‘Even if sales fall off a cliff, we’ll be able to han­dle it’

As he steps down as Sav­ills chief ex­ec­u­tive, Jeremy Helsby as­sures Jack Tor­rance that the prop­erty gi­ant is ‘re­ces­sion-proof ’

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business - Jeremy Helsby

The Sav­ills that will be left by Jeremy Helsby when he stands down as chief ex­ec­u­tive af­ter 11 years at the end of this month will be very dif­fer­ent to the busi­ness he first joined as a fresh-faced land agent al­most 40 years ago

Many still think of the 160-year-old prop­erty com­pany as mostly an up­mar­ket estate agent sell­ing May­fair flats and coun­try piles to Rus­sian oli­garchs and City bankers.

But nowa­days you are as likely to find a Sav­ills worker manag­ing an of­fice build­ing in Hanoi or ad­vis­ing on the sale of a shop­ping cen­tre in Cal­i­for­nia as show­ing a super-rich buyer around a Lon­don pen­t­house.

“When I joined in 1980 we had no over­seas of­fices, it was a ru­ral busi­ness in the UK turn­ing over £12m,” Helsby says from the com­pany’s plush Lon­don head­quar­ters off Ox­ford Street.

He took the helm in 2007, and its stock mar­ket value has rock­eted from £300m to £1bn since then.

Rev­enues were up al­most three-fold at £1.6bn last year and an ex­tra 15,000 staff have joined the pay­roll, tak­ing the total to more than 35,000.

“Clearly the mar­kets have been good to us over the past 10 years but we’ve also been ag­gres­sive in our ex­pan­sion,” he says.

While he can reel off the list of coun­tries he has taken the busi­ness into dur­ing his time in charge, Helsby de­scribes his great­est achieve­ment as main­tain­ing the com­pany’s “fam­ily feel­ing”.

“Our staff are our bread and but­ter,” he says. “I gen­uinely be­lieve [the cul­ture] comes right from me … to make peo­ple want to come and work here and feel ‘wow – this is a good place to work’,” he adds, veer­ing close to David Brent from The Of­fice ter­ri­tory.

“A lot of Amer­i­cans say never use the word ‘fun’, it’s po­lit­i­cally un­ac­cept­able, but I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant – you’ve got to have fun, you’ve got to come in and enjoy your­selves.”

Helsby was born in Liver­pool – though you wouldn’t guess it from his clipped ac­cent – to two med­i­cal doc­tors and had lit­tle in­ter­est in prop­erty until af­ter he en­rolled at the Royal Agri­cul­tural Col­lege in Glouces­ter­shire.

“It just seemed like quite a fun thing to do,” he says. “There were a lot of peo­ple at Cirences­ter who had farms, but I thought, I haven’t got any land so I might as well go and work for some­one who has.”

Start­ing out on a salary of £2,200 per year he spent seven years as a land agent, the last four at Sav­ills, be­fore a very dif­fer­ent op­por­tu­nity came call­ing as the com­pany opened its first over­seas of­fice, in Washington DC.

“To­day it doesn’t sound so dra­matic but for a lit­tle land agent aged 29 it was a huge move to up sticks.”

Helsby was one of just two staff who moved across to open the out­post, act­ing as a “bag car­rier” to one of Sav­ills’ se­nior part­ners.

“That was pretty lonely but I sud­denly worked out that there was this whole world of of­fice build­ings out there that I hadn’t re­ally been aware of be­fore.

“It was a more ex­cit­ing world, peo­ple got paid more, so I grad­u­ally swapped out of be­ing a land agent to be­ing a com­mer­cial sur­veyor.”

Helsby grad­u­ally found his feet in the US and even­tu­ally de­cided to set­tle there but was dealt a cruel blow as mar­kets crashed and the of­fice was closed.

Back in Lon­don in 1987 and with a wife who was seven months preg­nant, he had lit­tle choice but to ac­cept a role work­ing on Sav­ills’ Ca­nary Wharf ac­count, a less ap­peal­ing prospect at the time then it might be now.

“That was when Ca­nary Wharf was just be­ing built, there were only two build­ings and no­body wanted to go there be­cause there were no roads and every­body went by river bus”.

Af­ter a later stint run­ning Sav­ills’ com­mer­cial busi­ness in the UK he landed the top job in 2007 – just in time to lead it through the big­gest fi­nan­cial cri­sis of the age.

While some ri­vals laid waste to their work­forces in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a slump, “We said ‘no, we like you guys and girls, we’re go­ing to keep you, we’re not go­ing to make any money out of you but we un­der­stand this is a 10-year game’.

“And when the mar­ket came back we had all these teams in place, so now we’re the num­ber one in devel­op­ment in the UK.”

In the time since, Helsby has set about fur­ther di­ver­si­fy­ing Sav­ills’ op­er­a­tions away from trans­ac­tion linked rev­enues such as sales and leas­ing and into more de­pend­able ar­eas in­clud­ing prop­erty man­age­ment, con­sul­tancy and in­vest­ment man­age­ment.

“Even if trans­ac­tions fall off a cliff, the point is we’ve now built a busi­ness that is very re­silient to re­ces­sion.”

He has also sig­nif­i­cantly ex­panded the com­pany’s geo­graphic spread, tak­ing it into an ever-grow­ing list of mar­kets, par­tic­u­larly in Asia where the bulk of its work­force is now lo­cated.

Four years ago it an­nounced its tri­umphant re­turn to the US with a £154m deal for the tenant ad­vi­sory firm Stud­ley.

While he spends a good chunk of his time fly­ing be­tween Sav­ills’ var­i­ous out­posts to check on progress, Helsby says he prefers to take a hands-off ap­proach in for­eign mar­kets rather than im­pos­ing rules from on high.

“Some­times the English ap­proach is to say, ‘this is what we do in the UK so that’s what we should go and do in that coun­try’. But all of our busi­nesses are run by lo­cal na­tion­als.

“We’ve got a top guy run­ning In­dia. I couldn’t tell you to­day what we’re do­ing in Mum­bai, it’s not my job. My job is to look at it with a he­li­copter view.”

All of this re­ces­sion-proof­ing could come in handy if Bri­tain’s de­par­ture from the Euro­pean Union proves as fraught as some fear.

The Bank of Eng­land pre­dicted last month that in the event of a “dis­or­derly Brexit”, prop­erty prices could plunge in the dou­ble-dig­its.

But while Helsby ad­mits the uncer­tainty buy­ers face at the mo­ment is a prob­lem, he pre­dicts that prop­erty in the UK and par­tic­u­larly in Sav­ills’ Lon­don stamp­ing ground will re­main at­trac­tive to for­eign buy­ers – es­pe­cially if the pound tum­bles in value again.

“Even with all of the prob­lems go­ing on in the last three weeks we’ve done three big deals,” he says.

“We’re so neg­a­tive, ev­ery time we open a news­pa­per in this coun­try we want to slit our throats but we some­times for­get what a great coun­try this is.”

Even the prospect of Jeremy Cor­byn tak­ing power doesn’t seem to dampen his bullish­ness.

“Be­lieve it or not, prop­erty prices of­ten do well un­der Labour gov­ern­ments. We’ve got enough on our plate at the mo­ment with­out think­ing about him.” He does worry, how­ever, that a back­lash against for­eign in­vestors in­clud­ing the “ab­so­lutely ex­tra­or­di­nary” plans to im­pose ex­tra stamp duty on over­seas buy­ers of sec­ond homes, could un­der­mine Lon­don’s stand­ing.

“I thought we were try­ing to make this coun­try wel­com­ing to over­seas peo­ple at a time when Brexit is send­ing some pretty ques­tion­able mes­sages?”

Helsby is proud to have spent the bulk of his ca­reer at Sav­ills.

But his suc­cess hasn’t come with­out sac­ri­fice.

“The chal­lenge of this job if you do it well – and I try to do it well – is it’s a 24-hour, seven day per week job.”

While his wife and chil­dren live in Dorset, he com­mutes weekly to a flat in west Lon­don – and that’s when he’s not in for­eign climes.

“It’s my choice, I’m not a mar­tyr, but I think I have been very hands on. If you asked my wife I think she would prob­a­bly say Sav­ills has al­ways come first, and it has. I’m not par­tic­u­larly proud of that, by the way.”

Though he’s stay­ing on at Sav­ills in a part-time ad­vi­sory ca­pac­ity, the 63-year-old is now look­ing for­ward to putting his feet up.

“I’ve worked, dare I say it, bloody hard for the last 11 years and ac­tu­ally it will be quite nice to see my fam­ily.

“In the words of Terry Wo­gan, there’s never a right time to go, but there might be a wrong time if you stay on too long.”

‘My wife would prob­a­bly say Sav­ills has al­ways come first, and it has. I’m not par­tic­u­larly proud of that’

Jeremy Helsby has presided over a pe­riod of ag­gres­sive ex­pan­sion at Sav­ills

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