One might assume that Nick Leeming’s blue-blooded accent, immaculate turnout and jovial demeanour point to a career in the army followed by a comfy desk in a country house sales department, but you would be very wrong.
At first, it was pointing in that direction. Leeming completed a degree in estates management at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester before joining Strutt & Parker in 1979 and then Humberts in 1982 where he became a partner working in its land sales and prestigious homes departments.
But in 1995, while still working for Humberts, he began to hatch plans to launch a national property portal.
This was five years before Rightmove launched and two decades before proptech. It was also at a time when access to the internet was a minority interest; less than a fifth of the UK adult population were online at the time.
In 1997 Leeming quit Humberts to set up Propertyfinder, the UK’s first online portal.
His impeccable estate agency contacts helped him sign up many of the UK’s leading estate agents to the site including Knight Frank, Savills, Chesterton International, Hamptons, John D Wood and Strutt & Parker, and he also secured financial venture capital backing for the business.
But Propertyfinder had a big hurdle to overcome. It had launched too early.
If you grumble about download speeds now, you should try using websites during the late 1990s. Also, at the time internet use had yet to become widespread; the vast majority of homes at the time were sold using traditional print marketing techniques.
This gave Rightmove, which did not launch until 2000, time to wait in the wings as the market for online house hunting developed.
After an extended period of digital duelling, Rightmove began to catch up, helped by the rise of Google after the Millennium.
Propertyfinder was bought by a subsidiary of Norwich Union in 2001 and merged into its new property portal Assertahome. It was then sold to a joint venture between Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and Australian portal business REA in 2009.
Leeming remained at the helm of Propertyfinder during these tempestuous times until the business was finally sold to Zoopla.
The acquisition followed an unsuccessful attempt by Leeming and other directors at Propertyfinder to complete a management buyout rather than let it be sold and, at first, Leeming says he wouldn’t take calls from Zoopla’s founder Alex Chesterman.
“Eventually we had lunch together during which I asked him why Zoopla was going to be different from all the other portals that had attempted to launch in the UK,” he says.
“Chesterman said he wanted to be the Wikipedia of property portals and the place where people come to research as well as hunt for property which I thought was very interesting compared to the other players in the market.”
Leeming subsequently completed three years at Zoopla as its Major Accounts Director.
“It was fascinating to transition from being a traditional agent to working on a global online platform like Propertyfinder was at one point, and then to work alongside someone like Chesterman,” says Leeming.
“It’s also an experience that I have been able to bring to bear on my current role.”
Leeming’s most recent work has been as a consultant to the franchised lettings agency sector, although he also works with Scotland’s largest renting portal LettingWeb, and recently took on the chairmanship of Bamboo property auctions. He’s also an investor in a handful of early-stage proptech start-ups.
“I work with their MDs and the senior team to give them ideas which they sometimes listen to and sometimes they don’t, but I really enjoy that because as an investor you have a totally different perspective on a business looking at returns, risk and reward.
“But I will not invest in company’s that do not have a revenue stream because I want to see demonstrable value to the product.”
His more recent corporate work has included a five-year stint on the board of Belvoir where he helped the company through its AIM listing and attempted merger with The Property Franchise Group.
And more recently he took the role of non-exec Chairman at Jackson-Stops which, although it’s not a pure franchised network, shares many features of the model.
He is now the company’s public spokesperson and figurehead. “With Jackson-Stops, you’re getting the best of both worlds; running your own business, operating under a well-respected brand but only having to contribute a relatively low amount to supporting that brand,” he says.
“Jackson-Stops is not immune to the difficult market out there at the moment, but we have a model that is leaner and meaner than some of the bigger businesses.”
The difference between Jackson-Stops and the franchised model is that it’s a consortium of independently owned businesses that are, in effect, ‘freehold’ territory owners.
“When I was asked to be non-exec chairman, I knew many of the operators and I thought that Jackson-Stops brand was a very strong one,” says Leeming.
“The positioning was right because we’re in the middle to higher end of the market not the top end. That is where I want to see its position maintained but its network expanded to cover places where we don’t have a presence at the moment.
Despite many of his peer group having retired to their second homes, Leeming evidently has no intention of stepping off the gas yet, belying the energy that led a young rural estate agent to believe he could launch the UK’s first property portal.