· 5 min read · Features

Interview with Andy Brown head of HR at Hamptons International

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Nestled in Grosvenor Square, London, in the shadow of the magnificent real estate that is the US embassy, is the head office of estate and lettings agent, Hamptons International. Last month, when I went to meet its head of HR, Andy Brown, it was the first time HR had interviewed the HR boss of a firm in the property sector since the recession. The industry was reeling from the news, according to property analyst Hometrack, that London house prices had increased by a modest 0.5% between April 2011 and March 2012.

Bucking the trend, Hamptons itself reported that 'prime' house prices in central London increased 13% last year and would increase 4% more over the course of 2012.

The housing market is a faithful barometer of the economy, but particularly since the first signs of recession appeared in 2007. It was, after all, the 'credit binge' - fuelled by mortgage lenders giving away 90% mortgages - that led banks as well as consumers into a culture of spending more money than they had. Those days are gone. In 2007, the housing bubble in the US burst and the value of real estate promptly plummeted.

As the property panic spread quickly to the UK, banks began to squeeze their lending. The rest - namely, the onset of a financial crisis labelled by economists as the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s - is history.

This March, the Bank of England said households were now staying put, paying off mortgages in line with their repayments schedule, and possibly injecting more of their own money into their properties via home improvements - rather than planning to buy.

And the property website Rightmove has said new sellers have been dropping their asking prices significantly: by 3.1% in November and by another 2.7% in December last year. This branch of the economy looks threatened, to say the least.

When I went to meet Brown, the breaking news of (slightly) rising house prices meant things were looking up for the sector - at least in the south-east of England, where, despite its name, Hamptons 'International' focuses its business.

"Since 2009, we have had three of our most profitable years," he smiles. "Last year was our third most profitable ever and market share is up 37% since 2007. This is a growing market and we are finding success and planning to branch out."

That is not to say times have not been hard for the company, which specialises in sales and rentals of properties worth £500,000 or above.

"I joined in 2010," says Brown. "And that was just following a period of significant change. Countrywide Group acquired us in April 2010 and during this time, although Hamptons kept its own identity, it had to be managed assertively to make sure the business survived. Although the organisation is 140 years old, it is not institutionalised."

Part of assertive management was a round of redundancies. And although Brown admits he was "fortunate to have joined the organisation after this", the HR department had come to be seen by staff as "angels of death" and his first task was to "re-establish HR".

"HR was almost removed from the business," he confesses. "And I wanted to address this proactively, get staff used to there being an HR presence and build relationships with line managers - I didn't want HR to be a faceless department."

And the "unique" way HR is structured at Hamptons - with Brown and his HR team of eight reporting to the COO, with a separate learning and development department also reporting to the COO - is, Brown believes, a clear message from the business that both HR and L&D have a huge amount of value.

And investment in HR practice has shown tangible returns for Hamptons. "We had no recruitment strategy before 2010,"says Brown. "But the recruitment team had been using a number of costly agencies. We streamlined this, started using social media and have explored various routes to sourcing and recruiting the right people for us. This has saved us 66% of the agency spend we were using previously."

But his comment about "the right people" is telling, given the various (and usually negative) stereotypes about estate agents and their pushy attitudes. As the market struggles, great customer service is the key to reversing both the stereotyping and the trend in the economy, believes Brown. "I manage the customer care team along with HR," says Brown. "We pride ourselves on our approach to customer service - I am keen to make sure all staff are 'living' our customer service values.

"Customer service is not merely a function here, but it is interwoven into everything we do. I am not saying this as hyperbole - it is on the agenda of the senior team, through marketing and PR, to make sure we are delivering the high service we want to and consistently make it even better."

The company uses customer surveys (of property buyers and tenants, as well as vendors and landlords) and Brown says 93% of respondents say they would use Hamptons again.

The company also considers customer service skills when recruiting members of staff. Brown explains: "Diversity is key to our recruitment strategy, but it is hard to imagine a brand or a persona of employee we would like. Selling and negotiation skills are crucial in our market - especially in central London - but all new recruits go on a five-day induction scheme, where we take their existing skills and put the Hamptons culture on them. As you move out of London into the country, the skills we need are much more about relationships and the personality of the negotiator." But the internet is riddled with articles about estate agents pressured to 'gazump' clients in sales - and stories about a culture of long hours, immense pressure from managers and aggressive sales techniques are easy to come across.

Responding to the stereotype of the 'pushy sales person' - and whether it is up to the HR department to weed this out of the organisation - Brown barely pauses to consider.

He says: "Hamptons has a different model. We want to support and encourage our staff and we want to develop longevity in their careers here [average length of service at Hamptons is five years]. I realise the value of bringing the right people in - we are not looking to make a fast buck and we are not there to squeeze them. We are nothing without our people and if our people can't speak highly of us as an employer, what will our customers think?

"We are taking the people agenda in the business forward, not through gritted teeth, but with a real discretionary effort and a feeling of affection for our staff."

But he maintains that the sector and the market require staff to have a "hunger and desire" to make sales - although the means by which they are rewarded is not based on hard figures alone, which Brown hopes will motivate them to keep a customer service focus in mind.

"There has to be praise and recognition for staff that perform well," he says. "We have bi-annual high achievers awards, based on peer nomination. But we link customer service measures and customer feedback to staff objectives - so survey results feed back into employee one-to-ones with their line managers."

Brown believes these parts of the HR strategy are vital for his bid to change the company perception of HR.

Hamptons employs 915 people, but it is growing (it opened a flagship Mayfair branch in December last year). Brown recognises the importance of what his department can bring to the business. "We have been working with Henley Business School on a management development programme, where we are training managers to take a pragmatic approach to growth and through this we are starting to identify the future potential for leaders," he says.

A career HR professional, having studied the subject at university and having worked in HR in the retail sector as well as at HR outsourcing and software provider, Ceridian, Brown reiterates the Hamptons setup for people strategy is "unique" - given HR and L&D are distinct (he maintains they are not "separate") and he has no decision-making power over training (he is in charge of people management, talent engagement and reward). The company does not provide engagement surveys either, which are in vogue in the HR community, preferring to look at things in a more "granular level of detail" through the hierarchy.

"Each HR strategy has to be different. It can't be the same across all businesses," he asserts. "Our strategy is very much around investment in our people and bolstering the value of both HR and L&D in the company. The bigger employers get, the more they lose sight of their uniqueness and this is something I am keen not to do.

"Everything I do is focused on staff and on customers. This is how we run our business and as HR we can't lose sight of the identity of our business."