The managing director of Kay & Co on the importance of continuity and the appeal of working with Warren Buffett

Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Orlando Gili

Your father founded Kay & Co in 1982. When did you come on board?
I joined pretty much straight from school in 1997. Back then, it was a very small business of three or four people—now we have 25 across three offices. We built the business up together. I became managing director in 2008, and I take care of the overall direction of the company, but I do still get involved in front line sales. I have a portfolio of sales properties that I am responsible for, at the higher end of the price spectrum—circa £10 million-plus.

How important is it that you remain hands-on?
It’s very important. As of November 2018, we became the exclusive UK affiliate of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices. One of the questions that’s been asked of us by clients is whether our culture is going to change—no. We’re family owned and operated, and Berkshire Hathaway are very keen that we maintain our boutique nature. Even though we are now part of a global network of offices, it is important to us, and to Berkshire Hathaway, that we do not lose our identity.

How did you come to be involved in the network?
They always wanted to open in London—it’s probably their most important market outside of the US—and they spoke to lots of suitors. They were looking for a culture fit—a company that shares the same values, the same ethos. Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc, takes a very long-term view of his investments, and he wanted to work with a business that had a desire to grow. We’ve been under the same ownership and management from the start. We have demonstrated to him that we have that continuity.

What are the advantages of your affiliation?
I can now give my clients global exposure and an unrivalled referral network. We’ve already formed a close working relationship with our New York office, run by an amazing lady called Ellie Johnson—a through and through New Yorker and a real estate veteran. Her team are keen to collaborate with us on marketing each other’s properties. Indeed, it is off the back of a joint listing presentation that we won six prime London listings from a single developer client, with a total value of £100 million. They loved the fact that they would have true representation in New York, by a brand with the strength of Berkshire Hathaway behind it. I’ll be in LA in March and intend to meet with some of the leading brokerages there to ensure that a similar relationship is developed. We opened an office in Berlin last year and more recently have opened one in Milan, with Dubai to be announced shortly.

Do expectations vary among your international client base?
With time, you come to understand the nuances of different cultures and nationalities. That’s one of the benefits of being a business with 30-plus years’ experience of the prime central London—and the Marylebone—market. We’re not a cut-and-thrust agency where negotiators come and go—we have very high levels of staff retention, which gives clients confidence. It’s about being able to speak knowledgeably about the specialist shoemaker, the neighbourhood butcher, the whisky shop. This business is about relationships and the more you get to know your client, the more you can give them information that’s personal to them, which in turn increases their trust.

I am now dealing with the children of some of my dad’s clients. We have a very high percentage of repeat business and I think that’s because of the culture we instil in our staff: it’s a cliché, but it’s people before profit. We don’t want to be a faceless corporation—we will always be integrated into the community. Having lived and worked here for so long, lots of my clients have become friends. The nice thing about Marylebone is, you bump into people on the high street, in a restaurant, in Waitrose. It breaks down that professional barrier and makes you more approachable.

What are your projections for the Marylebone property market?
I think generally in terms of central London, the sellers’ market will continue to be difficult up until Brexit. But, irrespective of the outcome, I think certainty and clarity will reinvigorate things. Uncertainty kills any market. This time next year, we’ll be in a very different place and we’ll see a lot more activity. Conversely, rentals are very busy. There are an awful lot of businesses that are headquartering their European operations in London: we’re doing a lot of work with Google, Facebook are coming in, and that is driving demand for rentals in Marylebone in particular. America is referring a lot of these tenants.

What advice would you give a prospective seller?
There is still demand and deals are being done, but buyers want to see value. They are still factoring in stamp duty costs for a £2 million purchase—this equates to £153,750 for a primary residence or £213,750 for a second home or buy-to-let purchase, which eats significantly into budgets. Also, make sure your agent is proactive, that they’re not waiting for buyers to come to them, but are taking the initiative to go out and put your property in front of buyers. You can’t just take a property on, put it in your window and on the property portals and wait for the business to come. This is the reactive approach that 95 per cent of agents take, but the market just isn’t like that now. 

What are the strengths of Marylebone as an area?
Transportation is fantastic: you have King’s Cross and Paddington nearby, you’ve got the Jubilee Line down to Canary Wharf and the Central Line to the City, plus all the other lines that go in and out of Baker Street. There are lots of green spaces, and we’re sandwiched between Regent’s Park and Hyde Park. It’s a nice safe neighbourhood and there’s a village-y, cafe culture—it’s not just another carbon copy, cloned high street. There have also been a lot more schools and educational facilities opening recently, which is a draw for families. Marylebone is more diverse in terms of residents now than it has been in the 20 years I’ve worked here.

What’s the best part of the job?
The fact that we’re still our own business despite this massive brand we are now affiliated with, but also, it’s the diverse nature of the people I meet during the course of a week. It’s never mundane; every day is different. And you get to see some spectacular properties—plus now I get to promote my clients’ properties as I travel to other Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices offices, which can’t be a bad thing!