A former apprentice seized the day when the franchise of the estate agency where she worked came up for grabs.
Backed by her father, Sarah Ballard was just 24 years old when she was successful in her application to run the Bingham branch for Newton Fallowell, the biggest independent estate agency network in the East Midlands. And two years after taking on the Bingham branch, she expanded to develop a second branch from scratch in nearby Mapperley.
Sarah started at Newton Fallowell Bingham as an apprentice at 18 after deciding not to go to university, and within the first year was already showing her entrepreneurial flair, buying up her own property with an eye to rising values and the buy to let market, and in just a few years was promoted to the role of office manager.
So when the opportunity came to take over the franchise, it was a logical step for the former apprentice, who quickly decided she was up for running her own business – despite still being in her early twenties. With her father acting as a sleeping partner from the outset, she quickly built on her administrative and managerial experience to grow into the new role.
Said Sarah: “I put the money together through a mix of my own finances, which I’d been saving for a buy to let property, and some help from my Dad. I was fortunate to have worked in the business so I had a good knowledge to build on. I could also draw on the support of the head office team, particularly Newton Fallowell’s franchise director, David Spackman, who has always been at the end of the telephone whenever I needed any support.
“Having head office meant that I knew they would take away a number of potential headaches, such as the payroll, the website, or marketing and branding, which leaves you free to focus on the business. And when I decided to open a second branch, I really felt the benefit of the head office franchise team. They helped with the market research, found the premises and negotiated the lease.”
The market town of Bingham, near Nottingham, is the main focus for estate agency, banking and shopping for the local villages. Newton Fallowell is currently ranked in the top three estate agents in the town, and Sarah puts that down to her team’s sales skills and by offering an outstanding service. “We treat everyone the same, whatever the value of the property,” she explains. “And we offer a traditional estate agency, taking the time to talk to buyers and sellers, but combined with the latest technology and tools that come from being part of a major brand.”
She added: “We’re also open seven days per week, because we recognise that weekends are when people are free for house viewings.”
The biggest challenge in kick-starting the branch, which had been lagging before Sarah’s takeover, has been to get the right team in place. Sarah explains: “We had some ups and downs in the beginning, but as we’re only a small team it’s crucial to have the right people. We also ‘grow our own’ – just as I came through from being an apprentice, so others in the team have worked up from that role to take on senior positions. We also make sure we employ local people who understand the local market as that helps sell properties.”
Outside the office, the staff all get involved in the local community as well, whether it’s sponsoring the local pork pie competition or providing sports tops for the primary school, making themselves part of family life in the market town of Bingham.
Things are a little different in Mapperley, location of the new branch, where Sarah has found it’s not just about following the same path and doing the same thing in a new place. Here, the market is very different with a younger generation and a more buoyant rental market, requiring a different approach to building the business and engaging with the customer base.
As owner, Sarah remains very active across the business. She is the property valuer for the Bingham branch and part time valuer for Mapperley. Much of her time is spent doing viewings, registering applicants and taking offers, although she has office managers in each branch, which frees up her time for other aspects of managing the business.
Having turned a profit in year one after taking over the Bingham branch, Sarah is hoping to achieve break-even in year one in Mapperley, and to be in profit in the second branch as soon as possible after that. Once that has freed up profits from the Bingham branch, she will be looking to make further investments and expand further. She says: “Certainly, I’m looking at what happens next and I know there will be economy of scale if I can find the right spot to expand into another area of Nottingham.”
And, finally, she says: “Running a business is a big commitment and one which changes your world. It’s great to be in control and be able to make decisions about how I want the business to run, whilst relying on the back up and support from head office. There are never any days off, as I’m always thinking of the business even if I have a holiday, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
And outside her business success, Sarah is also getting competitive elsewhere. This time she has her eye on the pork pie competition she sponsors. It takes place in the village of Granby in the Vale of Belvoir, near Melton Mowbray, which is renowned for its pork pies. Last year Sarah took part in the competition for the first time, and this year she says she has her sights set on that gold medal first prize...
Sarah’s top tips for would-be estate agency franchisees: