Being asked to act as a judge for the Negotiator awards was an honour and something that I was extremely proud to do. Little did I know that I would also be a recipient! Of course I would say that the standard of judging was impeccable – and so it was, the way the Negotiator team arranged for the judges to work independently and impartially was impressive.
On the night I was asked to go on stage and help with presenting one award, thankfully it meant I stayed sober. The very last thing on my mind was me being handed one. Sitting at the end of the awards and hearing about this person suddenly started to resonate, they were a bit like me… in fact a lot like me… in fact. Oh I felt a little emotional. I was so taken aback, surprised, thrilled, it wasn’t what I had expected at all… but amazing to be thought of in this way. To be recognised by your fellow industry players means such a lot. I was, and still am flattered, slightly embarrassed (I don’t like a fuss) and truly proud and honoured. Thank you all so much. I have had a fabulous time and worked with such wonderful people, many of whom also deserve such an award.
Having thought I would find fame and fortune playing in a band – and didn’t – my father told me I had to get a job. He thought I should train as an electrical engineer and so I did for a while, but it was boring. I left and took the first job I could, in a tailoring shop in Croydon.
I played in a band and one night the lead told me of a job in an estate agency for ‘A Gentlemanly Youth’. This was the start of my lifetime career.
I was top salesman within weeks, it was easy making people look good in a decent suit, shirt and shoes. The wives and girlfriends always approved of their partners new look… and as we all know (ladies are the decision makers) agreed the deal while the other half was in the dressing room!
Promotion was quick but this wasn’t the future for me. I still played in the band and at a rehearsal the lead told me of a position in an estate agency for “A Gentlemanly Youth” to train as an estate agent and surveyor. I went for the interview on my day off and started a month later.
This was the start of my career. I had to do everything, from keeping the window up to date to collecting the rents two days a week. The Partnership was a very old professional firm that covered all aspects of property. I was based in West Wickham, Kent, we covered a large area into South London and out to the sticks.
I loved every minute of my seven years there.
The partnership broke down and it was time to move on. An interesting opportunity came up in another general practice partnership in Crystal Palace, South London. It was a larger, more diverse business and I was a property manager. The client base varied from the then Prime Minister to some questionable characters.
I have worked in the best of the industry, been given wonderful chances – and taken them. I have had enormous fun and seen huge change.
We managed properties at the bottom of the pile with no internal facilities and gas lighting (I’m not that old but the properties had never had anything spent on them!) to Kensington, 14 Farms, commercial buildings, including shops and offices, Block management, ground rents, even parts of Hever Castle! I was involved in all of it and loved every second.
This was it. I had qualified as a surveyor, been offered a partnership… the future looked rosy. Then one day the senior partner told us that the business had been sold to the Nationwide Building Society. It felt like a kick in the stomach. I wasn’t treated too well as a mere surveyor in property management when the real stars worked in sales.
After a few months of being pushed around but standing my ground someone realised that I had some knowledge.
The Nationwide had been buying agencies for the Sales opportunity, but had acquired many small PM/lettings departments which had now got into a fix!
I was young, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, good looking… and able to help. I visited many departments brought them together to form a well run profitable letting and management business with 3500 properties in South London. I was then asked to help on a national basis with similar problems.
It became the nucleus for the business everyone knows today as Countrywide Residential Lettings. I centralised client accounting into two centres and paid attention to service via property management. The other main ingredient was the change in housing legislation with the 1988 Housing Act and ASTs. The small lettings team formed and had access to a branch network and was able to mobilise a lettings “sales team” with area manager structure. In the early days turnover was a couple of £million but it grew to become bigger that any of the sales regions despite us working from shabby offices in the basement. The one thing I learnt was that lettings people are fighters, they are proud of what they do and deliver what’s expected.
Nationwide was sold to Countrywide, famously for a £1 in 1997. On the announcement I went home and told my wife that this was probably it. We asked Uncle Pete to look after the kids and went to see Forest Gump at the cinema for some light relief! It made me think that “life is (indeed) just a box of chocolates”. I was nervous of the future as Countrywide had a ferocious reputation, I wasn’t sure how a ‘Gentlemanly Youth’ would get on.
I was appointed as MD of CRL. It was tough, you had to stand your ground, fight for everything with the sales MDs, but if you did, the senior team were (and still are) highly supportive. The lettings business grew, the quality of people and drive was amazing. Our turnover reached £40m with good profits and we became a division of Countrywide not just a subsidiary.
In 2006 we worked with private equity to take the business off the stock market. This was successful at the second bite. The guys from the private equity were enchanted by the lettings and saw it as the way forward, it was given massive resource and expertise to grow into the giant it is now.
During my time, I have worked with the best of the industry, been given wonderful chances – and taken them. I have had enormous fun and seen huge change. I became quite passionate about the lettings industry. I was determined to help when the first pilot Tenancy Deposit Scheme came in, to bring about membership of the trade bodies for individuals, to ensure a career structure and adequate training exists. And now it is to be ready for regulation to ensure that clients and customers receive a professional and trustworthy service.
Two of the most complex things you will ever deal with are people and property, they come together in a very testing way in the rental market which is why the “back office staff” is so important in negotiating every day when dealing with landlords and tenants.
You can reach John Hards at