Peter Rollings is one of the most respected and best-known figures in property, having helped to rapidly grow Foxtons (where he was Managing Director from 1997-2005) and then Marsh & Parsons, which he acquired in June 2005 and sold to LSL PLC for £53 million in November 2011.
He left M&P in March 2016 and is now a non-executive director at Viewber, an outsourced viewing service for the property industry founded by former estate agent Ed Mead in 2016.
Here, he talks to me about his early days as a fishmonger, how he helped to transform Foxtons into one of the UK’s best-known agency brands and why he decided to leave Marsh & Parsons…
You began your career working for a fishmonger at Chelsea Farmers Market – how did you go from that to a career in estate agency?
My job as a fishmonger was simply a means to an end. It came with a company motorbike and a room in a flat in Holland Park — the job was miserable but the perks were great!
However, it did lead to me getting a job in estate agency as I got to know many of the locals in Chelsea and one day, one of them suggested I apply for a job he’d seen in the Estates Gazette.
This was with Lane Fox in North Audley Street, in their country house department and that was my first job in estate agency. Three years as pretty much an office boy learning from some great people.
You started at Foxtons in 1985 as one of just 20 employees – can you describe what the company was like at that time?
It was off the scale manic and hyper aggressive. They had just launched the first-ever 0% commission offering in their Fulham office (their second) and we generated 385 instructions in the first three months. I had gone from working 9-to-5 five days a week to 9-to-9 seven days a week and within three months I had developed an ulcer. It was an incredibly steep learning curve but I loved it from the first moment I stepped into the business.
How did it go from a small firm with a small number of employees to one of the most recognisable agencies in the country?
Even in those early days when we were just two offices we regularly got people asking us if we were a nationwide. The branding was all-encompassing, the ‘For Sale’ boards were everywhere (lettings didn’t launch until 1989), we were the only agent to produce our own monthly colour magazine and we employed ‘hard core’ sales people. Sometimes they weren’t the nicest – however, they invariably got the job done.
This coupled with opening hours which were almost double what any other agent was offering meant that we were hard to ignore.
What do you think of Foxtons now?
I continue to admire the business hugely. It has always been a unique company and has always done things its own way. Arguably it has grown too quickly and is now struggling to catch up in what is undoubtedly an extremely tough market. However, the current strategy of increasing market share in the offices they already have open is the right one in my view.
How did the acquisition of Marsh & Parsons come about? And why, after more than 10 years in charge, did you decide to leave?
I met my business partner, Mark FitzGerald of Irish estate agents Sherry FitzGerald, whilst speaking about Foxtons at a conference in North Queensland, Australia. He was sitting in the audience and approached me after and we got chatting about what we could do together in London. I had long admired the Marsh & Parsons brand and I simply called David Marshal, who had owned the business for 40 years, and asked to meet with him. After many long months of negotiation we agreed on a price and closed the deal in early June 2005. I did the same in 2006 with Michael Winter who owned Vanstons — if you don’t ask....!
Leaving was an emotional decision. We had doubled the size of the business in four years and I was drained and not particularly enjoying the demands of running a company owned by a PLC. LSL had been supportive and as ‘laissez faire’ as a PLC can be, however it simply wasn’t fun anymore. Furthermore, I could see the writing on the wall for London property following the Chancellor’s meddling with SDLT.
What is your role at Viewber?
I’m a NED (Non-Executive Director) and shareholder, and Ed Mead and I talk at least a couple of times a week. The business is growing at a phenomenal rate and I’m pretty much there as a sounding board. We’ve been on a number of fascinating pitches together which has been both fun and rewarding and it’s exciting being involved in a growing business again.
How has estate agency changed since you started out in the 1980s?
It has of course changed hugely in many respects, however the basics never change that much. When I started the industry was generally extremely old-fashioned and sleepy...and then there was Foxtons which was universally loathed by every other agent — much like Purplebricks is today.
However, I’d suggest that much of what happens now in good businesses, came from Foxtons. Good agents will work hard for their clients, be persistent, use the telephone to speak with customers and make use of all types of new technology whilst not letting it rule their lives
What do you think about the increasing use of technology in the property industry today? Are you a fan of PropTech?
I’m a big fan but ONLY if it’s useful and adds value. When I stepped down from Marsh & Parsons I was asked to become involved in all sorts of PropTech ventures. Most were dreamt up by undeniably very smart people but they didn’t understand the business and their products were at best ‘nice to haves’ without a chance of ever making any money. Genuinely, the only one to strike a chord with me was Viewber.
What do you like to do in your spare time? We see from your Twitter page that you’re a fan of classic cars and various sports…
Having worked at that pace for so many years, I was terrified of having nothing to do and being bored. I haven’t been even once. I’ve started a collection of classic cars, mainly 60s, which I’ve become passionate about. I still play 5 a side football once a week and I travel a fair amount. I’m an angel investor in a variety of businesses which keeps my brain going and I’m involved with Peter Knight as a ‘Trusted Advisor’ in the Property Academy.
Brilliant insight, Peter. Thanks very much.
Until next time…
*Nat Daniels is the Chief Executive Officer of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.