Estate agent David Lee ditches its Stortford, Stansted and Dunmow offices for a greener countryside HQ that provides a model for growth
Moving off the high street and into a new countryside des res is the first big step on an innovative path being taken by David Lee.
The estate agent started thinking about the future of its business – and the industry as a whole – two years ago before taking the decision to close its offices in Bishop's Stortford, Stansted and Great Dunmow, swapping the three town and village centres for large, modern premises at Church End, Little Hadham, which officially opened in January.
Founding directors David Kirby and Lee O'Brien, who employ 10 others, believe they have come up with the future of estate agency, providing customers and staff with a convenient location and pleasant atmosphere in which to work and find their dream property.
They have also drawn up an associate model which will see them grow their business by recruiting other agents to share their new spacious abode, as well as setting themselves the challenge of going carbon neutral.
"We decided the shape of the industry and where we saw our business going needed to change and adapt," said Lee.
"We felt we were able to give our clients a better service and still cover the areas we had covered with physical premises from just one location.
"Parking was a massive issue for our clients and staff, and we wanted to provide a nice environment to work in and make it a nice experience to come and visit.
"The premises was very important to us and it took us some time to find it. We see this move as the future of estate agency and how we want to take things forward."
Lee, 35, and David, 39, met in 2000 when they worked at estate agent William H Brown in Hoddesdon before going into business together in 2004 by opening their Stansted office.
They focused on residential sales to begin with before expanding into the private rental market three years later. They opened in Bishop's Stortford in 2010 and grew further in 2016 when Great Dunmow became their third location.
Accolades have been won at The Times & Sunday Times Estate Agency of the Year Awards and in the East of England Agency of the Year category at The Negotiator Awards. They have also been in the top 3% of firms in the national Estate Agent Masters run by Rightmove.
But the business partners decided something had to change, feeling the high street model was broken and that online-only agents could not provide a personal service.
"People can come in, have a coffee and spend a bit of time working through things. You don't have to be in that mad rush," said Lee, who grew up in Hoddesdon and went to St Mary's Catholic School in Bishop's Stortford.
"We're finding that the quality of the conversations we're having with our clients and the way we can help them is so much better now.
"From the team's perspective, communication has gone through the roof because everybody's here and that's so important for an effective team. That's been a massive benefit."
Lee lives in Stansted with wife Amy, who is head of HR at Tees Law, and sons Freddie, 8, and William, 5.
David has lived in Stortford all his life and attended St Michael's primary and The Bishop's Stortford High School. His wife Laura works at David Lee as a customer service assistant and they have two sons, Fletcher, 9, and Dexter, 8.
Reducing from three offices to one has already made the business greener and other initiatives are making a big impact. The sales team has gone paperless and the lettings team are 90% of the way there; the Church End premises uses electric heating and LED lighting; electric vehicle charging points have been installed in the car park; and an electric Mini is being bought for staff to use when going to viewings.
"We've got young families that are growing up and climate change is a big issue," said David, whose business is also keen to play a big part in the community and has supported the likes of Hillmead and St Michael's primaries, Grove Cottage and Bishop's Stortford Football Club in the past. The firm is also sponsoring the bar at May's Bish Bash music festival in Stortford and the new Green Award category at the Indies community awards in November.
"We need to be mature enough to deal with it and, as business owners, we feel we can."
Lee added: "It dawned on us that we could take it on as a challenge to become carbon neutral here as a business. It's a really worthwhile target for us."
East Hertfordshire was named the UK's best place to live by the Halifax Quality of Life survey 2020 in January. Lee believes the "great fundamentals" of excellent transport links, employment opportunities and schooling are the key factors.
He feels Bishop's Stortford is still potentially undervalued compared with other areas around the M25 with similar benefits, and around 30-40% of their buyers are now coming from outside the area. Now the partners are looking to get associate agents on board so they can widen their reach and enjoy further growth.
"As part of our move here we've created essentially a platform for estate agents to come and work with us. That's how we're going to grow our business," said Lee.
"We've got an associate model that we're rolling out to bring new agents into our business so we can cover a wider patch but also focus on particular regions. We'll probably increase our staff here by 50% over the next two years by bringing associates into the business.
"From Buntingford through to Much Hadham, Ware, Harlow, Sawbridgeworth, Bishop's Stortford, around Stansted and Saffron Walden, we will have agents in all of those areas operating using our central office and systems.
"We're looking at senior agents from existing agencies in and around the area and entire businesses that may decide they don't need their premises any more.
"They can come and use our property management, tools and software to continue to run their business with our back-end support and the economies of scale we've been able to achieve by being here."
* Pop into David Lee, at 13E Church Estate, Church End, Little Hadham for a coffee or visit www.davidlee.co.uk to find out more.