We Aren't Rogues and Vagabonds in Porsches with Mobile Phones Attached to Our Ears (...OK, I Do Have a Porsche)

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 22, 2011 | Go to article overview

We Aren't Rogues and Vagabonds in Porsches with Mobile Phones Attached to Our Ears (...OK, I Do Have a Porsche)


Byline: The Interview By TOBY WALNE

The sedate pleasures of fly-fishing and bird-watching couldn't satisfy Harry Hill for long. Two years ago he stood down as chairman of estate agency giant Countrywide and settled into retirement in his 17th Century pile in rural Essex. But tomorrow the 63-year-old multi-millionaire will be back at work in London when he launches an online conveyancing service called In-Deed.

Hill, who also founded the [pounds sterling]1.2 billion property website Rightmove, says: 'A couple of years ago I came home from my job carrying a briefcase for the last time and was looking forward to retirement. For the first few weeks it was fine. But I can only relax for so long and am not one for hobbies. I realised I had to go back to work - it keeps me feeling alive.' Next month he picks up the keys to his town house in upmarket Marylebone, central London, with second wife Mandy, 57. He says: 'She is looking forward to being closer to the cultural attractions of London - the theatre and opera. But for me it is all about the new job and I cannot wait.' Hill's new venture will charge property buyers [pounds sterling]650 for a legal service that also enables them to keep tabs on how their conveyancing is progressing. He hopes it will banish the nightmare experience suffered by many homebuyers and believes he can grab ten per cent of the market within five years by doing a better and faster job.

'Moving house myself right now, I understand how frustrating it is never knowing what is going on and how solicitors bamboozle you with jargon,' he says. 'My wife keeps asking me, ''Have you heard from the lawyer?'' We can't stop the feudal process, but the website puts an end to people being left in the dark.' Hill admits he is no technical wizard and was sceptical when he set up Rightmove as Countrywide chief executive in 2000. 'It was astonishing,' he says. 'My initial thought was no one would go on the internet to buy a house - but what did I know? 'I felt it was worth the [pounds sterling]2 million gamble. We immediately got dozens of online hits at 2.30am - the middle of the night! I knew then we had something special.' Hill was chairman of Rightmove until 2005. 'The only thing wrong is the brand did not go far enough,' he says. 'I think more could have been made of it. Perhaps we could have set up a dating service Rightdating - maybe a funeral service Rightfunerals.

I suggested the ideas, but no one took me seriously.' The In-Deed website has no links with Rightmove or Countrywide, but has support from venture capital group 3i, which backed him in his failed [pounds sterling]971 million management buyout of Countrywide in early 2007. He stepped down after that and became non-executive chairman until 2009. A friend from the past will be a non-executive director of the In-Deed board, former Nationwide chief executive Philip Williamson. Hill purchased the building society's estate agency arm for a nominal [pounds sterling]1 in 1994. Williamson did the negotiating on behalf of Nationwide.

'Nationwide was losing [pounds sterling]20 million a year from the estate agent business at the time,' says Hill. 'It paid us [pounds sterling]15 million and gave us a car fleet as a sweetener for the deal.

'I promised to give it [pounds sterling]1 billion of mortgage business a year in return. It was a risky strategy, but Philip trusted me and, despite what others at Nationwide feared, I was a man of my word and the deal brought the mutual rich rewards. …

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