SECOND CITY: Business is on the up in Birmingham

by ANDY MARINO MIDLANDS MAN IS MAKING AN IMPACT THEY used to say there were two topics of conver­sation in Birmingham: cars, and the price of cars. Now there’s three. Bobby Singh is an estate agent who set up shop in the small West Midlands town of Oldbury. He wears a turban and speaks with a slight Black Country ac­cent that a great education (BA, MBA, FCCA) has not completely detuned. Oldbury is hardly a name to conjure with on the international property market. Even being really, re­ally close to Smethwick, and despite easy access to the M5 motorway and the glittering promise of downtown Birmingham, Oldbury probably can’t compete with San Francisco, Dubai or Sydney. But something is happening in Birmingham and its environs: international capital is starting to flow in the direction of local properties. Specifically, in the direction of Singh’s properties. Londoners and foreign buyers, especially from south Asia and the Far East, are snapping up houses and apartments sight unseen and above asking-price in places such as Dudley and Rowley Regis. Speculative interest in UK property is hardly unusu­al. In parts of the capital and a few other hotspots, at the upper end of the market, foreign buyers dominate. But ordinary houses in the suburbs around Birmingham? “Huge amounts,” Singh confirms. “It’s the Far East that’s interested. In my LinkedIn inbox are enquiries from funds in Dubai and many other places, and they are saying they have major interest in the UK.” Something is going on, and it is probably due in large part to the phenomenon of Singh. He launched his online but still very much brick-and-mortar es­tate agency in 2010, in the depths of the post-crash recession when the mantra from experts was that the entire world was moving online. Everybody was broke, and price counted more than ever. Singh despaired at the situation, but he reckoned that if people cared about their houses, their neigh­bourhood and where they wanted to move, then they might also prefer to deal with an estate agent who cared, listened and provided a personal service built on trust and honesty – not just lowest fee and impos­sibly high valuation. “What you’ve got is Joe Public out there saying: ‘I don’t believe that price,’ and what you’ve got is a brand that’s been ruined because they say that estate agent is full of s***” Into this unpromising landscape Singh launched his highly-personalised business, with a seductive message baked into its very name,, showing he appreciated where people lived and what they had to sell. It was a masterclass in persuasion, reframing a cus­tomer’s outlook and by doing so adding sunshine and value. It was the first building block of a unique brand centred on him – in Brum, Singh’s face is on everything from billboards to petrol-pump handles – and relent­lessly underscored with promptness and honesty. Those are two qualities from which the typical es­tate agent recoils like a vampire from daylight. Where the property business is usually just about Location, Location, Location, Bobby Singh decided to add Reputation, Reputation, Reputation. “What are we trying to get across?” asks Singh of the sky. “Be careful what you’re buying and who you buy from. Reputation means a big thing. You could turn around and say: ‘How did this guy become the number one brand for property in Birmingham and the Midlands so fast?’” Singh is known for taking the initiative and he also weaponised integrity and put some skin in the game, generating trust by pasting every single review of his performance on his website, staking his reputation on each sale. He started turning himself into the Richard Bran­son of real estate by staying local. “We’re not na­tional, we’re just serving Birmingham,” he says, “but it’s not a bad thing to be under the national magnify­ing glass because Birmingham is being invested in heavily at the moment.” Singh bet on being able to find value anywhere, and the world is starting to listen to his message of trust and brand. He is no Luddite, either: the LoveY­ website is whizzier than all the rest. It is not some clunky listings page but a portal into Singh’s personality and view of the universe, complete with a very readable blog and videos of him interviewed on the BBC. Now he has ambitions beyond local: “I like to do things on the national stage because I like to think of people thinking of the brand. We’re seeing a phenom­enal number of instructions coming through our sys­tem and we pick and choose who we want to help,” Singh says. This is not normal estate agent behaviour. “Most agents stick a board outside a house. They don’t care about the price because they’ve sold their soul to the devil – they need to get it to the market even if they don’t believe in the price. Because they don’t have qualifications, and without having quali­fications they’re able to value people’s houses,” he says with irony, speaking as a Fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. “And when they don’t get the instruction, they put an extra £50k on top of it.” Singh thinks it is lazy and negligent to rely on the web – a sign you are a useless estate agent. “You only need to use property portals to advertise. When you have waiting lists, you have to serve your waiting list first. If Rolex bring out a brand new watch, they’re not going to have to advertise it; it’ll go to their waiting list. What we’ve done is made a waiting-list brand, and those on our waiting list are waiting to be served. They’re waiting for the right in­struction at the right price so they can go in and buy.” He refuses to over-value properties just to secure an instruction. “If you’re a good brand you have to be accountable to the buyer,” he says, “so you must be straight down the line. And the buyers must have a lot of trust that Bobby’s price is always right because everything sells fast. The only way you can do that is if you bring property up to a fair price.” This brings in serious clients looking for value and willing to pay tasty fees for Singh to serve them an ideal property. “I’m not saying it’s cheap, but it is market value and that’s why the market seems to be buying it very, very quickly.” So with a business built on personal service, is he more like a broker than an agent? “The word gets out there that there is an estate agent marketing proper­ties correctly and valuing up fairly. Then what you want to do is buy from that agent, not from someone who keeps over-valuing.” Perhaps this personal ser­vice is the way forward for brands in an online world – and he is making fast sales to distant web-users because they trust his prices and descriptions. “I’m turning round and selling properties without anybody viewing them, week in, week out. Because I consider Birmingham to be cheap, and they want to go with a trusted brand,” he says. People call and tell him which house they like the look of, and the deal is done. “They don’t want to come from Mauritius or Sri Lanka, they want to buy it over the phone. Who do they trust? Somebody they consider to be signifi­cant. Otherwise they just get robbed.” Likewise, the strength of a brand adds to the bot­tom line. He’s not cheap, but people happily pay up. Singh’s motto is “Only weak estate agents negotiate,” and he relentlessly plunges it like a kirpan into the chests of competitors as he drains their client pools. “Over the last six to twelve months there’s been a lot of interest in our group just to see how we’re doing it, because the whole world is hellbent that Rightmove sells a house, but I think that’s complete c***.” Now there exists a queue for properties before Singh even lists them – his own Rolex waiting list. “For me, it’s the case that people are intrigued by the brand, and we put them in our system and there’s a priority list – there are those who are ready to move tomorrow and those who are hoping to move in three months.” He is what management consultants term “solu­tion-oriented”, which is far rarer than you’d think, because it means deals get done too quickly – it’s downright anti-corporate. “I really appreciated Bob­by’s ability to negotiate and find solutions where other people may have simply seen problems,” says one admirer. Being Asian and making it a selling point cannot harm the appeal to Asian capital: purple-turbaned Singh in his photo, gazing into the lucrative distance while thoughtfully stroking his luxuriant beard and hussar moustaches, kara bangle just visible above his shirt cuff. But tweeds and jeans also proclaim his Englishness, his twinkly informality. “As a rule of thumb, Asians don’t like leasing things,” Singh says. “They like to own and have the freehold. So the popularity there is significant. And Birmingham is the second city. Birmingham is just incredibly cheap, and now not only are the prices going up, but the bidding activity is phenomenal.” British Asians and Asians from abroad both want UK property, both as dwellings and investments. “No matter who you are, the moment you come of age your parents expect you, if you’re Asian, to have a house. Buying into your first golden brick: don’t buy the golden brick, buy a house instead of the golden brick. And it’ll go up and even if it doesn’t go up, it doesn’t matter. It always goes up. It’ll triple in your lifetime.” Singh can see it’s unfair when foreign money floods the market. He thinks stamp duty is a policy that’s backfired. “It’s like the UK is saying we don’t want international buyers buying our own property. These belong to the British. British people deserve homes,” he says, but that just increases the tempta­tion: “It’s creating this flurry of activity because the more you push people away the more they want it.” The weak pound has confirmed the appeal of UK property for foreign capital. “Brexit has given them a 20 per cent advantage on their interest rates. It’s a brilliant opportunity for every international buyer to turn around and bring their money straight into Eng­land. You’ll buy anything if somebody gives you 20 per cent overnight,” Singh says, managing to keep the despair from his voice. “It’s as if everything suddenly went on sale. If I was holding Euros, if I was holding dollars or whatever currency, I could suddenly turn around and benefit from this sudden drop, so why would you not?” There is some grey in his impressive beard, but I still wonder if he is old enough to remember the last big housing crash. “With the basic wage continu­ously going up, there is no doubt in my mind that property prices are unstoppable and will keep going up,” he says. “But….” and he makes an important point, “people are wrong when they think they are getting richer.” What the online revolution has done is make eve­rything equally and instantly available. In a world like that, the only competition is on price, which leads to a ruinous race to the bottom. Firms go broke and customers suffer from a collapse in quality and ser­vice. But Singh is certain he has found the solution. “As a businessman, there is no business I would rather be in than the one I’m in already,” he con­cludes. Richard Branson eat your heart out. Here comes the future.