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Doing the Right Thing

publication date: Nov 14, 2010
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Ivor DickinsonIvor Dickinson is MD of Douglas and Gordon, one of London’s top independent agencies, covering large tranches of London, with 15 branches and 200 staff. Seated in his elegant Warwick Square office, this former Coldstream Guard, record shop owner and interior designer, Ivor doesn’t strike you as a victim, but he insists that he is.

“I’ve always done the Right Thing,” he says, “And sometimes I wish I wasn’t so obsessed with it.” He sounds injured and says he is frustrated, because, in following the D & G mission statement – “To be the most trusted and successful estate agency in London...” – he has sometimes lost out to those who don’t have such high standards or scruples. Any scruples at all, come to that.

Why, I asked, is it the holy grail for estate agents to believe that they are trusted? Why do you even need that as a mission statement, surely people will trust agents if they provide a good service? “Yes but so many simply do not provide a good service and it is fair that estate agents generally are not trusted. And with good reason!”

“We comply with all the legislation, we are members of everything a professional agent should be; RICS, NAEA, ARLA, ARMA, TPO. We are OFT registered and have achieved Investors in People. We insist that every single member of staff is qualified (NFoPP technical award, more on that later). But other agencies comply with nothing, belong to nothing, undercut fees and overprice properties to get the instruction. We have had people pulling down our boards and burning them for years… and worse, but still I feel that I have to do the Right Thing.”

Business models and mantras

For good or bad, doing the Right Thing has been Ivor’s mantra since he started as a negotiator in D & G’s Balham branch in 1989, subsisting on £7000 a year, driving clients around in “an embarrassingly clapped out Lancia with mould on the back seat.”

20 years on, the Lancia has gone, Ivor has made it to MD and D & G now has 14 offices (with another opening in January); all staffed by “the very finest people, we look after them – we are a family!”

Ivor knows every member of staff, he knows when their birthdays are, who is getting married, when they have babies, when they have problems and need help, when they want to progress through the ranks. He sees every member of staff for a one hour personal ‘chat’ twice a year; that’s 400 hours, or ten working weeks each year, an unusual commitment to pastoral care.

“We take our staff responsibilities very seriously. Even in these days of graduates unable to get jobs, estate agencies closing and shedding staff, it is incredibly difficult to find the right staff; although we are very, very fussy!”

entranceThe fussiness is well founded, it is expensive to take on staff and find they aren’t right for the task, but that doesn’t often happen, due to another little obsession, the use of psychometric testing. After 5000 tests Ivor seems to have the process set in stone. “The graphs that we get from the testing show precisely which roles the applicant is suited to.”

If the test doesn’t show the right aptitude, the person doesn’t get the job.

“But is it always right? Does it give the whole picture?” I ask. Presumably, he will never know if the rejected candidate could have done a good job, but what of those who ‘get in’, don’t some of them leave? “Nobody leaves, we are a family! Seriously, though, our retention is very good, aside from the occasional change in circumstance and career choices, nobody leaves to go to another agency, because we try hard to look after them and give them the opportunities they need.”

Looking after the staff includes regular jollies, an annual conference and a massive Christmas bash Looking after the staff also leads to another dilemma – how much growth can a company take without losing the family feeling? “It’s an issue,” says Ivor, “If it got to the size when I didn’t know everyone I don’t think I’d want to do it.”

This is clearly a very ‘personal’ agency. The people matter very much, the company image is also a very high priority. The website is clean, modern, user friendly, their offices are smart, uncluttered and welcoming and their bi-annual magazine is glossy and fun, but informative too.

It’s Ivor’s baby. “The magazine has a print run of 125,000, most of which are door dropped to every property that could conceivably, come onto our books. It doesn’t bring hundreds of instant instructions but I view it as a major element of our awareness strategy and an important differentiator of our brand. I like publishing it, I enjoy the creative element and I like the fact that our managers are also involved in it. It is expensive, around £130,000 per issue, but it works alongside our presence on all the major portals and our business model of lots of smaller branches in key locations.”

The bottom line

Size matters and so does money, of course. London has fared better than many other cities during the last two years, but despite the brave face, many agencies’ sales volumes plummeted, taking pretty profits and turning them into unattractive losses. D&G didn’t escape, but this year will be better, says Ivor, with great confidence.

His views on the market are inline with most London agents; the market is still fragile and the only buyers are those with healthy accounts at the Bank of Mum & Dad. “The average starting price in D&G Land, for a first time buyer (FTB) is £250,000. And they won’t get a mortgage for more than 60-70 per cent, so that means a deposit of £75,000. How many young people have that stashed away?”

Douglas & GordonThis clearly increases demand for rented homes, with the unhelpful effect of rising rents, in D&G land, of 20-25 per cent over the last year. Even D&G’s tiny Pimlico office did 30 new lets in September, a huge increase on the normal demand.

“Whether it’s sales or lettings”, says Ivor, “There is a major problem in London’s housing, and the blame largely lies with the planning authorities. For the last five/ten years they have given permissions for all the wrong type of housing. People used to live in three bed terraces or semis, with gardens and space around them. These buildings worked as real homes, they liked living in them. Now, we have row after row of blocks of tiny flats that no-one wants. They have no infrastructure, shops, pubs or schools. They’re not what people want!”

The banks also come in for a bashing; “They should have been penalised for the mistakes they made. They are making massive profits again but still, they are not lending. And even though we, the public, own them, we have no say in what they do.”

The future

The market is set to be busy, but tricky, over the next couple of years, with a double balancing act between supply and demand and affordability and finance. How do D&G plan to hold their market share and “be the most trusted and successful agent in London”? “There will be even more competition”, says Ivor, “London prices mean that property is still a very profitable game and many agents will go to any lengths to get the business. Sellers are attracted by smart agents offering high valuations and they are duped by agents who claim to have ranks of international buyers waiting to buy, even though their property won’t sell to those buyers.”

“Is that why you promote your professionalism and membership of the various bodies; to attract sellers and landlords?” I ask.

“No! It really doesn’t make any difference at all. People are interested in the highest valuation and the fastest sale/let. They take no notice at all of the logos on the window. In fact, I sometimes question why we do ‘belong’. The professional bodies are antiquated, stuck in the stone age. They aren’t heard by the Government or CLG. They rumble along, doing nothing.”

What about the internal point of view, the benefits from training and recognition? “Yes, the professional bodies offer training, the RICS training is intensive and still highly regarded. And, while we train all our staff internally, last year we were told that to be members of the NAEA/ARLA our offices had to have at least one staff member with the Technical Award in each office. So I, always at pains to do the Right Thing, arranged for every member of staff to study and take the Technical Award. Considerable time taken out of the office, extremely significant financial cost, but worth it, to comply and go further. What happened? Most members of NFoPP took no notice of the demand for qualification, so the time limit has been extended for another year. To say I was furious is an understatement. I was absolutely furious!”

“Yes, I can understand that”, said I.
“In fact”, said Ivor, “I’m furious quite a lot of the time these days!”
It’s tough, doing the Right Thing.

Kill All Negative People!

Douglas & GordonDouglas & Gordon have for the past three years given over their Harrington Road office in South Kensington to up and coming artists because of its prominent location.

The two most recent installations have been a beautiful interpretation of the famous blue plaques in the surrounding area by Shaz Madani and most recently, a series of dinosaur themed windows by Jake Blanchard.

In the words of Monty Python “and now for something completely different!”, the entire premises have been painted in D&G blue from top to bottom and thousands of metallic circles have been stuck to the outside. On close examination, they don’t really make sense, apart from being rather intriguing. However, viewed from a distance, suddenly it all makes sense. The silver spell out the slightly inflammatory words “Kill All Negative People”!

Ivor Dickinson says, “At this year’s D&G Spring Conference, our guest speaker was Tim Smit OBE who masterminded the Eden Project. Tim’s talk was incredibly inspiring but there were four words which all of us at D&G really took to our hearts and that is when Tim said that his mantra at the Eden Project was “Kill All Negative People”. I so empathised with this statement because let’s face it, there is no room for negativity in this world that we live in, that I decided to adopt it at D&G. I went to watch the installation and was thrilled by the public’s reaction. As I envisaged, their immediate response is to try and work out what is going on with all the silver discs. They realise that perhaps it’s spelling out a phrase but can’t quite work out what it is. I watched people stepping back and eventually crossing the road and voila, all is revealed. This is normally followed by a snigger or cries of “right on” or “yeah”. Perfect – a message which seems to strike a chord and an intriguing piece of art to amuse the people of South Kensington”.

Sadly, this might be D&G’s last installation at Harrington Road as they plan to open a letting office there in the New Year.