One of London’s best known and most successful agents, Noel Flint retires at the end of March after nearly four decades at Knight Frank. Here, the veteran dealmaker and industry heavyweight reflects on some of the finest properties he has sold, how the high-end agency has evolved, and why the current market is the toughest he has ever witnessed…
After training as a land agent in Hereford, 1983 brought you to Knight Frank’s head office on Hanover Square, where you specialised in the valuation and sale of development properties; did you always see yourself going into property, and what first sparked your interest in bricks and mortar?
It was not always my intention to go into property. My initial aspirations were to work in the country, hence the training as a land agent, and at that stage I had made up my mind that I did not want to work in London having grown up there. However, as a land agent I became involved in the sale of cottages and houses on some of the estates and that is where I got a taste for the art of the deal. That transactional aspect drew me to property in the first place. Equally, as much as I enjoyed living and working in Hereford, I felt that as a 24 year old I wanted to broaden my experiences, which brought about the move back to London.
You transferred over to Knightsbridge two years after joining Knight Frank, originally tasked with handling the sale of best-in-class properties across the capital, before going on to head up the flagship office. How did you go about establishing such a dominant position in the PCL market?
We were lucky because there were a limited number of competitors in central London at that time and fewer still had more than one office. Knight Frank’s track record of selling the best in class houses in London helped us to build up our profile and make the most of our network of contacts by doing the best job we could for our clients and achieving great results for them.
Between 1988 and 2011 you were involved in some of the biggest and most important house sales across Chelsea, Belgravia and Knightsbridge; how significant were deals like the Old Rectory in Chelsea at the time, and has ultra-prime deal-making changed in recent years?
We sold the Old Rectory twice – once to the developers and then on their behalf. Both were very significant sales, once as an unmodernised but distinguished house and the second time as the ultimate home set within two acres. It was not straightforward though; none of the wealthiest clients that we approached initially were interested. However, I had taken the buyer that I eventually introduced round almost every available property within her budget of up to £10m. The Old Rectory, on the other hand, had an asking price of £25m but I suggested it anyway as the other houses had not been big enough. In the event, I had a diary clash as I was booked in to meet the finance minister for Qatar about a property that they were looking to sell in Belgravia so I had to hand the viewing over to a colleague. It was only a few days later, when I asked how the viewing had gone, that I was surprised to learn that it was about to go under offer!
It was only in the early 2000s that we started to see a rise in buyers prepared to spend £50m+ on a London home
People often say that if a house like that came back onto the market now a buyer could be found very quickly but, in those days, there were fewer individuals with the scale of budget needed to buy it. It was only in the early 2000s that we started to see a rise in buyers prepared to spend £50m+ on a London home.
You’ve built a reputation as an expert in ultra-prime addresses like Belgrave Square and Carlton Terrace during your time as an agent; how have these trophy locations changed in the last 30 years, and what would you say is London’s number one address for HNWI buyers today?
The ‘trophy’ locations have all been around for some time but the emergence of the very big, high value house certainly grew at the turn of the millennium. That is when we saw the trend of people turning buildings that had been divided into three or four flats back into large single houses that would command a price of £25m and above. Prior to this, there wasn’t really the money to do it. An increasing number of overseas buyers came over with significant budgets because London had emerged as the place to invest in a trophy asset. In terms of the top addresses, I think the houses in Kensington Palace Gardens are exceptional, although some might argue the case for a villa in Regent’s Park.
What’s the best property you have ever sold?
This is a tricky one because sometimes the nature of the transaction is as pleasing as the quality of the property itself. In terms of the property, I was involved in the sale of The Holme in the middle of Regent’s Park, which is still a top five house in London and I suspect may not change hands again. I also sold Conrad Black’s former house in Cottesmore Gardens to a Spanish couple. It was a fantastic house and a very satisfying deal because they had their hearts set on living in Belgravia but they didn’t want a tall, narrow house which complicated matters.
This particular house was a double house; it was well documented that Lady Black had a very extensive wardrobe, as did the Spanish lady looking to buy, so this was a perfect fit. The couple needed convincing to buy in Cottesmore Gardens because they had never heard about it, being a bit of a backwater but nonetheless a top London address. Of course, that is its charm for those that live there and for a number of years afterwards, the couple were kind enough to ask me back and repeatedly told me it was the best purchase they had ever made which brought me great satisfaction.
You’ve latterly served as Head of London Residential at Knight Frank, overseeing a doubling of the local office network across the capital from 16 to over 30; how did you find the transition from a sales to a management role, and what advice would you have for others contemplating a similar move?
It was initially a challenge making the transition but management is also very rewarding. It is very absorbing managing lots of people across multiple offices so whilst I have occasionally missed the thrill of doing a deal, I have found the recruitment of good people and finding the right role for them within the business hugely rewarding. This is especially true when it comes to pairing people with the right managers. Getting that right means that they work successfully together, learning from each other and rising through the ranks. My competitive trading side re-emerged in identifying new office openings and finding the best sites for them. We have secured some fantastic premises and a number of our new offices have been highly successful from the day we opened them.
My competitive trading side re-emerged in identifying new office openings and finding the best sites for them
I think that if you are going to take on a management role, you need to make sure that it suits your skills set. It is not always a natural shift from a sales role; you have to be prepared and able to have difficult conversations with people. Listening is key, as is being able to see both sides of every story. It is important to be fair and for people to know that your door is always open, no matter how senior or junior that person is. You have to be focused on getting the most out of people and creating successful and productive teams.
A number of firms have been scaling back their networks in recent years, citing changing buying habits and market conditions; how important are physical branches to Knight Frank, and do you see the firm ever rolling out an online/hybrid offering to complement the full service?
Not at the moment. There are a lot of question marks with regard to the success and future direction of online and hybrid agency offerings, as highlighted by the recent struggles experienced by the likes of Purplebricks, Emoov and Yopa. I also think that in a challenging market, vendors need the advice of a knowledgeable agent to guide them through the entire process and be on the other end of the phone whenever they need them, particularly in London. They are the ones who will be able to find you the right buyer.
I am pleased to say that Knight Frank is still investing in the business, opening a new office later this year and developing our software platform with the overarching aim of improving the experience of our customers.
How does the current downturn compare to other market cycles you have witnessed in your career? Do you have any predictions as to what might happen next?
This is the toughest market that I have seen throughout my career
This is the toughest market that I have seen throughout my career. I have been through two ‘crashes’; however, we were in and out of them within a year. We have been in this current downturn for around three years and it is difficult to say with any great confidence when we are likely to be out of the other side of it given the on-going political uncertainty. Those previous crashes happened as a result of a sequence of financial events and the resulting consequences. Once those were resolved, the markets began to recover and the allure of London drew people back in again. After ‘Black Wednesday’ in 1992, the phones were ringing frantically from people in Zurich looking to take advantage of the relatively weak pound and lower property prices. Within a few months, prices had begun to recover due to the surge in demand.
As our research points out, there is palpable pent up demand in the market and London is still considered a very attractive place to own a property. There are currently nine times as many applicants registering to buy in London as there are properties coming to the market. You only have to look at the recent success of the commercial property market to see that it is still an attractive place to live, work and start or run a business. Brexit will have to be resolved at some stage and at that point, once the lie of the land becomes easier to read, there are people waiting for the right moment to transact and the market may well recover quite quickly.
You have also been heavily involved in the development of the graduate recruitment programme and apprenticeship scheme at Knight Frank; how hard is it to find and retain top talent at the moment, and what are the best ways you have found to do so?
I have really enjoyed my involvement with the graduate recruitment programme. Seeing some of the people that I helped to recruit coming through the promotion process to become associates and salaried partners has been a proud moment. Their contribution to the firm has been valuable and they provide an interesting and varied perspective on the property market.
What makes a great sales a) Negotiator and b) Manager, in your opinion?
A great negotiator has to have a genuine interest in property and be a bit like a sponge, absorbing information, remembering the finer details and being able to draw instant comparisons. The good ones can almost map out a set of floor plans from memory such is their knowledge of each property. The key is finding out what people’s motivations are and making sure you have something to offer them. I always say that the one thing that makes an agent especially valuable to clients is being a mine of information.
A manager is someone who can read the situation, judge the mood of his or her team and constantly analyse the current state of the market. They need to be able to make the most of the data at their fingertips in order to make quick, informed decisions to stay ahead of the competition. The ability to motivate people is also a vital trait.
You were a key figure in the setting up of challenger portal OnTheMarket.com; how would you sum up the progress of the venture so far, and will you continue to be involved?
I am hugely proud to have been part of this. I was there from the get-go when we first debated doing it and we collectively put in a lot of hours working out how to do it and get the right set up. Ian Springett has done a fantastic job leading it and I don’t think he gets sufficient credit for his role in its success. I am excited to see the way it is developing and it is now generating seven times the number of leads to the agents that list their properties on the platform compared to a year ago. There is clear evidence that OnTheMarket is narrowing the gap on Rightmove and is approaching the all-important tipping point.
If you were in charge for the day, which single policy would you bring in to improve the way the UK property market functions?
I would encourage some form of escrow payment for both buyers and sellers once a deal is agreed, to compensate for instances where people change their mind at the last minute or a buyer is gazumped. This would account for any expenses they have already incurred as well as helping to focus both parties. It would also make buyers think twice about ‘price chipping’ just before exchange if they felt they could lose their up-front payment.
I thought that the HIP (Home Information Pack) was a good initiative to make sure that people have the relevant information in place before going through the sales process and I think something similar is worth revisiting to prevent unnecessary delays that so often crop up.
What would you personally buy tomorrow, given a super-prime sized budget?
As an agent I have often been asked this question. After serious deliberation, I would opt for one of the houses on the west side of either Gilston Road or the Little Boltons. They tick a lot of boxes with their west-facing gardens, lovely proportions and off-street parking.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t put pressure on yourself by leaving people waiting
There are two great pieces of advice that I have been given. You have to listen and take everything on board – that undoubtedly makes you a better agent. Equally, the quicker you can ring someone back, the less brilliant they expect you to be. Don’t put pressure on yourself by leaving people waiting.
What are you planning for your retirement?
I have a number of interests so will divide my time between those. A lot of them are sport-related so I will be chasing after golf balls, hopefully catching a few fish, playing croquet, occasionally tobogganing and generally keeping myself fit and healthy. There are still many parts of the globe I haven’t visited so there will be some travelling as well. I will no doubt enjoy a slightly slower pace to life and keep in touch with my many friends at Knight Frank.
Noel Flint photographed by John Wright
The Holne by Garry Knight (CC-BY-2.0)