It was recently announced that the Tops name has returned to estate agency in the form of Norwich based Tops Moving House. One of the key men behind this new estate agency as well as Auction House and Fine & Country in Norwich is John Howard. But just who exactly is he? CAROLINE CULOT reports.
Tell me a little about your past history.
I went to school at Greshams in north Norfolk and in those days Holt wasn’t the place it is today, that’s for sure. I left school at 17 to join my father, who was a very good greengrocer and who had a couple of shops in Felixstowe and then the supermarkets arrived…so he sold the two shops he had. He always wanted to be an estate agent, he was in his his early 60s so he ran it really as a hobby. I joined him when I was about 17 because he had been very ill and when I was 17 and a half, he had to go into hospital and I was left running the business with a secretary, it was a baptism of fire. It was a great way to learn the trade and when you are struggling, you learn a lot quicker than when you are doing well. I always wanted to be a property developer…and that is what I have done for the last 25 years. We buy all over the country, all different kinds of property and we have an investment portfolio as well. I enjoyed estate agency while I was doing it but I always thought it was a means to an end, property development is a lot more fun.
Much has been written about your time at Cambridge United football club. Tell me more.
I was a director of Cambridge United football club for 18 years, and in those years I hardly missed a game, home or away. I remember the four directors all signed a personal gurantee for £1 million to keep Dion Dublin at the club for that season because we felt we needed to keep him if we were to have a chance of promotion. We all had to sign the gurantee and I wasn’t married so I didn’t have to tell my wife, the other three did tell their wives! At the end of the year we sold him to Man United. So I had been there an awfully long time and the club was in dire straits and we looked around to see if we could find someone to inject some capital and that wasn’t the case and with my company buying the ground, it enabled the club to pay off all its debts at the time. Clearly they later went into administration but at the time, all the debts were paid off.
Do you still own the ground?
We still own the ground, they (the football club) pay the rent, we did help them through the administration…we gave rent free periods during that time to help the club survive, we were one of the top three investors to help the club carry on. They got a 50
year lease which is an awfully long time and once that lease expires there’s automatically another one and as long as they can pay the rent the club is there for perpetuity.
Would you ever sell it back to them?
We’ve owned it for five years now and the club is stable, we have tried to relocate the club, we continue to try and do that. The club has talked to us about purchasing it back and I am sure that at some stage they will have an opportunity to do so.
How did it feel when you had to resign?
In the end I think it was probably relief, all the directors I had been with for 15 years had gone and I stayed on. The administrator asked me if I would stay on at the time and I was happy to do so, so I was the one with the experience left on the board, I stayed on for two years.
Was it passion to help the club or did you see it just as a profit making venture?
Clearly I am a property developer so that accusation is always going to be fired at me, there’s no way you are going to get away from that but having said that, I was there for 18 years, and the opportunity was for any of the directors to have purchased the ground. In many ways, I was a reluctant buyer at the time because I knew what was to come. I was fairly recently married and I remember getting a phone call at 1am saying I hope your wife dies of cancer and I thought, actually I really don’t need all that, but I stuck with it and I took the abuse. I think the most embarrassing time was when we played Rushton towards at the end of the season…they rang up and said they thought they needed to put on some extra security – how embarrassing is that? I remember getting to the ground and there was a cordon for me to go down, between the security, and the stewards had made this entrance and I remember thinking this is mad, this is a third division team, what would have happened if it had been in the Premiership? I remember we won the game and the away fans chanting through the whole of the second half, we want our ground back, and abusing me on an away ground, I don’t think the home fans quite believed it, but I stuck it out for another year and a half after that. I believe if you are committed to something, you are committed 100 pc, and if you’re not, you’re not but while you are there, you’ve got to give it your all.
How difficult was it to re-establish yourelf in the business world?
I didn’t think my reputation was tarnished, I had some very nice letters from Cambridge United fans saying thankyou for everything you’ve done, what you have to appreciate is that it is always the same small minority who give you stick. I didn’t feel I had to prove anything to anybody, I’d been there a long time and we had supported the club through administration. It was nice having Saturday nights at home and I enjoyed being with my family.
Is it true someone put our garden on Ebay?
Yes, my whole house I think, actually I don’t know how Ebay can allow that to happen but that’s what they did and it caused a bit of grief and publicity at the time and you just have to rise above it.
Tell me how you got involved with Auction House and Fine & Country in Norwich?
I know Bryan Baxter and Roger Lake very well. I was actually in Holland and I got a phone call from Bryan saying the market was horrific which we all knew and did I know anyone who could help the situation so I said leave it with me. I had been a client of their’s for many years, they ran a really super Auction House and I knew they were expanding throughout the country. I didn’t know much about Fine & Country at this stage. I spoke to my (business) partner and Jeremy Prior who I went to school with (behind JSM Property. So we had a chat (with Bryan and Roger)…at that stage the situation was dealable for them, later things got a bit worse – multi office middle market agencies, look at the sum of companies which got into trouble, we had all the banks in trouble, Woolworths in trouble, I should think even Archant made some redundancies so everyone was struggling and in that estate agency you can go from doing very well to badly extremely quickly. Then, come November, the market just dropped off a cliff and everyone will tell you the same. Come January we negotiated a deal. Auction House UK was not in any trouble whatsoever, neither was the auction department, neither was Fine & Country so we purchased those businesses prior to the administration, so we weren’t involved in any of the administration. I obviously knew about Auction House because I had been a client, I knew they had 13 offices around the country, we have now got 23. With regard to Fine & Country, I remember walking in the office and saying hi and saying I’ve just bought it and asking what it was all about! They showed me a lifestyle brochure and I said that is interesting, and they explained that 90pc of the people who buy a house, the decision is made by the lady, which I can well believe, and it’s a very successful business and a great brand.
If you had bought the former Tops business, could you have saved any of the redundancies?
I think it was a very scary time, and I think in retrospect we could have taken one or two of them over but the biggest problem is the European law which is so complicated on human rights and employment and the market fell off a cliff so I don’t think at the time it was something that would have interested us.
Do you think it’s a good thing to bring back the Tops name?
It had six bad months and any business can have six bad months and it wasn’t able to survive which was very unfortunate for the people who worked there, they were all good staff on the whole and I am sure the majority found jobs quite quickly so there was no real reason for not bringing the name back. It’s a well known name in Norfolk so we felt the time was right to bring it back this year.
What do you say to the people who were left in a mess over the Tops situation?
We weren’t involved in that, we purchased the name at the time from the administrator but I was no more involved in Tops than you were, really most of the staff were good staff and I appreciate they might have had some difficulties but I am sure they are back in work now.
Lastly, what has been your inspiration?
I enjoy business; I enjoy people, working with people who are very motivated and want to be successful, if I can help with that, it’s absolutely great. I think business has to be fun, has to be done with a smile on your face, if you can’t do it with smile on your face, I’m not sure you should be doing it.
Tops Moving House is on 01603 221882, Fine & Country is on 01603 221888 and Auction House is on 01603 508500.