Stuart Williams is an unusual mix of savvy sales thrust and quietly-spoken understatement which he switches between deftly during my interview with him.
Nevertheless while talking to Stuart it was clear that, although he would be loath to admit it, the 37-year-old has all the makings of an emerging star within the property industry.
He’s hard to pigeon-hole. Stuart wears the hipster attire of a tech start-up CEO and has an unusual CV that would have most interviewers at Savills or Knight Frank spluttering. But despite all this he has enjoyed a relatively traditional career.
During an 18-month spell working in China in his early 20s he pined for the mean streets of his home city, London, and returned in 2003 to work as an estate agent at the Crouch End branch of London behemoth Kinleigh Folkard and Hayward.
“I wanted to establish a property portfolio but had no idea about where to start,” he says. “I thought the best way to do it was to infiltrate from the inside and become an estate agent.”
The gamble worked, and Stuart says it was his time at KFH and subsequently working as a branch manager at an independent agent in Highbury Corner that the property bug bit hard.
“Working as a branch manager wasn’t so great and my interest in agency began to wane, so I joined Experience Invest in 2006,” he says.
“It was a completely different kind of role and suddenly I was dealing with off-plan developments and investors and it enabled me to earn the money I needed to get my foot onto London’s property ladder.”
Stuart says he arrived at Experience Invest during its early days when it specialised in selling off-plan holiday homes in Bulgaria.
“It was very competitive because we was a talented team and we had the product but there was a good energy about it too and the people involved from the bosses down made us all feel that we could break records, do well and earn money,” he says.
Experience Invest and its competitors hit the jackpot during the period just after the financial crisis. Small and medium developers found it increasingly difficult to borrow money off banks to finance developments after the financial crash, and many cast around for alternative sources of funding.
Experience Invest later expanded its sales across the globe as far as South America – heady days when the concept of owning a holiday home overseas was really taking off in the UK – before the company then re-focussed its gaze on the home market.
“There were challenges particularly during the financial crash but we managed to navigate that because of our ethos and the meticulous way we picked both who we worked with and what we sold,” he says.
Experience Invest and its many competitors hit the jackpot during the period just after the financial crisis. Small and medium developers found it increasingly difficult to borrow money off banks to finance developments after the financial crash, and many cast around for alternative sources of funding.
This is where companies like Experience Invest stepped in. With useful contact books and client lists, they were ideally placed to help these kinds of developers find investors to replace their banks.
This kind of investors come with several advantages; they don’t take a charge on the property like a bank, don’t get involved in the nitty gritty of the development’s finances and are get their return on investment when the development goes to market.
“This system is still popular with builders and for example I’m working on a 566-unit development in Manchester that has taken this approach,” he says.
And then Stuart’s life changed. While out on a snowboarding trip in Europe Stuart was spotted by Team GB and offered a place within its year-long training camp to prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games as a Snowboard Cross racer.
He says it was an intense year and that training in Zell am Ziller in Austria day-in and day-out is not for the feint-hearted.
“The lifestyle and the training is hard and snowboarding requires every muscle in your body to be used every day that you train,” he says.
“I aimed for the Olympics but didn’t make it – not anywhere near to be honest and I was ranked 530th in the world which is not where I needed to be. But for a while I’m ready to admit it was a bit of an obsession.”
Stuart returned to London after the end of the season in 2017 and joined another investment company, Property Frontiers.
“I realised after a short while that I needed to be in control of my career, choose which developments I wanted to sell and work with the people I wanted to pick,” he says.
And so in April this year he launched his own property investment company, Thirlmere Deacon, which specialises in northern and midlands property markets such as Manchester and Birmingham.
“I’m from London and have bought property here but it’s not the place to invest at the moment – and some areas are going backwards,” he says.
“Prices are still too high at an average of £420,000 for apartments. You’re not going to get a good yield from that.
“But if you go to Manchester you can get a one-bedroom penthouse for £176,000 right now in the centre of the city. And it’s still got growth potential and much better yields than London.”
But there are some dark clouds on the horizon for companies like his. The government is becoming decidedly frosty towards overseas property investors, a group who make up half of Thirlmere Deacon’s client base, he admits.
“I don’t think the recently-announced additional Stamp Duty increase will have a direct affect on the investment market,” he says.
An extra 1% is completely negated by the fact that the pound is so weak, which at the moment effectively gives overseas investors a 20% reduction in price.
“But it will affect prime and super-prime in London, which is why foreign buyers are looking north.”
Stuart says he is currently working on five major projects across the UK with a combined 2,500 apartments available within them.
“I’ve got a lot on my plate. I wouldn’t want it any other way, though. I know the industry very well and have invested in and given advice on property investment for many years,” he says.
So will he be returning to competitor snowboarding? Stuart says his knees and ankles are unlikely to allow that, nor is his partner given they have two children and one on the way. “I just want to do it for fun now,” he says.