Mark FitzGerald: 'Have a mentor, manage your anxiety and be curious'
The right moves
'It was the week de Valera died. There were no jobs and I started in FitzGerald and Partners at no salary.' That's how Mark FitzGerald, Chairman of the Sherry FitzGerald group, remembers his start in the business.Forty-two years later, 35 of them as CEO, FitzGerald has led the growth of a premium brand in the business and he recently handed the CEO reins to Steven McKenna, who will be responsible for driving the strategic vision of the firm. As chairman, and a major shareholder in the business, FitzGerald will undoubtedly play a key role, and I took the opportunity to chat with him on his reflections on estate agency, and his views on the future.
When asked about the biggest changes in the business, FitzGerald whipped out his phone and showed me an RTÉ news archive video on the 1986 launch of the 'Link' computerised estate agency platform, which would allow house hunters to search the databases of a network of estate agents. "When you look back at it now, the business was archaic" he says. "Computer use was slow, there were no pictures of properties and that meant that the estate agent had all the information - and all the power. Service levels were poor. And there was no role for women at all - the few that came in had huge courage."
"Nowadays, the model is evolving. Agents need to get much deeper into technology. It's about service, moderating human behaviour, helping the market operate in a civilised, sensitive fashion - whether it's going up or down. And that's a challenge, because the business is highly emotive," he adds.
FitzGerald isn't overly concerned about the advance of brands such as Purple Bricks in the UK. "In the UK, the four public estate agents, Countrywide, LSL, Foxtons and Purple Bricks have 12pc of the market between them. With Purple Bricks, the service culture is low - it's more self-service," he explains.
"Sherry FitzGerald sell 15pc of all Irish homes. We have the responsibility of a leading market share, to keep service levels up, and the standards around buying and selling [up]."
FitzGerald's reputation as a 'thought-leader' is well-earned, and the son of the late Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald may well have inherited some of his father's vision and passion for analysis.
"I have a creative mind, which can be an asset," he agrees, "but I have had to learn to temper my exuberance for many of my ideas. The best strategies come from funnelling the team's ideas. You need order and patience - but don't lose your passion. When you're running a business you have to be the most positive person in the business - but not unrealistic."
FitzGerald's strategies included floating the group and then taking it private again, and a profitable move into the UK. In 2005, the group bought London estate agencies Marsh & Parsons and Vanstons.
"We bought them for £5m, spent another £5m on branches and branding, and sold them in 2011 for £53m," he says. Sherry FitzGerald was also a key player in the development of MyHome.ie, which was sold for €50m.
The commercial side of the business recently rebranded as Cushman & Wakefield, and FitzGerald, who remains on that board, told me that business is going very well.
As regards further growth, he says that "the international brands are only interested in the commercial business, and I don't see any consolidation between Irish residential brands. Franchising has been an extremely successful model for the group, with 95 offices and "some gaps still to be filled".
"There is room to grow our 15pc residential market share, but I'm not transfixed by horizons. Further expansion in the UK is a possibility - Steven McKenna will lead the strategy," FitzGerald says.
On the future shape of Dublin, he feels that while globalisation is happening quickly, cities are moving too slowly. He believes there is a conservative mindset within the public sector geared towards avoiding past mistakes, and fears this can lead to missed opportunities. He is a "fan" of taller buildings and of zoning more land. "We aready have urban sprawl," he remarks.
He is also concerned about a "brain-drain" resulting from our young people going abroad and not returning, due to the lack of houses.
"We need access and opportunity around social housing, the rental sector, and home ownership," he says.
And his advice to someone starting in the business? "Have a mentor, manage your anxiety, and be curious," he concludes. "It's your life's work - and it matters."