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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - By

Ben Gart­side

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.

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