It’s likely that a business with broad-ranging activities will sooner or later think about being more specialised, succumbing to the attractions of dropping the maybe less profitable aspects of their work. But it’s arguably the freedom to decide whether to maintain a real breadth of services that gives the independent business a unique selling proposition compared to their competitors owned by outside shareholders. whose primary focus is probably the next year-end dividend.
“And it’s that breadth of skills and activity that can give the independent business its spirit,” says Richard Miller, managing partner of estate agents, valuers, surveyors, and auctioneers Symonds & Sampson, founded in 1858.
“Your first impression of us when you walk through the door or look at our website might well be that we’re mainly about property sales and lettings, but over time, as we have expanded our client base, mainly rural, we have expanded the range of services in line with what they need.” At the same time, competitors have ‘streamlined’ their activities. That might produce a better short-term financial return, but according to Miller, the big advantage of his firm’s approach is that it is more recession proof. “We don’t have to react as dramatically as other estate agencies to changes in the market. If residential property prices come down because of the economy, it’s not the be-all-and- end-all; we can roll with it.”
That’s not to say that everything has to be set in stone. “With the internet, the nature of estate agency has changed,” explains Miller. “We ask ourselves
– should we be in the High Street? Should we have an office in every town? There is also the question of how to delight the customer when our activities are so diverse. What would please a house vendor will be different to the owner of an estate.”
Ironically, providing a breadth of service can require more resource because of the internet. “With our professional work, our knowledge and how we apply it is the most important thing, particularly when clients and the population in general are more up to speed because they will have already done some research online,” Miller says. “There is no hoodwinking people; you have to know your stuff. We have to know not just about property but its idiosyncrasies, the specifics to do with listed buildings, easements, restrictive covenants, how a property could be affected by planning issues.”
Today Symonds & Sampson employ more than 130, and recruitment of younger professionals is one of the main challenges. “It’s a particular problem in rural areas as they want this job but in a glitzier location,” explains Miller.
He also detects a comparative lack of drive, which he thinks is perhaps related to the desire for an immediate work-life balance. “To achieve that, the young professionals who might one day fill my shoes will either have to be more efficient than we are, to maintain profitability, or they will have to lower their expectations of what they can earn. I don’t see any other way round it,” he muses.
All but one of the partners, including Miller, are fee earners. “I know other managing partners who do nothing but managing, but I do professional work too – that is what I came here for,” he says. “It means there is only so much time I can devote to the managing partner role, although we have a finance partner, who is the only non-fee earner. That system works for us but will it work for ever? I don’t know. Maybe a future managing partner would have to change the model. My main ambition is to be able to pass the business on in a good state to the ultimate new partners so that they can continue to run it effectively in their own way.”
There are various categories of partner to enable ambitious people to move up. Salaried partners get the kudos of being a partner but without the responsibility for any financial liabilities. Non-equity partners get some of the profit without any capital outlay. That means the step up to being invited to become a full equity partner is part of a gradual process that allows talent to move up the firm without too much financial outlay for them at the outset.
“We do understand that buying a house, starting a family and becoming a partner all tend to happen around the same time, which can bring financial challenges, so this system helps them onto the ladder,” says Miller.
Finding the next generation of management isn’t that straightforward though. Miller plans to stay on until he is sixty-five, which is another twelve years, but in the meantime the next generation, he feels, needs to be encouraged into management, and herein lies the rub. “We want the sort of person who pushes rather than being pushed, someone who comes and says I want that job,” he explains.
Financially, for Symonds & Sampson the ambition is more about increasing profitability than topline. Although both have been growing by some five per cent a year, Miller says the figure is limited by the fact that the firm already has “significant” market share in its patch across its broad range of activities.
“Apart from fine art, possibly, there isn’t much more we can move into,” he observes, although the firm opened its thirteenth office in 2019. Miller would consider making an acquisition but that’s poses a real challenge he believes. “With a business that has a product, that’s the selling point, but property is very much a people business and the businesses that are available to buy are those where the owners are thinking about retiring, and of course it’s the owners who are the business.”
And with more residential estate agency activity taking place on line, he ponders the continuing policy of having a physical presence in so many places.
“If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said that by now we would all be together in an open-plan office in one building,” he recalls. “I think it’s probably the right thing not to have done that because our client base want to be able to come in and see us in person, and they don’t want to drive miles out of their way to do it. Unless and until that changes, we will stay like we are.”
Miller also have believes long-established companies need to think more about internal communications in the digital age. “It’s not a given, because the way the world is going means there is going to be less face-to-face communication,” he suggests. “We have invested in having a good intranet so staff can see what’s going on. That would avoid situations such as when an employee turned up at an event which was nothing to do with work, and didn’t realise until they were there that we were actually sponsoring it.”
One of the main changes since Miller joined the firm thirty years ago has been the increased pace of working life. “The day used to start with a few phone calls and opening the post and then the rest of the day was spent doing professional work,” says Miller. “But because of computers, my day now is mostly email management and there is an expectation from clients to have answers straight away or at least a reply same day.”
He doesn’t allow that to stress him, though. “I have never lost any sleep through work” he reveals. “I have an off-switch, and a hobby that completely absorbs me. When I go fishing I can forget about everything.”
What advice then would he give to his younger self? “I would say delegate more,” he replies. “I have tended to think it will be quicker if I do the work, but it would make my life easier if I was better at delegating and trusting other people to get on with it. Then I wouldn’t have to stay later to do the work that I need to do.”
Researched and written for Ward Goodman by DECISION magazine