Interview: Boutique estate agency founders Paul & Alex Clarke on building a brand, the rise of property brokers & moving in with a Plc

By PrimeResi Journal

Paul and Alex Clarke, founders of brand-led estate agency Mr and Mrs Clarke, chat with PrimeResi about their recent big deal with Belvoir Plc, the world's coolest property brands, and the rise of the prime resi broker.

Paul and Alex Clarke set up brand-led estate agency Mr and Mrs Clarke in 2015, after becoming “totally frustrated with the whole house-buying and selling business.”

The Midlands-based broker-model business expanded across the UK, and currently operates ten licensed partners in areas such as Warwickshire, South Wales, the Midlands and North London. It has attracted a mix of people, ranging from seasoned design-led prime resi professionals to property industry ingenues.

Things escalated earlier this year, when MMC was acquired by Belvoir Group Plc in March – joining a stable of more mainstream high street estate agency brands including Belvoir, Northwood, Newton Fallowell.

We chatted with the Clarkes to find out more about how the Belvoir deal happened, how it has affected the business, and what the future holds for Mr and Mrs Clarke…

Mr and Mrs Clarke was acquired by Belvoir Group earlier this year; talk us through how the deal came about – were you actively looking to sell / for investment?

There were always different options being floated around at MMC, but when a call came in from one of the NEDs at Belvoir saying that they liked our business and were we interested in chatting, it was an opportunity that we wanted to explore further. Although we had no intention of selling the business in 2022 we were intrigued, flattered and excited about where we could take MMC with the support of a PLC like Belvoir. We met Dorian Gonsalves, The Belvoir Group CEO, and were instantly blown away by his knowledge and his belief that the brokerage model was a big part of the future of UK estate agency. We chatted for a few months and we hit it off. The big thing that swung our decision to join Belvoir was their trust in us, their respect for the brand that we had created and the resources they could pour into MMC and our Agents businesses.

We have built and sold another business to a private equity firm so we knew the hard work and rollercoaster experience it would be to be acquired. But Belvoir were true to their word and stuck to their timescales. The six month process was seamless and it cemented that we were joining a group that had high standards, great morals and top people.

You’ve spent the last seven years building an up-market, trendy estate agency brand; how does the MMC brand fit into Belvoir’s stable of more mainstream high street agencies?

MMC will always be fiercely independent as a brand. We will always be authentic to our core values and we will never be anything but discerningly different. Belvoir love the brand and the offering we provide customers, clients and franchisees and they want to support us in growing what we have created. Each of the Belvoir brands is “owner operated” and each has been crafted to serve the market they deal in. The owner operation model is where we all think the magic can happen in estate agency, and The Belvoir Group have proven this over many years. Mr and Mrs Clarke Agents operate their business locally with our support – the mix of intimate local knowledge, a talented local business owner driving the business, and a well run and well resourced group supporting them is a concept that we have seen work and we believe is the future of agency.

We fit into the stable of existing brands because we offer people looking to create an estate agency business a different option – an agency that is luxurious yet attainable, and and business that can be run from home. Our brand is discerning but the costs to start a MMC business are lower than some people might think. You can start an MMC business for no upfront fee and build a lucrative business quickly as an Associate. There is also an option to purchase a Franchise and have exclusive sales and lettings rights within a territory, but at a considerably lower figure than a bricks and mortar franchise. As an example an MMC franchise in Solihull would cost around £10k with a monthly support fee of £495. This includes everything you need to launch, run and grow as well as portals, our marketing & design team, PR, training and access to loans.

Mr and Mrs Clarke operates an American-style business model that emphasises individual brokers. Are you adapting that as a result of being part of a bigger organisation, or is Belvoir looking to do more with the broker model?

Estate Agency is Dead. Long live the Estate Agent. The corporate High Street agencies and shiny estate agency brands out there do very little for the customer and they hold back the people who work in them. The future is about estate agents working for their clients in an autonomous way, building links with their community and providing a great service with the help of a brokerage. We built Mr and Mrs Clarke as a brokerage and we are passionate about seeing the model grow across the UK and help agents have a better life.

People have started calling us the British Selling Sunset, but without the drama

People have started calling us the British Selling Sunset, but without the drama. It kind of fits. We are the brokerage who provides everything our agents need to run their business. This model is growing fast in the UK with a few US companies having landed, as well as some British firms flipping their operations into a self-employed model. We are big believers that the Brokerage Model is the way to go in the UK as agents get to run their own local business with lots of support from a brand, and customers get a concierge style approach from one person. We think the way we operate fixes a lot of what is wrong with the perception of the typical estate agent.

Belvoir has said it intends to add new revenue streams to the MMC business, including financial services and lettings, as well as expanding the geographic network. Can you tell us more about this?

I certainly can… MMC will be offering a full lettings service from Spring ’23 and our Agents can plug into the financial services available at Belvoir to have an additional revenue stream to their business.

The biggest change to MMC has been the introduction of the MMC Loan. We are now able to offer a new Agent up to £12,500 to launch and grow their business. This has only been achievable with the assistance of the CEO and CFO at Belvoir. Estate agents have been reticent to leave a well paid job to set up by themselves because they won’t have any income for a few months. We can now fill that void. Agents joining MMC have access to £2,500 to launch their business and have access to take a £500 loan each time they list a house in the first twelve months. This is huge development and I think will make a huge difference when agents are deciding whether to jump the corporate ship.

How has your day-to-day experience of running the business changed since being acquired by a PLC in March?

We are no able to concentrate on growing the business. We have grown our in-house team and we have increased our third party support providers. This means that we don’t have to be doing everything at MMC. When you are running a start-up you do every job, however big or small – from cleaning the office, making the tea, leading the training, hosting board meetings and designing the advertising campaigns. We did pretty well, but now we can build our team who are experts in each stream of the business to ensure we are the best business we can be. The introduction of The Belvoir Group has ensured that our Agents are getting expert support at every point.

There is also an air of huge positivity around the place. We are proud of what we have created and we now can stand proudly infront of the business and brand knowing that we have the support of some of the best people in the industry.

And what about the day-to-day experiences of MMC brokers?

Our Agents now get what they want, when they want it. We are here to serve our Agents and always have been. We can now provide them with more of what they want. There is more training, more lead generation activities, more national brand awareness and more people to help them grow their businesses.

In your experience, what key skills or attributes do top property brokers tend to share?

Enthusiasm. Resilience. Consistency.

Are the three words that I think of when I think of a great MMC Agent. To be really successful you also need to be hard working and nice, these may seems cliche but if you work really hard and make the most of the opportunity that we have set up, along with being a really good person, there is no reason why you should not succeed in this business. We have a load of training available for our Agents and we can support them on areas they want to improve on. But the core traits are the kind of things that make any great business person.

The Belvoir deal includes a three-year incentivised earn out period for you; what are the performance benchmarks, and do you intend to stay with the business after that?

We are in this for the long term. Our name will always be above the door and we want to create a legacy. This is just the start of the journey for us. We are incentivised by the success of MMC, but this will never change on how we act. We know that if we work hard and support our team then we will be happy and so will Belvoir.

The business of estate agency is shifting, embracing new technologies and adapting to new regulations. What have been the biggest changes that you’ve seen since launching MMC in 2015, and do you have any predictions for the future of estate agency?

My first prediction is that the Brokerage Model will form a significant part of the industry in three years. I see the individual agent, supported by a brokerage, being across the market and across the price ranges. All home sellers and buyers want the best service and I think it can only be offered by working with one great agent from start to finish.

The biggest change I have seen is the realisation of agents and the market that cheap, online agency is not the best for anyone. When we started Purplebricks, Yopa et al were the golden children but they have not penetrated as much as everyone thought.

Which British or international property brands do you most admire?

Fantastic Frank have been trailblazers in Europe and are akin to us in the way a lifestyle is showcased rather than just bricks and mortar.

I’m a fan of SERHANT in the States because they are a brokerage business that understand modern marketing and creating a buzz around a brand.

We have a thing for Swedish estate agencies and we were invited to spend the week with Alvhem recently in Gothenburg. Their attention to detail, obsession with service and their beautiful aesthetic as a brand was inspiring.

Some economists are predicting a property market crash, while most property pundits think the UK market is now slowing down after two years of heady growth through the pandemic. What are your property market predictions for the rest of 2022, and for the next five years?

I don’t believe there will be a “crash” because of the simple fact that people are valuing “home” more and more. The demand to find a property that people can turn into a home is at a record high and I don’t see that appetite slowing.

In previous market crashes sales didn’t drop to zero – there were still hundreds of thousands of property transactions and the best agents did well. Our job is to help our agents be the best they can be and to do well in any market.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Be there to put your children to bed.