Former Foxtons stalwart Peter Rollings has taken the helm at estate agents Marsh & Parsons, and says he’s determined to focus on customer experience over mass-market ambition
Peter Rollings doesn’t want to talk about Foxtons, which, for the sake of this story, might make things a little difficult. After all, he spent 20 years at London’s biggest, brashest estate agency—seven of those as managing director. What else are we going to talk about? Under the guidance of Foxtons’ reclusive, multi-millionaire chairman Jon Hunt, Rollings was instrumental in turning what, in 1985, was a 21-employee agency into a 38-branch behemoth, with over 1,000 people. Between 1997 and 2002 the pair quadrupled the group’s turnover, from £10m to £40m, transforming Foxtons into one of the most recognisable brands in the capital.
“It’s all about Foxtons, isn’t it?” he says, eyeing the tape recorder with deep suspicion. Well, it is and it isn’t. After forging his career with the group, Rollings left last year to pursue his own agenda. Backed by the financial clout of Mark FitzGerald, chief executive of Sherry FitzGerald, Ireland’s largest estate agency, he purchased west London group Marsh & Parsons, for £5.4m. In September he added south London agency Vansons for £3m. The intention is to create (and Rollings is piercingly clear on this) a new London-wide, middle to top-end agency, as different from Foxtons as it’s possible to get. “So many people think I’m out to create a Foxtons mark two, but I’m not. Foxtons is a mass-market agent. I want to give our clients a great experience.”
Which implies that he wasn’t able to do this at Foxtons. Use of the F-word makes him wince. “I’m not going to get into Foxtons bashing,” he says. “Jon Hunt is the most extraordinary man. He’s my mentor. He’s totally and utterly changed the market—you ask any estate agent and the vast majority will agree with me. He’s a revolutionary guy.”
That the vast majority might agree is a moot point: Hunt’s reputation among many of his rivals isn’t exactly glowing. As Winkworth non-executive chairman Simon Agace says, “Che Guevara was a revolutionary, too.” What’s significant is Rollings’ tribute, which is surprisingly warm considering that, after 20 years in business together, they are no longer on speaking terms.
Ownership of Foxtons was central to the unravelling of the partnership . Hunt controlled 100 per cent, and refused Rollings’ numerous requests for a share of equity. Reading reports of Hunt’s vast personal fortune, which includes a house on Kensington Palace Gardens (“billionaire’s row”), and a stately home in Suffolk, can’t have helped a growing sense of disparity. “Equity is the incentive,” he says. “Lots of people are happy with a big salary, but what I want is ownership and to create wealth out of building a business.”
The dispute was never resolved and eventually Rollings called it quits. “It was very emotional,” he recalls. “I joined at 21. I had lots of mates there. But he and I hadn’t been getting on for a while.” How did Hunt react? “He was disappointed. He asked me if I was sure. I said ‘yes’ and left the same day.”
Rollings was adamant that his own London agency would be nothing like Foxtons. But why? Isn’t he proud of what he and Hunt managed to create? He chooses his words carefully. “Foxtons is very successful, but not in the way that I want to be successful. I lost the enjoyment factor. I dreaded going to work for several months, which is very sad.”
Whereas Hunt was happy to watch Foxtons grow, Rollings began to resent “the Foxtons machine”. He resented the high staff turnover, the relentless working hours, the unremitting drive for margins and, in the end, he resented the sheer size of the company. “It’s the way [Foxtons] was run. There were no grey areas—it was nine until nine, seven days a week, which I did for two years. I got an ulcer in my first three months. To my mind, it was unforgiving.”
The pace is more forgiving at Marsh & Parsons. The sales team still works every other Saturday, but for every two Saturdays staff get a day off in lieu. “They get a life,” he says. “I’ve had very little turnover here, I can count on one hand the amount of people who have left.”
For Rollings, that’s a real achievement. It may be a well-worn cliché, but when he says business should be “about people”, he means it. On the day we meet, Rollings has interviewed three candidates for sales roles at Marsh & Parsons, but he won’t end up employing any of them. Recruitment for him is an exact science. “You can’t just employ nice ex-public schoolboys who you’re going to feel comfortable being in a car with. There has to be that mix of great people who care but who can actually close business. It’s a difficult mix-and that’s why I insist on seeing every single person.”
That, of course, became impossible at Foxtons. At one point the company was interviewing 60 new people a week. “I joined when there were 20 people. When I became managing director there were 210. Seven years later there were 1,030,” he says. “I prided myself on knowing every single member of the company up until 400, and then”-his hands making an up-in-smoke gesture-“it went.”
As Rollings worked his way up the Foxtons ladder he became an increasingly popular member of the team. Alongside Hunt’s more aggressive approach, Rollings was the self-styled “friendly face of Foxtons”. Even so, his office nicknames were “Pistol Pete” and “the Sacking Mac”. As one former colleague says, “if he turned up at your office in his mac it was normally because he had been given the nasty task of sacking someone.”
Rollings is unequivocal: building a strong team also requires the guts to dismantle it when necessary. “What most people aren’t brave enough to do is to make changes,” he says. “If you have a member of staff that isn’t performing they need to go, for their own good and for the good of the company. Most companies put up with it, but I don’t.”
Rollings says he loves his work—which is not a sentiment you expect to hear from every estate agent—but it’s hard not to be won over by his positivity. “I think it’s the most fantastic job you can do—dealing with real people, selling real things.”
But he must be aware that the UK’s faith in estate agents is at an all-time low? A recent Panorama exposé, for example, centred a good deal of its investigation on Foxtons. An undercover reporter found agents up to their elbows in forged documents, over-valuation of properties and invented offers.
In the past the firm has admitted employing sub-contractors to deliberately remove and destroy rival agents’ “For Sale” signs, an admission that was investigated by Scotland Yard. And the company was fined for “flyboarding”, the practice of erecting branded “For Sale” boards outside homes that are not on the market.
Rollings found the BBC’s investigation “hurtful”. He says: “It was bad for business and bad for the industry.” In his defence he claims the sheer size of Foxtons made it difficult to monitor the behaviour of all staff effectively. Rollings’ move to Marsh & Parsons could be construed as an attempt to move away from the aggressive, controversial dealings of a mass-market agency, but according to Winkworth’s Agace, Rollings is already “up to his old tricks again”.
Winkworth is in the process of suing Marsh & Parsons for “hijacking” its brand on Google’s website. “They bought a Winkworth ad that linked through to [Marsh & Parsons’] website,” says Agace. “It’s a question of how many enquiries they had for the ad, and how many led to sales. But it’s not a difficult claim because [Rollings has] already admitted it.” Agace says he’s still waiting for an apology.
The official line from Google is that it “is not in a position to arbitrate trademark disputes between the advertisers and trademark owners”. Edward Cowell, technical director at search engine specialist Neutralize, says legally it’s a grey area, but “if you have a set of recognised brands in a particular sector that all do exactly the same thing, that’s when company A might become incentivised to bid on company B’s branding terms.”
Rollings says it was a mistake and as soon as he “found out about it”, he got the ad removed. In any case, he says, Agace has “a bee in his bonnet about Foxtons, always has done. He thinks I’m creating a Foxtons mark two, which is absolutely wrong”.
Does the inference that he might be up to no good bother him? “Throughout my whole life I will be associated with Foxtons,” he says. “But I’ve never even met [Agace], quite why he didn’t phone me up and say ‘Peter, what’s going on’, I don’t know. The first thing I had was a solicitors’ letter, which is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
It doesn’t seem to embarrass Rollings that right in the middle of what’s become a story about reinvention, a rival has accused him of the very sharp practices he’s attempting to distance himself from. He says he relishes the chance for a greater degree of control: his desk sits right in the middle of the office; he doesn’t take on “too many” clients; he advocates full transparency (Marsh & Parsons has signed up to the Ombudsman for Estate Agents scheme, aimed at increasing accountability).
“The majority in our industry are not very good,” he says. “They don’t seem to care as much as they should. That has to come from the top. Caring about the staff, about presentation, about the way the office looks, about whether the cars are clean, the marketing, the advertising-there isn’t that attention to detail in the majority of estate agents.”
He says he wants Marsh & Parsons to be different to the substandard “irrelevant” majority. And he appears to want something different to put on his CV, something else to be remembered by. “At Foxtons we lost the humanity. It became all about the money. In many ways it stopped being an estate agency—it was a sales force. I wanted to get back to estate agency.” And challenge Foxtons? Rollings looks a little irritated by that F-word again. “Look—we’re a boil on the arse of Foxtons,” he says. “A total nonentity.”
Perhaps he really doesn’t want to talk about it.
By David Woodward, December 2006 : Director Magazine