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Sell It With Your Head Not Your Heart

“It’s not your baby. If it was your own baby, you wouldn’t be selling it!”

Wise words from Paul Cole who, together with his wife Hilary, successfully sold their property letting agency, Personal Homefinders, in 2014.  This is a Couplepreneur who can tell us a thing or two about what makes for a good exit and they believe it’s all in the planning.  When they were buying the business, it was one of the solicitors involved in the purchase who suggested that the best thing they could do was to devise their exit strategy, so they agreed to run it for 10 years and then start preparing it for sale.  Paul had a goal in sight, “I set the deadline that I wanted to retire at 58 and Hilary, at 64.”  (“That’s very generous of you!” quips Hilary).

Exited Couplepreneur – Paul & Hilary Cole
Business Established – 2003 / sold January 2014
Industry – Property

Of benefit to our Community, Paul is open to giving advice to anyone thinking of selling or getting their business ready to sell, a skill he says, he would happily sell on.  We think without doubt, an invaluable and necessary asset at such a crucial point in the life of a Couplepreneur.

There’s a tangible feeling of exhilaration and liberation from this busy pair as they talk about a day in the life of retirement and how it’s just “Brilliant”.  “We’re making up for the holidays we didn’t take!” states Paul with an air of justice found. “We do yoga, pilates and the gym and our new focus is staying fit and eating healthily so we can enjoy life to the max” adds Hilary.  There’s no dust-settling going on here.  An exciting new chapter in their lives has begun, born from a business decision to generate a serious means of existence together, which would pay them an income, pay their mortgage and then “do what we needed to do with the money when we sold”.  And they are doing plenty of what they need to do right now: “Just back from four months in Australia”, announces Hilary, who, whilst there, spent a blissful time with her family and newest grandchild.

We asked Paul and Hilary if they could spare us some time between packing for their next adventure in Italy, to share their experience as a Couplepreneur.

What year did you set up the business and how did it come about?

“We came together in 2003”, says Paul. Life throws game-changing opportunities at us every day and we have the choice either to step out of our comfort zone or to keep on keeping on. For Hilary, it was hitting a big birthday that ignited an idea that would, four years later, change the course of their lives.

Already adept at handling the many challenges of owning their second property in Plymouth (purchased for their daughter’s student accommodation), Hilary started casually looking around on websites.  She thought, ‘It’s not rocket science, managing property, I’ll have a go at that.”  Hilary’s first step was taking an estate agency franchise with Belvoir for a year.  Uninspired, she made the decision to branch out on her own.  Three years in and about to break-even, Paul took notice: “Why don’t we buy a bigger business and run it between us?” and so, this Couplepreneur was born.

With proceeds from Paul’s voluntary redundancy, some savings and a 7 year bank loan, they bought Personal Homefinders. “It was the only one on the market at the time that did treat Landlords as investors as opposed to people who’d got properties to rent out.”  This was never just all about earning a buck or two for Paul and Hilary.  Their venture was about making a real difference: offering a proactive one stop shop for the next generation of informed investor-Landlords; their intention was to change the norm for the benefit of others.

Seven years on and they had purchased their biggest competition in Winchester.  Paul claims, “If we didn’t buy them, one of our other competitors would and that would grow their market share and not make us one of the leading agents.”  So with four branches spanning the geographical area between Winchester and Southampton, 20 full time and some weekend staff, revenues of over £1.2M and a fully paid off bank loan, this dynamic duo had raised a thoroughly respectable business proposition.  BCMS presented themselves as credible corporate advisors at the right moment and the wheels for sale were set in motion. A plan very well executed, we say.

What were your roles in the business and what were its challenges?

Hilary’s break-even was not the only factor in Paul’s decision making process to join forces with her. It coincided with a choice he was asked to make by Chase Manhattan Bank, who at the time wanted him to move to London, “Which I’d resisted all my life!” states Paul, firmly. It was that or take voluntary redundancy. The decision was easy (if a little risky) and along with his payout, he brought years of astute financial experience to the table. “I knew the financial side and had the qualification to place mortgages. So I was outside talking to Landlords and finding properties and arranging mortgages and so on, to pass on the new properties to Hilary, to then let them out.”

Hilary welcomed this helicopter view, “I dealt with small businesses and I was better dealing with the smaller parts and detail, whereas Paul was an accountant for big American companies, so he was used to dealing with the bigger picture. Plus, his maths was better than mine.” she laughs, “If there were too many noughts, I’d give it to Paul to do!”

It’s a common theme that Couplepreneurs are innately equipped with different strengths, which makes the delegation of responsibilities within a business partnership a relatively seemless process. Regardless of their similarity in professional qualifications, Paul and Hilary are no exception to the rule.

Both however, are unified in their view that staff were one of their biggest challenges. “We found it difficult to find any staff that had the same desire and ambition to grow the business like we had.” explains Paul. Hilary goes on to say that government legislation did not help. Although with a core body of staff, two of whom stayed by their side for 20 years, they obviously had their management technique down pat. Another area of difficulty was in getting tenants to pay their rent on time and managing Landlords’ expectations. “And getting a tenant to look after their property.”

Paul is quick to add that another big challenge was in fact having the same personal life. “We found it was very difficult to take holidays and when we did, we would be checking emails every day. But when you are running a small-ish business, you do have to keep a tight reign on things because it could very quickly go out of control.”

What do you both see as the benefits of being a Couplepreneur?

“The advantages do outweigh the disadvantages” Hilary is quick to reassure. She feels they were able to use their own ‘shorthand’ after a while and they knew each other’s strong and weak points so could play to their individual strengths. “And then it’s only egos getting in the way!” she laughs. But we don’t see any egos out on display here.

Paul felt that the easy-going personal relationship between a husband and wife has an advantage over a co-founder partnership between friends. “There is a lot more trust.” They claim that the transparency of their relationship and intentions, mutual understanding of personal, social and family pressures and sharing their ultimate exit strategy to retirement and beyond, was their foundation for success. “It’s a lot easier as a married couple.” Hear hear! “We both had the same goal, we were going to do the same thing through our exit strategy.”

Before they joined forces, like most married couples, Hilary and Paul would see each other at most for an hour in the morning and not necessarily every day as Paul was often abroad on business. “We didn’t think about what it would be like to work with each other and be in each others’ pockets 24/7 but it happened and it worked” says Hilary.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from this experience?

“Don’t employ staff unless you have to!” urges Hilary.  But on a more serious note, she impresses upon the importance of having goals, steps to achieving them and an action plan in place if they are not met. “Otherwise you drift”, warns Paul. 

Hilary’s parting comment?  “I couldn’t wait to get to work on a Monday, I just loved it, that’s why I’m so surprised at myself at enjoying not having that much to do!” – a sentiment to which all Couplepreneurs can aspire.

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