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Barclays: North Oxford Property Services

Spotting an unloved semi-basement flat at the back of the bottom drawer of an office filing cabinet set Robin Swailes on an accidental career course he had never anticipated.

It was while working as an estate agent in Oxford that Robin, now a shareholder in North Oxford Property Services (NOPS), which is headed up by his wife Debbie, spotted the property that was to change his life.

“It was a probate sale, the details were tucked away at the back of the drawer and it hadn’t sold in 12 months, but it was in the best part of town and had considerable potential – so I bought it,” Robin recalled.

After he had renovated the property, the vendor, a college professor who had been an executor for the sale, asked him if he would let one of the rooms to a student.

A while later he was asked to let a second room – and then a third. “Shortly after that the college asked if they could use the main living room, which was impressively large, as a teaching area while I was at work,” he said.

Realising he was earning more from letting than he was from his day job as a medical rep for equipment supplier Portex, Robin began to invest in more properties – and today NOPS manages some 1,300 properties in north and east Oxford, with “absolutely first class” support from Barclays Relationship Director Barry McGuinness.

Until this summer the company managed 800 homes, split equally between student and professional lets, but this summer’s merger with another well-regarded business, Premier Lettings, has made it the biggest family run business of its kind in Oxfordshire.

Robin first dealt with NOPS as a customer before being persuaded to buy the business in 2003. “I had built up a portfolio of 10 or 12 properties over the years and they were all let through NOPS, which was owned at that time by David Wilding,” Robin recalled.

“When he decided he wanted to sell the business, David approached me as a potential buyer. When I hesitated, he jokingly pointed out: ‘I look after your properties. If I sell it to a numpty, you could suffer the consequences of void periods!’, so I decided I should go for it.”

While Debbie now manages the lettings business, Robin focuses on another concern, a development company called Robin Swailes Design and Development (strapline: No Ordinary Developer), but property was far from his first career choice.

With a strong naval heritage – reflected in his parents’ decision to give him Horatio as a middle name – Robin began life travelling the world as a navigator with P&O on cruise ships and tankers.

He spent five years at sea, rising to qualify as a Second Officer, and after coming ashore in the early 1980s started a business in Cornwall selling waterproof encapsulated charts that could be used and re-used by yachtsmen or mounted on the wall as decorative prints.

“We worked hard and the product was good but we weren’t making any money, so I decided to sell the business and travel to London in search of something new,” Robin said.

While London was the aim, Robin didn’t actually get that far. “I stopped off in Oxford on the way and was offered a job as an estate agent,” he explained. While the job didn’t work out – “I was sacked after five months and 30 days,” he recalled – it was where he found the property that began the portfolio that has now reached 1,300 homes.
Robin’s next career move was partly influenced by an earlier experience in Cornwall. “A fortune teller at a charity event told me that I would end up in the medical business, so when my then-girlfriend spotted a job in London as a rep for Portex, I applied for it.”

The fortune teller probably didn’t predict quite how successful he would be. Before long he had risen to global brand director with what is now pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca and was investing any spare income in properties that were let through NOPS.

Around 17 years ago, Robin, now in his late fifties, bought the company and began the growth that has seen he and wife Debbie grow it to its current size, with ongoing support from Barclays, initially through Jayne Woodley and more recently through Barry McGuinness, whose help he described as “superb”.

He added: “As well as all our day to day banking, Barclays have supported all our office purchases and helped with the recent merger. Barry understands the business, has a great deal of experience and always does what he says he will do. It really is a great business relationship.”

Robin originally employed a manager to run NOPS, but after leaving medical sales he put the business in Debbie’s safe hands and focused his own efforts on his redevelopment company.

NOPS, which has three offices, two in Walton Street and one in Cowley Road, bought the HomeFinders Letting Agency seven years ago and has continued its steady growth through this summer’s merger with the Premier Lettings team headed up by Jan Bartlett and her son Charlie.

The lettings companies now have 30 staff, including Janice Morton, Head of Accounts, and Hannah George, who heads up property management.

“We are particularly pleased to be working with Jan and Charlie Bartlett, who have a wealth of experience, particularly in east Oxford,” Debbie commented.

“NOPS has built up a great reputation based on being a family run business with a personal touch, well-maintained properties and an amazing team. We care deeply about our landlords, our tenants and the properties we let and we believe we provide a great service to all our clients.”

Recent legislation has made the lettings business more transparent, with agencies facing new restrictions on the fees they can charge. “We have had to become even more efficient, which is why this merger will create economies of scale that will benefit both landlords and tenants,” Robin explained.

“A good lettings agent adds value to the transaction by making sure the tenant can enjoy a better, safer, well-maintained home,” said Debbie. “In the case of students we even act as 24-hour backup parents, especially when they lose their keys after a night on the town.”