‘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 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