Interview: Mike Fitzgerald, chairman, Coulters
Mike Fitzgerald describes himself simply as “a normal boy from Currie” who’s made the most of opportunities thrown his way: a degree in law, a Masters from a top business school, and a commercial real estate partnership. Now he’s landed a top job running a property agency.
It seems life just gets better, and as the newly-appointed executive chairman of Coulters, the estate agency and conveyancing business, he’s got big plans. Even so, Fitzgerald admits he has often felt challenged by a “fear of failure”.
Does that mean he also suffers from so-called “imposter syndrome”, which often accompanies such fears? “The whole of my career,” he says, adding that he has turned it into a positive.
“I have been in meetings in London with other lawyers and felt very nervous, then switching mindset into work mode and coming away with a sense of achievement, and growing from it,” he says.
Fitzgerald is applying his hard-earned training and career experience to taking Edinburgh-based Coulters through some challenging changes coursing through the residential property sector.
The shift of consumers online is putting pressure on traditional methods of buying and selling homes. Added to that are changes caused by the tightening of the market in Edinburgh and Lothians with buyers and sellers now insisting on subject to sale or purchase agreements.
The board has been busy ahead of his taking over in December, taking on the residential team from Morton Fraser, shaking up the top team, and moving the lettings business to Gilson Gray. Ken Ireland, who was appointed CEO at the end of 2018, has left and Fitzgerald combines his role with that of chairman.
The business is refocusing on its traditional mid-to-high level market. Even so, it is not a simple transition, especially in an increasingly cut-throat sector which has seen a sharp increase in the number of estate agencies closing or merging.
“If I put my money head on then I take the fees. It is counter-intuitive to turn work away.” he says. “This is the challenge and we are struggling a bit with that.
“The next stage will see us focus on our core business and what we do best. We are good at buying and selling and we don’t want any distractions,” he says.
“I have been looking at running a separate business [for the lower end of the market] which would be branded differently to avoid brand contamination. There is a racing chance we might do that, and if we do there is market share to take.”
A key change will be closure of its office in the city’s Marchmont area and relocation to an as-yet undisclosed unit, also in the south side, which is in a more prominent position. There will be a rebranding, creating a softer image, and investment in marketing.
“Over the past two to three months I’ve been looking at back of office functions and making sure they are working as they should and able to support growth of the core business,” he says.
The Edinburgh Park office will be re-configured to house both lawyers and sales staff, to capitalise on closer communication. Fundamental changes in the ways of working are also afoot. He is keen to encourage more mobile working, enabling staff to work from any of its offices in Edinburgh and North Berwick.
He’s keen to foster a new culture and throws some of his Henley-acquired business management phrases into the conversation, such as building “psychological safety” into the workplace where staff can admit to getting things wrong without fear of criticism.
“It’s important that you feel supported when you come to work. If you get that support you will be happier in your job and perform better for the client,” he says.
Investment in online services will coincide with an emphasis on the personal service that will be important in building client relationships. He has appointed a client services director whose job is to manage the level of service delivered.
The business is certainly in good shape. Sales and purchasing transactions have increased by more than 40% with Coulters delivering its best ever month in January 2020 as a result of the general election and easing of tensions over Brexit.
A couple of years ago, after a team from Addleshaw Goddard moved in there had been talk of expanding beyond the core area.
“That’s still a target, but we’ve pulled back on the expansion temporarily to make sure we have the brand where we want it,” he says.
Occupation: Executive chairman, Coulters
Education: St Augustine’s High School, Edinburgh; Aberdeen University (law), Henley Business School (MSc Real Estate Investment and Finance)
Career highlights: Partner at Fyfe Ireland, MacRoberts, Dundas & Wilson, and Addleshaw Goddard; Coulters (executive chairman)
What motivates you?
A fear of failure. If I start something, I want to do it well.
Are you difficult to work with?
Twenty years ago I would have said at times I could be. Experience ebbs it away.
What one nugget did you take away from Henley?
Finance underpins everything in a business. You have to get that right.
What do you regard as key values in business?
Trust and integrity
What makes you angry?
Laziness and dishonesty
Football, golf, Scottish contemporary art. I also own a 1991 Alfa Romeo Spider
If you could invite three people from the past or present to a meeting or dinner party, who would you choose?
Pep Guardiola (Manchester City coach)… a highly cerebral football man
David Cameron (former Prime Minister)… just to ask: ‘what were you thinking?’
Ayrton Senna (late Formula 1 driver)… to ask how he maintained such a consistently high level of performance