An entrepreneurial life

Location : Norwich

I was seventeen and I didn’t know what to do as a career. My father suggested a secretarial course as giving me more time to think. The last thing I wanted to be was a secretary but as a result of illness I was very fortunate in being asked to help out temporarily whilst I was convalescing with the Bishop’s work because his secretary had resigned. I was actually back at college part-time trying to get my exams because the diagnosis of my illness happened the day before my exams and I thought well I’ve always wanted to do something rather special, and despite the fact it was mainly secretarial I thought this was wonderful. It was at the time of Vatican II. I said if I could look on it as a full-time job I would be interested and would even give up my exams. And the chap who had been my visitor while I was ill said, ‘Oh I don’t know, he’s looking for somebody more mature.’ But he went back and he had a word with the Bishop and the Bishop was prepared to give me a trial. I ended up being there four and a half years. Fascinating job. We were writing to the Pope and other famous people; he wrote books and obviously wrote letters to priests and seminarians and so on, , it was a fascinating job. Very isolated but interesting nonetheless.

Then I got engaged, had to move, found it difficult to find a job in Cardiff where my husband-to-be was based because secretary to a bishop didn’t hold much in the commercial world. Also I’d been on half the salary I could have earned because it was a charity and I was still living at home. I ended up having to accept a rather menial position as an assistant secretary in a car finance company. It was all part of a big conglomerate. I don’t know if you remember Julian Hodge in that era? You probably don’t, he was a big Welsh financier and these two guys who ran this conglomerate were his right hand men, his chairman and his company secretary who had set up their own company. One day I was called into their offices and I’m thinking what have I done? Am I about to be sacked or what? And it wasn’t me they were sacking it was their secretary, their PA. They were asking me to take her place – she was demoted down to the bank downstairs. So for the next twelve months until I had to move again with my husband I was their proper PA. Whereas I’d been more of a passive assistant to the Bishop, here I was in a very active role because they were out of the office a lot and I had to take charge.

Then I had to move to Merseyside because of my husband’s work and they had a sister company in Liverpool so they actually found me a job up there. But I think literally they were doing the Cardiff office a favour, because I helped out on the switchboard and in the accounts office and generally. I think they created a job for me basically.

My daughter was born up on Merseyside, and then we were there for a year, had to move down to Sussex because my husband lost his job. And then I started working for him from home doing his secretarial work. My second child was born while we were down there, then he lost his job again and we moved up to Norfolk in ’73. And I was generally doing his work all the time, just generally helping out as much as I could despite having two children and then a third one! And then everything fell apart, I literally reached nervous exhaustion and so on, I mean the marriage it was very difficult really. He was quite violent and in the end I had a complete breakdown.

Becoming a Samaritan and earning a degree

Then I eventually got divorced because I could see it was the only way to get my health back and it was becoming unsafe for the children as well. And then I started… I was on benefits because he said he couldn’t afford to pay us, I started doing little cleaning jobs and also I started selling Usborne books on a party-plan basis. I had had an enormous amount of help from some friends when I had this breakdown and I felt there was no way I could repay them and then I suddenly thought one day, ‘I’ll become a Samaritan.’ And didn’t expect to be accepted because I thought I was more a client than a helper. But much to my surprise out of about 30 per cent that get chosen I was chosen and that was a big turning point for me, helped rebuild my confidence. But I met some really interesting people there. One being my mentor who was an art historian attached to the UEA. And he said to me, I was telling him about my problems, what could I do as a career because secretarial work in Norfolk wouldn’t pay me enough to get me out of the benefit trap with three children and a mortgage and everything. He said ‘Why don’t you go to university?’ I said, ‘Well I don’t have any A-levels.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter nowadays.’ He said UEA in particular were promoting mature students and he would sponsor me and gave me help with the test papers I had to write and so on. There was a journalist there who shared a shift often and he taught me how to cut and paste in the good old fashioned way because of course this was fairly early days of computing. And so I did the entry essays and I got in. So that was another big boost to my morale!

I got into university 1984. I had to give up the Samaritan work, because obviously doing a full-time degree with three young children was not easy. And so I did my three years there thinking I wanted to become a counsellor.

We had the very good counselling department at the UEA and the head was eventually to become the first professor of counselling in the world if I’m not mistaken. And his secretary happened to be one of the leaders of the Samaritans who I happened to get to know very well. So we often used to meet for lunch. When she heard what my plans were she said, ‘I think you’ll find that it’s going to be hard to earn a good living because the area is saturated with good counsellors, and you can only work a limited number of hours because it’s too much of a stress on yourself.’ She said, ‘I don’t think you’ll earn enough to get yourself, you know, out of the benefit trap.’ So I then had to do a rethink. I got my degree, wasn’t the best I think it was a 2:2 but it was a degree nonetheless!

I then got a job at Norwich School. My son happened to be there; that was again as a result of the Samaritans. One of the people I was on duty with was the wife of the headmaster of the Norwich School and my son was near delinquent because he had no male role model, he didn’t get on at school, he had a brain three years ahead of his peer group. And she said, ‘Why don’t you send him to Norwich School?’ And I said, ‘Well I just don’t have that sort of money.’ And she said well there are assisted places and much to my surprise [he got in] – because he’s neither sporty, musical or interested in the arts at all – which seemed to be the three main qualifications for entry into Norwich School. He actually didn’t want to go and out of six places he came seventh! I was told not to worry – many boys got entered for various schools and then took their pick. And sure enough somebody back out and he got in.

I had a friend whose sons were there and she said did I know there was a vacancy going in the school library for a part-time assistant librarian? And I thought well at least it’ll tide me over and give me the school holidays and so on, so that seemed ideal so I got accepted for that. Fairly menial but it gave me time to think.

Business management studies and starting a business from her bedroom

I don’t know what prompted me to enrol for this business management course because I thought if I’m going to earn money to get myself out of the benefit trap I’m going to have to do something in the management line. And so I enrolled for this diploma in Management Studies; mostly they were people who were in jobs and were being sent by the firms to improve their role and it would also help their company. But you could also gain entry by having a degree, and I was the only one with only a degree. I mean the others had degrees but they had the jobs to go with them as well. So along I went, and I think there were thirty men and three of us girls on the course. We got a lot of stick from the tutor as women, whether he was testing us to see how tough we were to cope in a man’s world, I don’t know! But it would almost be, you know, classed as discrimination nowadays. One girl fell by the wayside but this other girl and I stuck the course and it was really interesting. I wasn’t good at statistics at all and I was actually doing my homework with the Assistant Manager of the Sports Centre at UEA who I knew well. We did our homework together. And he said to me one day when I said, ‘Oh I don’t think I’ll pass this.’ He said, ‘You’d be surprised, there’s a lot of men on that course who daren’t ask questions. You and Michelle are always putting your hand up and asking questions.’ And he said you know a lot of them don’t understand but are too macho to show their weakness as it were. And he was dead right because three of the men failed and Michelle and I passed!

But in the last year we had to do a project that was based on our work situation. Now interestingly, in the meantime I had met this solicitor who was a friend of a friend and we got on quite well and we had meals together and so on. And I was discussing with him my problems as to what to do for a work situation and my thoughts had been having to run my own business because I couldn’t see really any other way. I’d got no experience in anything very much. And I thought of tool hire because my ex-husband had been in the building trade so I knew a fair bit about DIY and tools and so on. But having a bit of a spinal problem I thought, there’s going to be lifting and so on. But that was the only thing I could think of and I was talking to this chap one night and he said, ‘Well why don’t you go into estate agency?’ Because at the time I think the laws were changing and building societies and so on, solicitors, practices were buying up estate agencies as a sort of link to their own businesses. And he said he would fund me. I thought to myself that’s all very well but I don’t really want to be beholden to anybody because I’d seen my husband borrow money and lose it, and all this sort of thing. But the more I mulled it over, the more I thought – maybe not estate agency but lettings, I could do from home. This spinal condition had a bit of an uncertain future about it, I’d had it since I was fifteen when it first manifested itself and it seemed to be getting worse. So this idea of a letting agency came into my mind because I thought well I love properties; my father used to take us for walks and admire properties I don’t know why. I knew a fair bit about maintenance because of my ex-husband being in the building trade and I love people. So I thought, great – and I could also start off from home and see how it worked and if I set myself a target and it didn’t work out I’d lost nothing. I could keep a handful of properties alongside a full-time job as top-up income and I could manage them over the weekends and things.

Anyway, the first thing I did after that, I thought well I’ll go and find a part-time job in an estate agency which I did; and this was based in King Street in Norwich which was across the road from Norwich School. So I did a couple of evenings a week and a Saturday afternoon. It had a Lettings department but it was completely separate, it was upstairs, so I didn’t really gain any letting knowledge there. And then when it came to this project for the business course – it was only one night a week the business course – I thought you know I’ve got to find a subject which is based on my work situation and I thought I can’t do it on the estate agency because they’ll not be very pleased with this young part-timer muscling in and so on. And then I thought of this idea of starting up a lettings company and I thought I could do research on the area to see how viable it was, of course not realising it would involve me in statistics particularly! Anyway I know quite a lot about statistics and actually they can be manipulated to suit yourself!. But obviously because I wanted it to work to prove whether or not it was going to be viable to start a letting agency I had to obviously try to make them realistic if you like. And I think the Council had just brought out a ten year plan for housing in the area so I used that as a good source of information, and much to my surprise I got an A minus for this project, despite it being loaded with statistics, and my tutor who was also our statistics teacher wrote a comment to the effect that he never gave an A because there was never ultimate perfection and so A minus was a real accolade from him!

So then I thought oh gosh, I’ve got to do it now! And I had this neighbour, she was actually chief medical officer of health, I won’t say for which area, so she was a big achiever as a woman in her field, and she kept saying, come on, when are you going to get off your backside and do it? You can borrow my computer and this that and the other. Anyway, I must have procrastinated for quite a while and eventually she came home one weekend; she said ‘I went to this party and I met Lady so-and-so and she said she has a son who’s based in Hong Kong working for Cathay Pacific Airlines and he’s just bought a house in Brundall and wants somebody to look after it for him and I told her about you.’ I’d done quite a bit of research on letting and so on and so, ‘Here’s the address,’ she said, ‘there you are – there’s your start!’ So I cobbled up a sort of agreement on her computer which she loaned me, and went very tentatively knocking on the door and much to my surprise I got the business there and then. So I thought right! And the only cost that I ever had to fund for that business was the £15 for the first week’s advertising and I got a response and luckily the family were still there before returning to Hong Kong and they met the prospective tenants so that was great and that was my first let. With the first month’s commission I went out and got some business cards and things went on from there and I’d set myself this target and just achieved it, I think it was the first twelve properties were actually managed from a shelf in my bedroom with my bed as my office chair! And the Social Security were very good they were happy to back me until I got into profit. But in this tiny bungalow it was rather difficult; you know you didn’t have quite the right image and so on.

Developing the business

And then we hit a bit of a problem because (I’m not sure how relevant this is) but I have an interest in a family business that my great-grandfather set up and the Inland Revenue, I had a small shareholding but the amount of money I got each year and the value of the shares was within the Social Security acceptability for savings but they were going to increase the value of the shares for the some reason. My father was terribly sceptical about all what I was doing, he just didn’t approve you know, women should be at home looking after their children. I said yes but nowadays things are changing, and I’m expected to go out to work despite having children. He didn’t approve of me having a car, you know he was terribly anti. Anyway of course I thought I’m going to lose all my benefits and I’m not in a situation where I can financially manage myself. They were family shares so we couldn’t sell them other than within the family and I thought if I sell them I’m going to be expected to live off the income then I’ve got nothing. Anyway my father was very, I think he thought well she’s got this far we’d better help her out and we managed to sell them within the family and I said to him, ‘Look, what I need is an extension because I’ve got this business.’ I said, ‘If I sell the shares I could put the money into building a conservatory on the back of the house that can be used as an office and the social don’t take the property you live in into account…’ So, it all worked out, I got this extra space to run the office; okay it was through my bedroom but by this time I did start to have a couple of members of staff, one who did a lot of the inspections and another was a part-time secretary.

I got to my three years accounts and we also did insurances for landlords, and one day the person who was responsible for these insurances rang me up and said, ‘I’m actually leaving my job but I’d like to come along and introduce the person who’s taking over.’ And this chap came along and we got on very well and I was becoming quite a bit more disabled by this time, and anyway at the end he said to me, he said, ‘If there’s anything I can ever do to help let me know.’ And he said, ‘I’ve previously been involved in mortgage advice.’ And I thought oh! Very tongue-in-cheek, I said to him well actually I needed a mortgage of so much, I knew my accounts really weren’t sufficient, although I’d got the three years they couldn’t substantiate this mortgage because what I needed was a property with an attached outbuilding or a double garage that I could convert into offices on a fairly major road compared to this little bungalow which was on a footpath. So I said to him, I need a mortgage of so-and-so, but you know very tongue-in-cheek and he said leave it with me. Oh I did say to him, I said, ‘A. I only need it for as long as I’m running the business and then I could sell it to pay off the mortgage, B. At some point I will gain a little inheritance from my parents,’ and I said, ‘C. I’ve run this business from my bed before now.’ And I think he saw that I’d got the ability to do it. He said leave it with me, but I really thought he’d come back and say no way! And blow me, a few days later he rang me up and he said, ‘I’ve got you a 40-year mortgage,’ he said, ‘You’ll be paying it until you’re 90!’ He said, ‘But I’ve done it this way so that the payments fit into your accounts, so that they’re affordable.’ (laughs) So I said right, I’d better start looking for a property.

And anyway I wanted to stay within the Brundall area because I’d built up quite a reputation for high standards. What I did, I looked at what was around in the way of letting agents and there seemed to be about half a dozen in Norwich that were doing just flats and bedsits and they might have the occasional three or four bedroom house but there was nobody dealing with the more upmarket properties and I thought to myself that, one upmarket property is the equivalent of three or four flats or bedsits with less trouble, more guaranteed income. I was just so fortunate because as I say this new [1988] Housing Act came into being– and I didn’t know anything about it until I got my first tenant and the solicitor said, ‘Oh I’m terribly sorry we’re going to have to try and analyse this act first before we can sort out the agreements’. And I suppose all the other letting agents were in the same position. It completely changed the letting scenario because previously you couldn’t evict a tenant. The judges would say you know, you Mr Landlord you’ve got half a dozen properties, you’ve got a roof over your head, this poor family, okay they can’t afford the rent but they’ve got nowhere else to go so, you know, going to let them stay. So landlords were not releasing their properties onto the market, they’d sooner keep them for investment rather than have the hassle of evicting tenants and so on. But this new act completely changed all that and they set up the six-monthly tenancies and the landlord could claim the property back at the end if you wanted to. And not only that but we had the oil boom off of Great Yarmouth that was just kicking off so I had no end of young family men who were moving into the area wanting properties for up to two years, sometimes longer, wanting to bring their families over from Holland or wherever and of course they were guaranteed rents; often the companies were paying the rents like Shell UK and all these people. Norwich Union had their own lettings department but often came to me, Schlumberger and all these people. And so I just had a ball, I was creaming the market in the first few years.

So which year did you actually start the business from your bedroom?

Eighty- nine ‑ from my bedroom. I wasn’t actually laid up at the time. the first tenant came about in January but got the letting actually kicked off in February by the time we got it all sorted.

And how long did your business run for before you started to employ staff?

I can’t remember who came first, I think it was John, who was an ex-RAF chap who was early retired and I needed somebody in the office and equally somebody out on the road. So I think he came but he came on an as-needs basis, he lived locally I would just ring him up and say can you do a viewing this afternoon and he was perfect – he was brilliant at doing the property inspections as well because of course the air force have this white glove test as they call it which meant that everything was spotless. So it probably about six months into operating when he joined. Then I began to realise I needed somebody to help with the secretarial work. I mean to start with I was actually typing out these seven- or eight-page agreements until we got the computers working because I didn’t have a computer to start with other than my neighbour’s. But I did have a typewriter and typing out these tenancy agreements but obviously once computers came into being. My first computer, this is probably quite relevant, was second hand and it cost me £2 400 in, I think it must have been some time in ’89.

It was a Delta Gold, I think it was quite a good one, I believe they’re even collectors’ items nowadays. And of course the other thing, I had overseas landlords, there was this chap in Hong Kong, one of my other landlords was based in Canada, and I’d got them all over the world. And of course this was pre-internet and all this sort of stuff, so I was sometimes having to wait up until one o’ clock in the morning to contact somebody in Hong Kong at nine o’clock [their time] to say that we’ve got this maintenance problem, what should we do? And I don’t know how other letting agents operated if they had overseas landlords, which I believe they probably did, they probably had a brief where they could just go ahead and do it, but I wasn’t happy spending other people’s money willy-nilly, I’d sooner have their permission to do it really.

So the next thing that I bought was a fax machine which helped, and then the mobile phone because at the time there were these Carphone things that weighed a ton that people used. But of course the mobile phone helped enormously for security and safety when the staff were going out or I went out, we always made sure we had a name an address and a phone number, so that we could contact people. Also it saved time because if somebody rang up and said oh I’ve got to cancel the appointment or whatever and the person had already gone out you could at least say come back rather that waste the time going all the way’

Because actually we covered pretty much the whole of Norfolk to start with, well I started with a 25-mile radius but it gradually grew, I think it was 20, then 25 and then 30, so we were going as far as Cromer and even into North Suffolk because nobody else… And we got this reputation because a lot of the properties were people’s homes and I actually started off by calling the company Heron Home Care because I was mainly looking after people’s homes where they wanted to return eventually. And then we got into a bit of difficulty after a while because unbeknown to me there was a care home (because care homes hadn’t really come into their own by then) and this care home down the road was called Heron Lea, and every now and then we got a phone call, ‘What time’s Mrs. So-and-so’s funeral this afternoon?’ or ‘Can I visit Mr…’ So we then became Heron Property Management and I forget the year we became limited but the accountant eventually said it’s more tax-efficient to become a limited company. But that was further towards the end, I think we were only about three or four years as a limited company.

But it was fascinating. I was six months into running the business and I got this phone call one morning, still very nervous about what I was doing and this chap said I’ve got this thirteen bedroom mansion, is this the sort of thing you deal with? And I sort of very tongue-in-cheek had to say yes! And as I drove up to this place I’m thinking oh my gosh, what have I done? How am I going to cope with this, what sort of stuff will it have inside, I’ll have to do an inventory? But then I started thinking with the sort of commission you can get from such a property I can probably get professional inventory takers. I actually got the business and we found him tenants; that was another business who wanted to move into the area but I think at the end there was some problem with his insurers and I don’t think they were happy having a business in the property or something ‑ I can’t remember.

But it was quite a boost and the other thing that boosted my confidence, roundabout the same sort of time I got this phone call from this big company in London, a very well-known company and it was their managing director rang me up he said, ‘I’m thinking of buying a property in Norfolk.’ ‘Cause this was becoming the place to, because of the oil boom and everything, and he said, ‘What do you advise?’ So I said to him, ‘Well you know what’s your price bracket’ and so-and-so? And he said, ‘I was hoping you’d tell me ‑ after all you’re the expert!’ And I’m thinking I used to be in awe of these people but actually when I thought about it yes I’m the expert in my field, he might be in expert in what he’s doing but I know far more about letting even though I’ve only been doing it for about six months! (laughs) So that was quite a boost, but yes we got a reputation for handing the properties back in a very good clean tidy state and I made sure the landlords had these insurances so that if there was trouble between a tenant not paying or whatever it could be handed over to the insurance company so I didn’t have that hassle either.

I think I ran the business for about eighteen years in the end. I mean I was quite severely disabled at – I got worse and worse actually and then had a devastating diagnosis or prognosis. I kept getting approached by some of the big names in Norwich, estate agents and letting agents and so on and they wanted to buy me out and I’m thinking, this is the only thing that’s keeping me going at the time. And I wasn’t really ready to give it up, much as though they probably thought being disabled I would be pleased to get shot of it. Anyway, then I started to think, I was sort of getting near to sixty and I was thinking where do I go from here? Because the children weren’t interested. It provided me with quite a reasonable income but it wouldn’t’ve been enough for them with their families and what have you. So I thought well maybe a partner, I had one that proved a bit of a disaster. Again, being the female in the situation as well was quite interesting because we’d got quite a lot of help from the Banks and Eastern Counties Newspapers were very good at trying to train up women to be in business because I suppose they saw it as a future for them, if you can get women into business as well there’d be more advertising and the banks thought more lending and all this sort of stuff. So we got quite a lot of assistance from them. But it was still very hard as a woman, and I found the men were taking advantage, they’d sort of think oh she’s only a woman you know. One chap even was actually the husband of somebody I knew. I can’t remember exactly what happened but there was a clause in the agreement which I think the tenant wanted to buy the property and we had a clause where we were able to take a commission as an estate agent but I only put in half the usual amount because we had effectively introduced the purchaser. Oh he said, ‘Oh that’s only between friends.’ I said, ‘But you signed it, I’m a proper business!’ And he seemed to imply because I was a woman I wasn’t a proper business. And another chap as well, he was head of May Gurney at the time and he came along one day and he’d got property to let and he sort of quizzed me and I actually didn’t get his business because I was still in the little bungalow at the time and I think they thought I’m a here-today-gone-tomorrow sort of person. And his comment was, I don’t see you in Yellow Pages. Well I actually I didn’t actually need to be because my reputation was spreading around enough but from then on I did go into Yellow Pages. I actually didn’t get his business. And then they would turn up on a Sunday morning and even the chap from Hong Kong who I knew quite well as my first landlord he arrived one morning at seven thirty, I was still in my dressing gown trying to get the children ready for school and I’m thinking… He’d just got off the plane and he didn’t know what else to do. He said ‘I thought I’d come and see how my property is doing.’ But you just had to grin and bear it. But yes when it came to looking towards selling I thought well I’m not sure how to go about this, I wanted to work for at least another few years, because I’d not had long to build up anything of a pension apart from anything else.

The first guy I took on with the idea that he might become a partner he proved to be useless; he just thought he knew it all and was causing more problems than otherwise so he fell by the wayside. And then one day this young man, 18 or 19, walked into my office and would I look after his two properties? He’d apparently been given money by his grandparents for his 18th birthday, had invested it in a couple of properties and wanted me to let them for him. And as we sat there sorting out the paperwork he said to me, he said, ‘I’d quite like to do what you’re doing.’ And I said, ‘Well actually you know if you’re interested,’ I said, ‘I will be looking for somebody to take over eventually.’ He was doing a business course at City College and so we had a chat and I said well come back in 18 months’ time when you’ve finished your course and we’ll talk about it further. Anyway he went away, he was back a couple of days later: ‘I’ve decided I’m going to give up my course at City College. I’d like to start straight away.’ And I said, ‘Well you know your business course would be…’ Oh yes he had asked what qualifications do you need (this was at the first interview) to become a letting agent and I said ‘Well there aren’t any specific ones,’ I said, ‘But really the university of life is probably the best,’ and I said, ‘Your course, if you’re wanting to take over a business eventually, will be very useful.’

But as I say he came back and then had said he didn’t want to continue his course he was fed up with it and this and that and the other and I tried to persuade him to stay on. So he joined on a part-time basis, and what I said to him because I couldn’t afford to pay him full-time, I said this is what we’ll do; you can work part-time in the office and then the rest of the time you can be going out and about generating new business and I’ll pay you a commission for every property you bring in and that way we’ll be able to build up the business and hopefully have enough to pay you full-time. So this duly happens and after about twelve months he hadn’t brought in a single property. And I said to him you know, what’s going on? Oh I don’t know what to do! And I said well go to solicitors, estate agents with no letting department, talk to friends, talk to family – that’s mostly how I’d got my properties, you know it could be a party down in Loddon somewhere and you’d be talking to a little old lady, ‘Oh I’ve got a couple of holiday lets I’m thinking of giving up and putting on long-term lets.’ You know, anywhere people were investing in properties and had properties and that’s how, it’s mainly talking with people you’d be surprised. I even got a phone call from my brother in Nottingham one day, he said, ‘I’ve got a friend in the office here, he’s got a property in a place called Strumpshaw,’ he said, ‘Is that anywhere near you?’ I said, ‘Yes it’s about two miles down the road!’ So I got business that way as well. Anyway this young man proved to be an absolute washout. He was still living at home, his parents were indulging him, his grandparents were obviously indulging him, he’d got all these aspirations and he thought he could just sit on his backside and it would all come rolling in to him. He was quite good at doing the accounts and stuff so he remained as an employee.

I was visiting one of my tenants one day who was a bit of an entrepreneur himself and he said, ‘How’s so-and-so doing?’ And I said ‘He’s not!’ ‘Oh.’ he said, I said, ‘He just hasn’t got the get-up-and-go to run a business so…’ He said, ‘Well I could be interested in buying your business.’ I’m thinking, not quite sure what you’re doing in rental property! But he was a bit of an entrepreneur you know dabbled in this and that. I thought well I’m not going to get too many offers; it’s only a small business at the end of the day. So I said to him, I said, ‘Make me an offer and we’ll see what happens.’ I hadn’t a clue where to go with this offer or what to do with it, so I phoned my accountant and he said, ‘Well this is the sort of thing we deal with.’ So I thought, great. And then he said to me, ‘Look, before you do anything about accepting this one,’ he said, ‘you’ve had all these people approach you over the years, why don’t we contact them all, tell them you’re interested in selling and see what happens?’ And the whole thing went to auction virtually, and they were all bidding over each other, and there was this chap – I used to go for to exercise to Sprowston Manor to their leisure pool there of an evening after work and in the Jacuzzi often I’d see this guy. He was quite gregarious and he was always asking me about my business and I used to think you’re a competitor! I don’t see why I should really be talking to you but he was such a nice guy. Anyway he was one of these contenders, because he had met me in Norwich one day well afterwards and he said, ‘Anytime you’re thinking of selling let me know.’ So he was approached as well.

And as I say this whole thing they just kept outbidding each other until I got more than double my original offer and this chap Mike was the one. I was looking not just for the one who was going to give me the most money but the one who would be able to look after the properties and the landlords in the way in which I had done it. Some of the big agencies had branches you know, terribly commercial all trying to outdo each other but Mike had his own business, was a sole proprietor as well and I felt he was the one who was able to offer my landlords the best deal. And he offered me a part-time job, so I became a property consultant within the firm and I did part-time in the office and part-time out on the road on the days I didn’t work full-time. He also offered work to my young colleague because obviously he was the one doing the accounts and so on and this chap said, ‘Oh I don’t want to work in Norwich, don’t like Norwich.’ Hopeless guy, absolutely hopeless. But Mike eventually persuaded him to stay for I think it was three weeks.

One day I was out and about to one of my farming estates and I went in to see the owner having inspected his properties and we got chatting and he said to me, ‘Have you seen this?’ And he pointed to a brochure on his desk and I looked at it and it was an exact copy of my terms of business to my landlords with just the name changed; it even had the spelling mistake I hadn’t got round to changing. This young man I had taken on had stolen my files and was canvassing my landlords. I was absolutely furious because Mike had spent a huge amount of money, he always joked that it cost him more than his divorce. I won’t say what else he said! And I thought he’s now going to have to fight legal proceedings to stop this guy poaching the business. Anyway, he was much more sanguine than I and he said, ‘Well look, he’s not going to go anywhere. I don’t think we need to worry about him.’ And he ended up with one little flat of ours and that was it. And even to this day I don’t know whether it’s an old website but he’s never had more than three or four properties on it.

I sold the business in 2006, just about three months before I turned sixty. And because I’d got such a good deal I had a big party, not just to celebrate my sixtieth birthday late but I was starting to improve health-wise, no thanks to the Health Service but thanks to alternative healthcare and thanks to all the people who’ve helped me over the years. I just had a great big party to celebrate!

Anne Murrin (b. 1955) interviewed in Blofield Norfolk for WISEArchive on 14th November 2015

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