The story of this week - the ousting of Countrywide chief executive Alison Platt - prompts two key questions.
Firstly, who takes over? Secondly, what must they do to salvage the company?
Platt’s departure has prompted more fierce criticism of her management style, right down to her £675,000 pay-off, but that is in the past: what of the future?
With a share price languishing at 100p, a demoralised staff depleted by resignations and branch closures, and challenges from other traditional and hybrid agencies, the person who takes over Countrywide’s leadership will be starting from an unenviable position.
Who should it be? What would they do on day one in the office?
Estate Agent Today’s resident panel of experts give their considered and authoritative opinions on what may well be the running story of 2018 - what becomes of Countrywide?
Our thanks go to our contributors, and thanks to you, too, for reading - and please feel free to add your views.
Iain McKenzie, chief executive of The Guild of Property Professionals:
“Countrywide PLC has to add strength and depth to the senior management team, delivering the new CEO’s direction and vision, quickly.”
“When I joined Countrywide as managing director for the Solent Region in November 2011, the quality of the 11 other directors was exceptional. Grenville Turner set the vision, Bob Scarff set the targets and tempo and the managing directors brought it to life. There was a team of excellent agents including Vince Corley, Lee Wainwright, Ben Taylor, Keith Knight, Jonathan Simpson and more, all with years of experience in a sector they understood.”
“It is therefore crucial that Countrywide recruits some sales and lettings senior management experience back into the business. It isn’t retail - agency is a service industry. Technology should and will enhance this, not replace it.”
“What’s more, the divisional managing directors should be given the mandate and tools to succeed. Allow them to pick the regional managing directors. The quality of the people who have left in the past five years is truly shocking.”
“The business needs rebuilding and therefore any successor needs to have the ability to reassure the investors that they have the knowhow and expertise to deliver improvement in the long-term. Or they need the experience and guile to remove Countrywide from the public listing and transfer it into private equity ownership, where appropriate investment can be made.”
Jeremy Leaf, north London estate agent and a former RICS residential chairman:
“I’ve met Alison Platt a few times and heard her speak at conferences. I’ve always been impressed with her clear thinking and understanding of market issues. However, the Countrywide numbers speak for themselves.”
“I believe that the house buying and selling public identify more closely with local brands rather than conglomerates. Estate agency to me is particularly about the strength of individual firms and how those employed by them earn the trust of their public and make a real difference.”
“However, many of those well-respected brands, which enjoyed excellent local reputations, seem to have been swallowed up by the Countrywide group."
"They could be sold off, that might be the way forward, to regain that identity.”
“Someone at the helm with more knowledge and experience of corporate estate agency may please not just the City but the market – and eventually generate better results.”
Mal McCallion, startup expert and high growth business specialist at Growtion:
“Having worked with Bob Scarff on Callwell, I can testify to his drive to make the industry a much more reputable place. Would he go back to Countrywide? Dedicated football people – of which he is one – know that returning to manage your old club, the one where you had so much success, is never the same.”
“The next person to take the helm will have a thankless rebuilding job to do in a difficult division – and their tenure is likely to end without gratitude from even previously fervent fans. I’d expect them to try and secure Bob as a non-exec though – and so they should.
“Whoever’s there, I think bits of Countrywide will finish up being takeover targets for enterprising players in the market. It’s difficult to get past perennially-acquisitive Zoopla as a future owner of at least some of the assets.”
“That said, if Purplebricks can convince investors to stump up even more cash then we might see our own industry’s version of Amazon’s Whole Foods takeover. Premium-branded high street ‘shops’ for Purplebricks’ separately-branded LPE’s to pitch their product from? Alison Platt’s retail legacy could be secure after all…”
Ian Wilson, chief executive officer of The Property Franchise Group:
“Does the board select reverse gear and repopulate the business with experienced industry insiders, or continue with the reinvention as a retail business?”
“I believe the new chief executive will come from another industry which has followed a consolidation for growth strategy, sell off the non-core profitable parts, take a hit on the goodwill in the brands, and come out the other side with just one brand ‘Countrywide’, which is open 24/7.”
Anthony Codling, equity analyst at Jefferies International:
“With hindsight, Countrywide tried to modernise too quickly and in its desire to stay relevant in a fast-changing market, probably took the business backwards not forward. The intention of change was to create value and we should not be overly critical of management teams trying new ways of creating value in an industry facing such high levels of disruption to the traditional model.”
“I think that Countrywide needs to rebuild its team with a more even balance between fresh ideas and industry experience. The group has a broad infrastructure, a market leading position and the potential to deliver much more.”
“Estate agency was, is, and will remain a people business. When dealing with the largest financial transactions of their lives, I believe that the overwhelming majority of homebuyers and sellers will continue to prefer to deal with a person rather than an algorithm.”
“The real value of any agency business, in my view, is found at the branch level rather than inside the headquarters. The focus of those based in the HQ is to enable, empower and assist each branch to reach its full potential.”
Eddie Holmes, founder and chairman of the UK PropTech Association:
“Countrywide now faces a dilemma. Has the change programme that has already been undertaken, which included sweeping changes at senior management and a laudable but ultimately flawed digital strategy, killed appetite for further change?”
“The property industry is beginning to accept that it is going through a digital transformation process where bold attitudes to change are required if businesses are to succeed in identifying and capitalising on new profit pools.”
“That means more new skill sets and a deeper commitment to technology. Will Countrywide turn to a safe pair of old-fashioned estate agency hands to lead it through that process or will digital expertise be given the task? It won’t be an easy choice.”
Iain White, industry consultant and mentor at Agency Mentors:
“Whoever takes on the role at Countrywide needs to understand the estate agency sector inside-out on all levels. Most importantly, they must understand the people whose job it is to win customers for the business.
“They will need to quickly re-ignite the desire of the salesforce to believe in themselves and to re-engage them quickly to the task of re-gaining lost market share.”
“Juggling shareholders with the troops will be tricky, but something that Alison Platt’s successor will need to be capable of doing. The infrastructure needs a complete re-think as does the operational structure - both are crippling the organisation.”
“The newcomer will have to be thick-skinned, ruthless and mentally tough enough to see through cultural and strategic with laser sharp implementation at break neck speed. It’s a massive challenge and whoever gets the gig will have their hands full.”