Countrywide ‘a laughing stock’ says tycoon who helped estate agent’s rise
Harry Hill says current management failed to improve performance and fend off competition
A PROPERTY tycoon who masterminded the rise of Countrywide has lashed out at the estate agent’s current management, as it grapples with shareholder demands for mass branch closures.
Harry Hill accused the firm’s board of failing to improve performance in the face of surging competition from online rivals.
Shares have collapsed almost 99pc in the past five years, and Countrywide is now facing calls from industry veteran Robin Paterson to overhaul senior management, sell assets and shut hundreds of branches.
While a significant proportion of the share fall happened under previous bosses, this has not prevented current chiefs attracting the ire of Mr Paterson and Mr Hill. The latter bought Countrywide from Nationwide building society for £1 in 1994, before turning it into Britain’s largest property firm and going on to launch search website Rightmove. He stood down in 2009 and no longer owns shares.
The 72-year-old said: “It’s gone from one of the most respected [real estate] companies in the world to a laughing stock.
“All of the successful minds have left and they’ve been replaced by people who don’t have any industry experience. It’s been very sad.”
Mr Hill said he had not been in contact with Mr Paterson, a former coowner and boss of rival Hamptons International, whose firm Catalist Partners is demanding sweeping reforms after purchasing a 10.5pc stake in the company.
Catalist has called for Countrywide to sell off non-essential divisions worth £300m, slim down its 50 brands to no more than 10 and replace 700 branches with hubs on key high streets.
It recommended the sale of divisions including the firm’s mortgage broker, the largest in Britain with 108,000 customers in 2019. Mr Paterson’s outfit also said that Countrywide should hire a chief executive with industry experience to work with executive chairman Peter Long, as well as appointing senior figures to oversee operations, marketing and technology.
It is understood that Catalist has a shortlist of preferred candidates. Countrywide is currently looking for its third chief executive in as many years.
The business has suffered a longterm slump and issued a string of profit warnings since the rise of the internet triggered massive changes in the property industry. Shares crashed in March when competitor LSL abandoned a takeover bid.
Issuing his demands to the firm last month, Mr Paterson said: “Staff morale may justifiably be at an all-time low. The leadership of the company needs to be urgently addressed, not least to be able to attract the best talent. This cannot continue.”
A spokesman for Countrywide said the company could not comment as it was in a closed period.