Read our Group CEO Steven McKenna's interview with Ciaran Hancock in today’s Irish Times on his vision for the brand, people and technology.
It’s 10am on Monday morning in Sherry FitzGerald’s flagship commercial property office in Ballsbridge. The calm before Storm Ophelia.
Staff are at their desks but the estate agent’s chief executive Steven McKenna has decided that all of its offices will close by midday as a precaution against the extreme weather that is coming. “We cancelled viewings yesterday [Sunday] afternoon and this morning we made the decision to close the offices at 12,” he explains. “It wouldn’t be one of the more disruptive days for it to take place from our point of view.”
It’s four months since McKenna became chief executive at Sherry Fitz, taking over from co-founder Mark FitzGerald, who led the business for 35 years and is one of the best-known estate agents in the State. McKenna has big shoes to fill. “They certainly are, Mark has been pretty influential, not just in this business but in the industry. Very innovative and entrepreneurial. “My appointment is at a different stage of the business cycle,” he adds, citing three main strands to his vision for the company. “Brand, people and technology are the areas I’m focusing on at the moment.”
He sees technology “as the really exciting area in the next few years” although new online-only agents are threatening to disrupt the traditional business model of estate agents. “It’s not my vision to move online [exclusively],” he says. “We’re staying core to what we do. We’ve 95 offices, employing 650 people across the country. We have a national brand with local expertise. That’s what creates the value in the transaction for both the buyer and the vendor.”
Nonetheless, McKenna has earmarked a €1.5 million investment in technology for 2018, which will involve a revamp of its online platform, MySherryFitz.ie. It has also started offering virtual reality (VR) tours of new build sites, and has been hiring staff with digital skills.
“Once we have drawings of a site development, we can start developing the VR. In Greystones, we would have had the oculus [headset] glasses in our branch for potential buyers to use. “It’s really interesting to see the children’s reaction when they can see what their bedroom will look like. There’s an excitement and a buzz to that and it gives people a better sense of scale.” McKenna accepts that its current website “needs modernisation”. He also wants it to better showcase the agent’s mortgage offering, with Sherry Fitz a regulated broker. Last year, the company processed about 600 home loans, with a mortgage value of around €180 million.
“People aren’t necessarily aware that we have a mortgage offering. It’s only when they’re out doing viewings at the weekends that they hear about it. That’s the opportunity for us as a business.” Sherry Fitz offers fixed and variable rates, receiving a 1 per cent commission from the lenders for each loan that it gets over the line. McKenna insists there are Chinese walls to prevent potential conflicts of interest arising from selling mortgages to buyers on the one side, while seeking to maximise the value of the sale for vendors on the other. “We segregate the financial services offering in an office in the IFSC and there are separate databases. Chinese walls are in place.”
Sherry Fitz will also process mortgages for properties being sold by rival agents. “We don’t care where they buy the property.” With house prices currently rising by 12 per cent a year and the equilibrium between demand and supply completely out of whack, this must be a good time to be an estate agent? McKenna disagrees, arguing that the current dysfunction within the Irish property market is bad for Sherry Fitz and the industry as a whole.