the market bounced back so strongly that a lot of that utilisation of those techniques has disappeared as many agents have fallen back on their traditional behaviours to get homes sold and rented.”

Has the portal duopoly been weakened by Covid?

“OnTheMarket tried hard but made some critical mistakes, lost goodwill among agents and never really recovered from that – and the less said about the Chas and Dave TV advert the better,” he says.

“There are new kids on the block and Homesearch has done an incredible job and made some headway.

“But the biggest challenger to Rightmove and Zoopla is going to be the Bruce brothers’ Boomin. It has the resources and funds to mount a major challenge and really break in.

“You need serious funds to take on Rightmove and Zoopla because although it’s about the agents to a degree, really it’s about the brand awareness and where the public goes to search for homes.

“If the consumer is not persuaded to search elsewhere, then it’s going to be difficult to establish a successful third portal, however much agents want it.

“If they genuinely want change and are brave enough to say no to the big two, then they might get the cheap fees they want i.e. £3/400 a month instead of £1000.

“Many agents will remember the print days when a similar process took place as agents railed against expensive newspaper advertising rates and tried to rally around print alternatives.

“But except for Tony Bishop in Nottingham’s efforts, agents couldn’t be persuaded to back the alternatives in big enough numbers.

“If Boomin can’t crack it then I don’t think you’ll see any more attempts to try and break up the portal duopoly.”

Will RoPA change the industry?

“I think it’s likely to get watered down. The whole of the industry is for qualifications and a degree of regulation but it’s also fair to say that there are bad apples in every industry and I don’t believe we’ve got any more than any other sector so using a sledgehammer to crack a nut always worries me.

If you read the structure of the regulation RoPA wants to establish – I think it could get out of control.

“Qualifications have to be cost effective and reasonable – like the FCA regulation of mortgage consultants with CeMAP – which was fair.

“If you read the structure of the regulation RoPA wants to establish – I think it could get out of control.

“RoPA has such a wide remit covering so many parts of the industry, all being introduced at once. It will be expensive for agents and won’t stop the bad apples.”

What about industry bodies – Propertymark and RICS?

“It’s interesting that RoPA are not really involving the existing trade bodies, which could be read as saying they are not fit for purpose, ‘so we need a new organisation’.

“I hope there’s a lot more discussion about this before it becomes law.

“Take the existing HMO regulations – which are a sledgehammer to crack a nut; we don’t want that approach being copied for the whole property industry.”

Are Reservation Agreements worth embracing?

“Back in the 1980s we used to have £250 reservation agreements which in those days was quite a lot of money when you were buying a £20-30,000 house,” he says.

“Like then and now most of the time these deposits were designed to be refundable, so they don’t promote commitment.

“If you lose your job or your circumstances change then you can still get out of the deal and get your cash back.

“So that leaves tyre kickers – but how many of those are there?

“At £500 I don’t think reservation agreements will make much difference to anything – it’s not enough to make people extra committed.”

Does the industry have the ear of Government?

“Not if you look at the merry go round of ministers – which shows there is disconnect in government between its desire to get more homes built, and putting someone in charge who understand the industry and market,” he says.

“I don’t understand why Kevin Hollinrake [Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton] hasn’t been made housing minister, given his experience and background both in agency and politics. He would be perfect!”

Will Covid see branches closing en masse?

“The industry normally has 22,500 branches but I can see that reducing by 10% over the next 12 to 18 months if there is a significant recession that affects the housing market once this mini-boom is over,” he says.

“Out of the top three, LSL has already done its branch network pruning, Countrywide is clearly facing a clear-out if Robin Paterson’s recent open letter to its management is anything to go by, but Connells will carry on as normal.

“The only one of the big groups to really embrace fewer physical branches and set up a hybrid home-working model is Haart, although they are a bit late to the party.

“We are already there with Ewemove and I am immensely proud that it now has 250 people on the ground – it has been an enormous achievement to get to that.

“The next few months are going to very interesting from almost all industry perspectives.”

THE PROPERTY FRANCHISE GROUP

Link to Gareth Samples' interviewThe Group’s origin is Martin & Co, a business started as an estate agency in Yeovil by Richard & Kathy Martin in 1987. The Martins then added a lettings service and in 1995 began to franchise their business model. They recruited franchisees from a wide variety of backgrounds and provided intensive initial training and ongoing support. In 2003 the Martin’s recruited Ian Wilson as their first external Managing Director, and a new strategy was agreed to focus exclusively on lettings.

The period 2003 to 2009 saw the private rented sector grow rapidly, and the Martin & Co network grew from 60 offices to 180 offices. Revenues at a franchisee level tripled during this period, and supported the migration of the business into high street retail shop fronts. By 2012 the Martin & Co brand was the ‘most instructed’ single lettings brand in the UK, and claimed to be ‘The UK’s No.1 Letting Agent’.

In December 2013 the business listed on AIM, and in October 2014 it acquired the master franchise rights from Legal & General to four property brands of strong provenance; CJ Hole (established 1867), Parkers (established 1948), Ellis & Co (established 1850) and Whitegates (established 1978). Collectively ‘Xperience’.

In September 2016 The Group acquired EweMove Sales & Lettings Ltd, a new type of ‘online’ estate agency which is open 24/7 and does not need to operate from high street premises.

EweMove was a franchise model which launched in 2013 and had grown rapidly to 90 franchises, winning numerous awards for its franchise proposition, its marketing and website. Crucially, it is also UK No.1 estate agent and letting agent on Trustpilot.

September 25, 2020

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