How I Made It
The Sunday Times
DIVING INTO THE PROPERTY GAME WAS BIG GAMBLE
House hunting for wealthy business people and foreign multi-millionaires is no easy job. One couple wanted a £10m house perfect for a chihuahua, “with no balcony and the right outside space”, while some superstitious buyers would only consider addresses with numbers “that didn’t mean death”.
It pays well, though. Camilla Dell’s property agency, Black Brick, which she set up in 2007 using £20,000 of savings, made a pre-tax profit of £1.6m on sales of £3.1m last year.
After working for the upmarket estate agents Knight Frank and Foxtons, Dell decided that finding homes for a fee could work as a standalone business, rather than just being a service offered by the chains.
Black Brick helps investors and companies, as well as individuals, find homes in London and southeast England, negotiates a price, and closes the deal for them. It does not own properties, or handle the listings.
Dell recently helped a member of a Middle Eastern royal family to buy a £55m mansion, and a Bollywood actress has just signed up for her services. It is not just the super-rich who come to her, though. Recent buys include a two-bedroom flat costing £374,000.
About 60% of customers are from the Middle East, Russia, India and America. Critics have accused property buying agents of fuelling the surge in so-called ghost homes in London. Last week the mayor, Sadiq Khan, called for local authorities to be able to raise the council tax on properties left vacant.
“There’s a misconception that buying agents are only for the very wealthy and for people who are going to buy homes here and leave them empty,” said Dell, 39. “We’ve got our oligarchs, but we’ve also got very normal people.”
She said that less than 5% of the properties bought by Black Brick were ghost homes. “We’ve never been a volume business. We don’t have to pump out hundreds of deals to survive.”
Clients pay an upfront, one-off registration fee of £3,000. If Black Brick seals a deal, it gets 2.5% of the final price or 20% of what it manages to save customers by negotiating a lower price.
Dell, the managing partner, grew up in Hampstead, northwest London, as the youngest of three children. Her father, a property developer, died when she was 9. Her mother, an Israeli former model, was a “lady of leisure”.
Dell was a boarder at Cobham Hall, a private girls’ school in Kent. She qualified as a scuba-diving instructor at 18 and studied marine biology at Newcastle University. Once she graduated in 1999, she worked behind the scenes at the broadcasters Tyne Tees and Granada. After a year she moved to Egypt to teach scuba diving, but returned following the 2001 terrorist attacks. “The number of tourists just dropped off,” she said.
Dell spent the next six years climbing the ranks at Foxtons and Knight Frank before striking out on her own, not without some trepidation. “I had sleepless nights setting up Black Brick and coming off the payroll.”
She started hiring after six months and by the end of the year had tied up sales of £1m. Today the business, based in Mayfair, has nine staff. Dell is the sole owner, and does not rule out an exit if “someone makes an offer you can’t refuse”.
Dell lives in Hampstead with her husband, Jeremy, 49, and daughters Sydney, 5, and Sukie, 2. Her advice for new bosses is to put in long hours: “I don’t believe in shortcuts. You have to learn and understand your industry.”