Dexters’ Chairman, Jeff Doble has endured a roller-coaster Covid. At the beginning of the pandemic the company he founded in 1993 was heavily criticised after staff complained that they felt pressurised to work in branches even though the pandemic was spreading rapidly at the time. This might be small beer if Dexters was an estate agency minnow. Instead, the company has an army of 1,500 staff working in 70 branches across London.
It was unsurprising, therefore, that the staff’s claims created a stir, although Doble subsequently said the sudden nature of Boris Johnson’s 16th March Covid shutdown announcement caught his company off-guard and that its systems and operations were “not ready”. Since then, the company has been on the front foot and earlier this year it announced a plan to recruit some 100 apprentices.
But the biggest news came last month, when Dexters revealed that it had entered into a co-investment arrangement with City firm Oakley Capital to help fund its branch expansion plans, with an initial £13 million and a rumoured £100m+ later on.
This extra cash will see a further 30 branches and 400 jobs created at a rate of 10 new branches every year which eventually will make it the largest estate agency by branch numbers in London, eclipsing better-known names such as Savills, Foxtons, Knight Frank and KFH. Dexters’ rapid growth is, most agree, down to the fissile energy of its founder Jeff Doble, along with its CEO Andy Shepherd.
Doble remains upbeat about his firm’s performance during Covid and says Dexters has ‘cracked it’ over the past nine months, using the same system of branch ‘bubbles’ that many firms in the sector have employed. “There have been only occasional physical meetings between senior directors where we socially distance, and I haven’t been into any of our offices all year, which is sad really because I’m an estate agent and I like to get in there and feel the buzz,” he says.
“We spent a lot of time last April with RICS and Propertymark and through them the Housing Minister, to agree the guidelines that the Government eventually came up with. “I think we are incredibly lucky as a company to have been able to keep trading during the pandemic, and for our employees to continue earning.
“But it was very difficult during lockdown when we shut simply because so much of what we do is physical. Even a simple thing like a lettings move-in needs a lot of work at the property. So for those two months of lockdown we couldn’t work from home because it’s a team game. Even though the tech was up and running and we got everyone online and the phones worked, it did take 48 hours after Boris’s announcement to get it sorted.”
JEFF DOBLE’S TIMELINE
College of Estate Management, Reading
1982: First agency job, Bancroft Groves, Berks
1993: Launched Dexters
2001: Andy Shepherd joins Dexters
2001: 20 Acquisition and growth to 70 branches
2021: Co-investment from Oakley Capital
The critical headlines are likely to have hurt Doble. The 61-year-old built Dexters from scratch and is proud of the company’s internal culture. He attended the College of Estate Management in Reading which, he admits, was jam-packed with public school boys, a shock for a young man from a Midlands comprehensive.
After finishing his degree in estate management he attended an interview for a job at Cluttons during which he was asked which school he attended which, he said, wasn’t a good sign. Doble didn’t get the job and instead worked at Ken Livingston’s GLA for nearly a year while he finished his professional exams before being persuaded to join estate agency Bancroft Groves which at the time (1982) was a new agency being set up in Berkshire.
“That job went well and then it was sold to General Accident for whom I worked for another four years running 60 of their branches in London while Andy Shepherd, who is now my CEO, did a similar job for what is now LSL,” he says.
Doble then established his own company and grew it slowly and, when it had four branches, persuaded Shepherd to join in 2001. “I gave him a slip of paper that said we’d have a £75 million turnover company by 2021 and that turned out to be true.
“We had the ingredients to make it true including a plan, the necessary experience gleaned from running big corporates and therefore we were less likely to make the mistakes they made. We’ve grown fast but we’ve done it organically so the foundations that we’ve built have been pretty epic really.”
The antidote to Foxtons
One comparison that irks Doble is to suggest his company is the next Foxtons, which Dexters’ upmarket branding and hard-working staff can be compared to.
“We are the antidote to Foxtons because we are so dissimilar – it’s a completely different business model and we are not super aggressive like they are.
“Foxtons redefined the industry within central London but that was 30 years ago and since then they’ve moved out into the suburbs and have struggled because that’s about ‘proper agency’ rather than sitting on their brand in central London and waiting for people to come to them.”
And while Foxtons took the cold-start route, opening branches both expensively and slowly, Doble has achieved a branch network of 70 almost exclusively via acquisition. “Dexters has bought over 60 different companies, and we’ve ensured we keep their talent. For example, all the directors of Chard, which we bought in 2009, are all still with us.”
Doble makes the somewhat surprising admission that he is not the world’s greatest estate agent, instead saying that he’s good at assembling talented people around him, and establishing a strong internal culture. “I wanted to both do estate agency differently and change the perception of how people think about our industry, and that’s why I wanted the whole business to be affiliated to RICs, and for it to feel cool to be an agent. To achieve that you need a good culture, some standards, a method and some brilliant people.”
There are several aspects to Dexters that will raise eyebrows in more traditional boardrooms, not least the fact that it lacks a head office. Instead, it has a ‘help and advice’ team who plug into each business within Dexters and who look out for them.
“I don’t believe you need a big HQ because that then becomes a ‘command and control’ centre, whereas I want the command and control to be local in each business,” he says.
“We have a big warehouse in West London where a lot of the lettings and client accounting takes place but it’s not an HQ. Our job is to get in there and help people to grow their business and move forward, and we’ve managed to scale that way of operating a business despite industry scepticism. I think if you were trying to go into Countrywide now and turn that around it could take you ten years because it’s such a mish-mash of cultures.”
At one point Doble’s operation probably looked like a ‘mish mash’. Until 2016 it had 20 different brands which, with a couple of exceptions such as Burlington Estate and Waterview, were then all brought under the Dexters umbrella.
“We do have duplicate brands in some areas because we’ve ended up with them or opened secondary agencies – like Jacksons in South London which we bought from the administrators and which was a nice business but in a bit of pickle,” he says. “We’ve kept it pretty much the same really – all the same bosses and set up – but we make money out of it. I think estate agency is strange because the difference between doing really well and really badly isn’t that big – the devil is always in the detail.”
Prime Central London
Doble is proudest of his company’s headway in Prime Central London, which is arguably the toughest housing market in the world. “It is very brand driven up there – we’re doing well in Mayfair – we are winning and it’s just about building reputation,” he says. “In PCL four years ago we didn’t exist at all so to have 12 prime central offices now is an achievement, along with 30 within Zone One.”
Estate agency is strange because the difference between doing really well and really badly isn’t that big – the devil is always in the detail.
He says this was a huge risk that has paid off – namely changing the brands of high-profile agencies like Chard and Brian Lack to Dexters which he says was a ‘leap into the unknown’ and could have gone either way. “On the whole it’s gone pretty well and the Dexters brand has stood the test,” he says.
One impediment to growth that bothers Doble is the High Street, whose troubles he blames squarely on landlords and the games they play to maximise their revenues, particularly in central London. In particular he calls out the Grosvenor Estate, which he says many years ago decided to ratchet up rents in places like Mayfair until they were eyewatering, making turning a profit difficult for agents.
“I think after Covid rents overall are going to soften and that will take a bit of pressure of us and allow Dexters to get into tight high streets where it’s been difficult to get a presence or get the right shop in the past,” he says. “It took us eight years to get into Wimbledon – planning was an obstacle there as it is everywhere, and councils have been difficult and don’t like agents for some reason.
“The recent relaxation of the planning rules and particularly usage changes, despite councils’ attempts to confound them, are a boon – and for example we recently got into the old Carphone Warehouse shop on Northcote Road in Clapham, something no agent had been able to achieve until then.
“It’s also about getting the right spot – we are in one town where our rent is £37k a year and Foxtons are still paying £220k just around the corner and if you passed the two shops you wouldn’t notice the location difference. I’m known for being a bit mean because I want to spend it on my staff not branch leases.”
As our conversation winds down, there is clearly one story that still puts a glint in Doble’s eye. Many years after his first interview at Cluttons, he returned to persuade them that they should sell their wobbly sales operation to him as he was looking for a brand to acquire that he could use to bring all his agencies under one roof without having to build his own.
The fact that the former comprehensive boy, who they rejected three decades ago, was now at the same boardroom table negotiating to buy half their business, clearly tickles him pink.