Friday 23 June 2017

The Right Moves: Savills supremo's secret of success lies in putting people before process

Savills has a massive global network, pictured their offices at the heart of London's Canary Wharf. Reuters/Reinhard Krause
Savills has a massive global network, pictured their offices at the heart of London's Canary Wharf. Reuters/Reinhard Krause

Paul McNeive

The first time I met Jeremy Helsby, Savills Group chief executive, I was part of a team negotiating the sale of Hamilton Osborne King to the global property services company. Last week, 10 years on from that deal, I met Jeremy in the plush surroundings of Savills' London headquarters, which houses 1,000 staff. I found that Helsby has lost none of his charisma or his passion for property and his firm, and he was forthright in his views on the business.

With 31,000 staff in over 700 offices around the world, Savills is one of the true giants of the industry. A phase of consolidation recently saw Cushman & Wakefield merge with DTZ, but Helsby believes this was the last merger "at the top table level".

However, he sees lots of consolidation continuing below that rank and Savills bought five businesses in the last two years.

"We're always looking at 'bolt-ons', as are our competitors," he said.

Helsby joined the firm 36 years ago, working first as a land agent and then in offices. He believes that Savills are different from many of their competitors in that "we like to have leaders who have come through the ranks and know the DNA".

"My time in the trenches as a fee earner is very important and gives me an empathy with the troops - they've got a leader that 'gets it'."

Helsby says the challenge for companies in growing bigger is maintaining the firm's ethos and collegiality.

"Some of our competitors have become so big that they are process driven. My passion is to retain that oomph, that can-do entrepreneurial flair that wows the clients, and not let it get lost in bureaucracy," he said.

"The company's real balance sheet is the 31,000 people that walk in and out the door every day. If they're not happy, then you don't have a business.

"Our strength is loving them, working with them and understanding them. We retain that family ethos of 'you love each other, you respect each other and you look after each other'.

"CEOs can focus on growth, but you ignore your own team at your peril. I have a passion for our people and our clients, in spades. Our clients must feel that we are passionate about their business. It's a people business and we are not a production line."

Helsby is positive about world markets and sees increasing globalisation by clients continuing to drive demand for agents to match their clients in both their local and overseas markets.

Two months post-Brexit, he says that the London market has returned to near normality.

"There were four deals done at approximately 15pc below their pre-Brexit values. Two months on, most of the deals that were put on hold have gone through. Most of the deals with 'Brexit clauses' have now closed, at discounts of 3-5pc. London's property market is not going to change."

He sees Ireland as being in a good position to reap benefits from some organisations relocating post-Brexit.

Helsby is bullish on European markets, but added: "If I only had one pound left to invest, I would invest it in the US."

In 2014, Savills bought the tenant representative firm Studley, now trading as Savills Studley, and has added "four or five teams or companies to that, in each of the last two years".

"Savills business in Asia is excellent," Helsby told me and their "most exciting growth is in China", where the firm employs 5,000 people. The big growth areas there are property management, capital markets (between local investors) and high- end residential.

Helsby rates his acquisition of Hamilton Osborne King in Ireland as "right up there" with their best deals.

"Writing a cheque is easy," he said. "The hardest part of an acquisition is integration. Savills Ireland feels part of Savills, and that's a success. We retained most of the top people, seamlessly merged the brand, we're number one or two in most of the areas we want to compete in and we're exceeding the revenues from when we bought the business."

As we said our goodbyes Jeremy shook my hand, beamed an easy smile and told me: "Paul, you're a star."

I walked up Regent Street feeling great. That's part of Jeremy's success. It's a people business.

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