Hindsight is 20-20 vision, of course, and we can all see things we did ‘then’ that we would not do ‘now’. And it’s easy to criticise when you’re not directly involved.
For many people there’s a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment which determines life: one decision, taken in good faith at the time, which could have gone either way but which in retrospect sealed someone’s fate.
Although many may see Countrywide’s sad decline as the result of one poor decision - to get rid of person A or bring in person B, to adapt this strategy or to ignore that option - the sad reality is that there has been an extraordinary sequence of decisions which in retrospect can be seen as poorly-judged, at best.
To be wrong once is unfortunate, twice careless, but to be wrong time after time (and then, in some cases, keep in place the people making the wrong decisions) seems remarkable.
As amazing, perhaps, is that it’s taken shareholders so long to wake up to the situation. After years of decline, only in recent weeks have we seen two of Countrywide’s major shareholders attack senior management’s approach.
How characteristic, of course, that the management would then implicitly criticise those same shareholders by telling the press that dialogue between company and investors was “regular and constructive” - just as one of the investors accused the company of having failed to engage in debate about strategy.
Like football pundits looking back over a season, we may all have our pet examples of what went wrong at Countrywide. Here are my 10 since 2015 - sadly, I could easily have had 20 or 30.
1. 2015-2017 - The Drive to Retail
There seemed something exciting about a new concept in estate agency and - who knows? - bringing in senior figures from Bupa and Dixons Carphone may have paid off had it not led to the wholesale departure of centuries of estate agency expertise as seasoned figures were shown the door.
2. 2015 - Hubris Through Acquisition and Ambition
In the first half of that year Countrywide bought 17 businesses, costing over £41m - several more were bought in the months following. At the same time, its Building Our Future strategy (remember that?) aimed to see the company double in size by 2020, through yet more acquisitions.
3. 2014-2016 - Off-loading Zoopla Shares
Although Countrywide always resisted overtures by OnTheMarket, it appeared to fall victim to the belief that Zoopla was on the way out. It sold a 2.2 per cent stake in 2014 for £20m which it promptly gave to shareholders instead of reinvesting. In 2016 it sold its remaining shares. Some 18 months later, Zoopla was bought for $3 billion and shareholders who stayed the course did very well out of the deal.
4. 2016-2018 - Allowing Executive Chairman To Have Two Jobs
Peter Long was appointed by Countrywide in early 2016, only five months after becoming chairman of Royal Mail - the latter going through huge, controversial and time-consuming changes. It took until autumn 2018 before Long quit Royal Mail to concentrate on Countrywide - the negative PR was immense, as the agency lurched from crisis to crisis with a part-time chairman.
5. 2016 - Secrecy Surrounding 60-plus Branch Closures
When some branch staff read about their office closures first on Estate Agent Today, as a result of a leak from Countrywide HQ, it’s clear there’s something fundamentally wrong with communications and management.
6. 2016-2017 - Confusion Over Online v High Street
The twin-track strategy of trying to offer both an online-only service and a traditional High Street option failed before it began; so-called ‘training’ didn’t materialise for many staff who admitted confusion and demoralisation at being expected to offer alternative services to vendors. Some estimates say the digital strategy - such as it was - cost £40m before it was abandoned.
7. 2018 - Being Seen To Reward Failure (1)
In reality, the Countrywide board’s hands were tied as to the pay-off to outgoing chief executive Alison Platt (she received a total of £674,450, plus £5,000 towards legal fees in connection with her sacking). However, the negative PR was immense and the company could - but didn’t - try to negate this.
8. 2018 - Being Seen To Reward Failure (2)
What could possess the senior management of a company with such declining market share and capitalisation to consider this? It was a bonus deal giving its executive chairman stock worth over £6m, its chief financial officer shares over £7m, and its group managing director shares worth more than £8m. The deal quickly earned the name 'Countrywide Fat Cats' amongst agents working in branches.
9. 2018-2019 - Back To Basics Confusion
The delight of some at a strategy putting the emphasis on branch-based agency activity was short-lived when it was found that some branches were actually closing or ‘under review’: the company simultaneously said it was keeping all its divisions while seeking a buyer for its commercial arm. This was less a lack of transparency, and more a lack of honesty. Support for Back To Basics disappeared amongst staff, analysts and eventually investors.
10. 2019-2020 - Whatever Happened To Due Diligence?
The high profile collapse of the sale of Lambert Smith Hampton made the company look a laughing stock. Rushing through investor approval over the Christmas holiday only for the sale to collapse weeks later. Countrywide is apparently pursuing damages from the Monaco-based real estate entrepreneur involved - well, what could possibly go wrong?
*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting about all things property at @PropertyJourn