Recently appointed as the first female MD of one of the UK’s oldest estate agencies, Polly Ogden Duffy has just overseen an outstanding year of trading at John D Wood – in the face of some extraordinary market conditions. In this exclusive interview with PrimeResi, she discusses record results, expansion plans, and changing the industry for the better…
You are the first female Managing Director of John D Wood & Co in its 145-year history; do you think attitudes have changed in the industry since you began your career, and what in your opinion could be done to move things forward?
At the start of my career, I don’t recall a single female role model who inspired me in property, however I have had some fantastic male mentors who have more than made up for it!
I would of course like to see more women hold senior positions within the industry – it is well documented that women inspire women, and it empowers females within a workforce when they see other women they can relate to holding leadership positions.
Attitudes towards flexible working are key to retaining both men and women in any industry. At John D Wood & Co. we continue to gain talented people from competitors when their request for a degree of flexibility has been rejected. Our relatable approach towards a work-life balance goes a long way with our employees. I think it’s important to challenge outdated views and believe we all have a responsibility to represent the change the industry needs regardless of gender.
JDW has just reported its best year of trading since 2015, despite the turmoil brought by the pandemic; were there any key changes you made that helped the business thrive in these extraordinary times?
Shortly after being appointed as MD, we re-structured to ensure we had the strongest team in place and have a united leadership approach in terms of putting our people and clients first. At the start of the pandemic, the senior team were very much the front line of the business. We were quick to return to offices and complete risk assessments, and found pent up demand huge once we were really ready to trade.
At that point, we led from the front and didn’t look back. Honest communication has been key with clients and our employees – being supportive and as flexible as possible. I firmly believe people are at the heart of our business, and a content team makes for brilliant results.
How does the Coronavirus crisis compare to previous market challenges, and what steps are you taking to prepare the agency for potentially a tough few months ahead?
For comparison, we could reflect on the 2008 financial crisis and the negativity in the markets back then, however the uncertainty surrounding this pandemic, along with no precedent to be guided by, makes this crisis feel quite different. We have seen an evolution in the way people want to live, and the desire for more space at home is stronger than ever. It is simply a matter of navigating new challenges together with our clients, constantly reviewing sentiment and demand of the market.
2021 represents hope for many people, and that in itself is quite powerful. A challenge at the forefront of our minds is to continue looking after people’s health and well-being – we have brilliant support resources in place, but without question the last few months have been tough for so many, and while we aren’t through this difficult period yet it’s important we remain united.
What are the biggest practical challenges being faced by your teams at the moment, and how are you maintaining morale?
In this third lockdown, home schooling has been our biggest challenge, alongside the lack of international moves. More families want to move, but fewer families are currently willing to allow viewings. That said, so far this year, despite viewings being significantly reduced, we have agreed more sales than the same period last year – so commitment is up. Viewings are logistically difficult, especially in London as many don’t have vehicles, and we no longer allow clients in cars, so everything takes longer than normal…
Morale is so important! And we’re doing our best to have some fun along the way with online quizzes, and quarterly and annual awards – we are a competitive bunch so things can get quite wild. If in doubt, we revert to delicious edible treats to lift spirits!
Has JDW adapted its marketing strategies – in particular with regard to print and online advertising – in response to the crisis?
2020 was the year of digital for John D Wood & Co. Our digital proposition is key, and we have invested heavily in our online presence. Last year we reviewed and revamped our social media presence, which is building well.
We handle fascinating property transactions, they are often complex and interesting deals, but in recent years haven’tshared these experiences or knowledge as much as we could have. We are now consciously talking to the market again and want to showcase the great work we do and properties we manage.
You joined Faron Sutaria in 2011, a few years before it was folded into JDW; can you give us some insight on the turnaround strategy at your parent company Countrywide, and how JDW is playing a part?
John D Wood & Co. is one of the prime brands at Countrywide, and has always been recognised as having a unique offering and strategy compared to the other brands, consequently requiring a different operational approach and direction, which has always been supported by the Group – but also means that knowledge, experience and talent can still be shared.
Overall, the business focus has to be around doing the basics right. At John D Wood & Co. people come first. We look after each individual, support, train and do what we say we will. Our results are a product of an evolving business, and an acknowledgment that our industry is constantly changing sowe embrace the journey.
JDW rolled out a country division last year, prompted by a 68% rise in the number of buyers registering to move out of London; do you foresee the trend for escaping the city continuing?
Absolutely. In 12 months’ time, the population living in London is quite likely to be very different to that pre-pandemic. More Londoners are relocating and enjoying working remotely, and the younger generation has a great opportunity to make the most of good value rents in the Capital.
The trend very much continues to be – move out to the country, for more space and a better quality of life. That said, London is addictive and special and I’m sure many are looking forward to seeing the city thrive again.
A number of agencies have been adopting a hub-based approach of late; with 25 offices in London and in the country, is this something you could see working for a firm like John D Wood, or are bricks and mortar bases key to your long-term strategy?
There is clearly a place in the market for a hub style of agency; however, at present it’s not going to be our approach
There is clearly a place in the market for a hub style of agency; however, at present it’s not going to be our approach. We want to be accessible, and always local. I think where possible face to face interaction is the best way to do business. Whilst this doesn’t go hand in hand with a pandemic (!), I see our support departments as more likely to work remotely moving forward than our front line agency. In fact many of our support teams have worked from all over the world in the last few months, and nobody would know! It’s all part of saying yes to a more flexible approach if we can.
JDW has also diversified into refurbishments with a new division launched last year; are there any other areas you are looking at moving into as an agency?
This year we intend to launch our Short Lets service. We recognise that the Stamp Duty deadline has meant sellers have committed to selling, often without a home to go to. Short Let demand is already increasing both from domestic and overseas tenants.
What is best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.