In six years of editing Estate Agent Today, some of my most dramatic moments have been covering the troubles - some would say the car crash - of the Countrywide empire.
No moment was more dramatic than precisely two years ago when Alison Platt was ousted from the role of chief executive on January 24 2018, less than 18 months after being bought in from private care firm BUPA to return an ailing estate agency to good health.
Little did people know that by the time she was shown the door, the company had moved into intensive care - and since then has been almost continuously on life-support.
Platt’s time in office, if people need reminding, was torrid.
Six months after her arrival, the managing director of estate agency and the group commercial director stood down at short notice. Something was clearly up at Countrywide and within weeks many other experienced hands departed - some pushed, others jumping.
In came many executives with little or no agency background to fill jobs with titles of little or no meaning. The ‘Managing Director, Retail’ for example joined from Dixons Carphone and led an ill-fated online experiment; meanwhile a marketing head was bought in from the BBC and a HR chief from BUPA. Agency experience? Who cares?
The seasoned agency hands that remained were given spectacular objectives; for example, a respected sales director was charged with “leading the transformational change agenda as part of the Building Our Future Programme.” Good luck with that.
A series of disastrous performance figures quickly followed: income and market share dropped, indicating a far worse picture for Countrywide than for most other agencies, even in challenging times characterised by Brexit uncertainty and London market stagnation.
Yet the most obvious statistical record of Platt’s failure at the post was Countrywide’s share price. Before her arrival it had hit a phenomenal high of 686.00p; a series of falls meant that by late 2016 the listing was dropped from the FTSE 250 and had fallen below 170.00p. As Platt walked out of Countrywide for the final time, it hovered around 100.00p.
But here’s the thing - and I imagine you’re ahead of me now: is Countrywide actually any better without Platt than it was with?
Let’s get the share price embarrassment out of the way first. Before a consolidation process just before New Year, which had the aim of disguising Countrywide’s performance, the share price was little more than 5p on some days.
In the league table of estate agency groups, compiled on the basis of the number of properties listed for sale, the Countrywide brands (as of mid-December 2019) were in second place, over 2,000 properties behind Connells: remember that in Platt’s time, Countrywide retained first place.
In 2016, Countrywide’s total revenue - including lettings and non-agency activity such as financial services - was £737m. This dropped, under Platt, to £672m a year later. By 2018, post-Platt, this was £627m.
In 2018, again post-Platt, there was also a spectacularly ham-fisted attempt to get through a Fat Cats bonus package that would have handed executive chairman Peter Long, managing director Paul Creffield and chief financial officer Himanshu Raja shares valued respectively at £6m, £8m and £7m - just as investors were being tapped up for £140m. A shareholder rebellion scuppered the bonus deal.
In the past two years there have been a series of issues and management negotiations to extend credit arrangements, restructure debt and, most recently, sell-off of commercial arm Lambert Smith Hampton - a disposal which the current Countrywide management pledged would not happen when they succeeded Platt.
The balance sheet is not entirely negative of course.
The fact that Countrywide survived the Platt trauma at all is arguably an achievement of sorts. That it has suffered only one shareholder rebellion while its management has seen long-term decline of the firm’s influence, market share and reputation is a surprise. And not selling Hamptons International or John D Wood (so far, at least) has defied many analysts.
But is survival what counts as achievement at Countrywide?
Perhaps one day it will all come good again: decline of the kind seen during the Platt period cannot be reversed overnight. But like governments that blame their predecessors for failings, there comes a time when current management has to take responsibility - espe-cially as many of the current top table were in positions of influence during the Platt era.
And as for Alison herself?
Little has been heard since her departure from estate agency but she picked up £674,450 from Countrywide - that was her normal remuneration of actual and in lieu salary, pension entitlement and car allowance.
She also remains a non-executive director at Tesco for which she received, in 2018-19, a more modest £82,500 - well, every little helps.
One hopes that she is in good health: Countrywide, however, still looks distinctly weak. Will 2020 see it come back to fitness…or receive the last rites?
*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting about all things property at @PropertyJourn.