In 2018 London estate agent Martin Bikhit landed one of the bigger deals of that decade after his agency Kay & Co became the UK outpost of famed investor Warren Buffett’s huge US-based Berkshire Hathaway Home Services (BHSS) empire.
Its property division has some 1,500 offices in the US and beyond and 50,000 agents but it’s not like the other American brands such as Keller Williams which have entered the UK housing market recently; BHHS in the US and the UK is a traditional branch-based estate agency.
Bikhit is the son of Kay & Co founder and now chairman Samuel Bikhit, joining the family firm in 1997 in a sales role and in 2008 becoming its managing director.
Five years ago he led the drive to join the BHHS global network and, although he’s not met Warren Buffett, says the deal was signed off by him, as was the decision to add another London firm to the family, Marler & Marler, in 2021.
The Neg sat down with Bikhit to find out how being subsumed into such a huge global organisation has fared for a four-branch family estate agency.
How’s it been going?
“It’s been an interesting journey made more colourful by the wonders of Brexit which obviously had a big impact on our market, along with Covid of course.
“But despite these challenges we acquired Marler & Marler two years ago, and we’re getting a high number of extremely good quality referrals from the rest of the BHSS network particularly in Italy, Spain and Portugal.
It’s been painless being integrated into the organisation; it’s got a great business ethos behind it…
“The benefit of being part of this network is that people who perhaps wouldn’t have engaged with us when we were just Kay & Co are now keen to speak to us because the Berkshire Hathaway is such a globally recognised name.
“And it’s created some very interesting opportunities for us that you may be reading about in the coming months.
“It’s also good being part of a company like BHHS that, due to the business ethos of Warren Buffett, takes a more long-term approach to development – and coaches the firms within its global network to do better.
“And overall it’s been painless being integrated into the organisation; it’s got a great business ethos behind it and BHSS has a very relationship driven culture, which is unusual because many agents and brokers tend to have a very transactional mentality but within BHSS that’s not the case.”
What’s it like operating in such an unusual and rarefied market like Prime Central London?
“Yes our four offices mean we’re dealing with clients and properties in and around Hyde Park and north-east into Kings Cross but it’s quite varied – for example Knightsbridge is almost all international while Marylebone still has a very strong domestic market, but Kings Cross is very dominated by investors who bough off-plan in all the new developments around the station.
“But we’re not just focussing on the very expensive, multi-million pounds properties in these areas – we like to think we’re more approachable because we also deal with homes in the hundreds of thousands too.”
What do you think of the hybrid approach some other US property fi rms have introduced to the UK?
“We are very much a traditional British estate agency and we didn’t want to go down that self-employed broker route even though there is a place for it in the UK and some people are starting to do it well.
“We took the decision that we didn’t want to change our business model because the traditional approach was working well for us and the Berkshire Hathaway name has elevated us and given us a much louder voice in a very crowded market place.
“There are a lot of smoke and mirrors in this industry, so having a physical presence on the high street with a branch all backed by one of the largest property companies in the world gives comfort to buyers and vendors that in six months’ time we won’t be out of business.”
What does the future hold?
“We want to expand and have more offices but it will be a bit like a hotel chain such as the Mandarin Oriental – the best locations in the best cities in the world – and so for us that would be the best locations in London within the market that we serve so well – we don’t want to be everywhere.
“Also, I think we would look at applying that approach to other cities or areas of the UK in the future but we’re focussing on London. The UK is unusual because so much of our market is concentrated in the capital, rightly or wrongly.
“Conversely, if you look at Italy for example, it has multiple cities including Milan and Rome where international buyers would be interested in purchasing or renting properties.
JOINING THE LARGEST COMPANY IN THE WORLD
BHHS Kay & Co : Marler & Marler has a combined five branches in Knightsbridge, Bayswater, Marylebone, Sloane Street and Kings Cross and is part of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, the largest property company in the world by number of transactions.
BHHS is one of America’s fastest-growing real estate brokerage networks following its launch in September 2013.
Brand expansion is now underway in global markets which include in addition to London, network members operating in Canada, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Dubai.
BHHS is owned by HomeServices of America (HSoA) which is the United States largest residential real estate brokerage. HomeServices of America is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Energy, a consolidated subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Boss Martin Bikhit says his goal is to ultimately have ten branches in the capital, pointing out that Buffett would never associate with or invest in a company that was ‘standing still’.
“Warren Buffett is renowned for making the right calls on markets, and his approach has been to invest in good quality businesses and then leave them alone,” he adds.
The UK operation that Bikhit runs now has 40 employees. In 2018 Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices – Kay & Co won Bronze for Property Management Department of the Year in The Negotiator Awards.