A happy, if painful, accident put Sarah Mains on the road to being one of the North-East’s most successful real estate entrepreneurs. Andrew Mernin hears of her emotional journey.
SEVEN years ago, a young Gateshead mother was forced to sacrifice her dream home to chase an ambition she had harboured for years.
Sarah Mains, then 31, was determined to raise the money to launch an estate agency business, but that didn’t make the decision any easier.
Tears streamed down the former hairdresser’s face when the time finally came to pack her things and leave the idyllic Edwardian home behind her.
In fact, so distraught was Mrs Mains that, as she pulled away, she paid no attention to her driving and accidentally crashed her car into the removal van packed with her family’s possessions.
Today Mrs Mains looks back to that day with a hearty laugh. And the broad smile on her face would suggest the sacrifice she made in 2001 has certainly paid off.
“I was just in such a state because I didn’t want to leave that house,” she laughs.
Her real estate empire now employs around 110 people across Tyneside and is on target to see revenue jump from £5m to £8m by 2010.
Last month the firm, which she joint owns with her business partner Paul McKie, acquired two new businesses, bringing the number of branches at the company up to six.
The business acquired Northumbrian Estates, based in Heaton, Newcastle, and a former solicitor’s office in The Galleries, Washington.
The company is also moving its Whickham branch to a site three times the size of its current one and is investing £250,000 in refurbishing the new branch.
The first Sarah Mains branch to open was in Low Fell and is situated a stone’s throw from where Sarah grew up and learned the craft of selling houses.
Back in 2001, the site was a fraction of the size it is today and was manned by just four members of staff. It has grown since and now is a hive of activity with its 35-strong workforce beavering away to help sustain the Sarah Mains success story – a story which might never have happened if not for a strategically timed injury.
From an early age, Sarah had always dreamt of a career in the world of beauty.
“From 13 or 14, I wanted to be a hairdresser. I think it was just the girly thing of doing people’s hair and make-up,” she recalls.
Growing up at Breckenbeds Junior High and Heathfield Senior School in Gateshead, Sarah said she was intelligent but “too flighty” at school.
Today the real estate boss takes much glee from the fact she has now sold houses to a number of old teachers.
When she left school in 1985, she fell straight into her dream career, although it proved to be short-lived.
“I joined a hairdressers’ company in Gosforth but was only there for eight weeks. I injured my ankle and was told by the hospital that I wasn’t going to be able to stand on it for long hours,” she says.
And so the curtain was drawn on her brief stint in the salon.
“It didn’t work out and I’m so happy it didn’t,” she says with another Cheshire cat grin.
After returning to sixth form education, followed by a short spell in a solicitor’s office, Sarah made a career choice that would pave the way for her success, landing a job at estate agency NS Bennett. During her first step on the real estate ladder, Sarah was taken under the wing of manager Moira Johnson – a 66-year-old who now works for Sarah as a mobile sales consultant.
After taking time out to welcome her first son into the world, Sarah then joined estate agency group Nationwide Anglia in 1989.
However, she was one of the many victims of a widespread axing of jobs at the firm when it was taken over by property rival Bairstow Eves.
Undeterred from the cut-throat world of real estate, Sarah went on to work for North-East estate agency Keith Pattinson.
Her nine-year stint at the firm was followed by a complete change of direction with a foray into the world of finance in 1999.
“I decided to change course completely and went to work for insurance group CIS for six months. I trained to be a financial adviser and it made me feel like my brain had just opened up to all this new information, but I missed selling houses so much.
“The day I took the final finance exam that would allow me to be an adviser, the managing director of Keith Pattinson rang me and said he’d heard on the grapevine that I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing and asked me if I wanted to go back.
“The exam was on the Friday morning, Justin from Keith Pattinson rang me on the Friday afternoon and I resigned from CIS the following Monday before I had my exam results – the company was furious.”
Sarah later found out she had passed the exam, although the triumph seems a mere footnote to the woman behind one of the fastest growing real estate empires in the region.
Gradually increasing her stock as an expert house trader at Keith Pattinson, Sarah’s ambition to open her own firm began to bubble. However, she was determined to launch a business which was strictly under her own control.
“Over the years, I’d had loads of offers from investors to partner me in business but I was always adamant I would do it myself.”
It was a businessman based in Sarah’s native Low Fell who would eventually help her take the leap into the unknown by launching her own firm.
“Paul McKie used to have a car showroom here which he was going to close and I was going to rent. But then he convinced me that he had a lot of business experience and that we could be a good team together.”
After much consideration between Sarah and her husband Eddie – who she describes as a major part of her support mechanism – they decided to go for it.
The couple realised the only way to raise their half of the investment to match Mr McKie’s was to sell the house that Eddie, a builder by trade, had spent so long perfecting.
The move to downgrade their living conditions proved to be a risk worth taking as the fledgling real estate business hit the ground running.
“The business just exploded and it was so enjoyable because you could see it grow so fast and it seemed like a breath of fresh air to the public.
“We opened on a Saturday and I took the call for the first sale on the Sunday morning.”
In its infancy, the company’s four members of staff were taking 600 calls a day, with this figure rising to 1,100 nine months later. The firm’s workforce is now in triple figures and has plans to take on a further 30 over the next three years.
It becomes clear that Sarah prides herself on the treatment of her staff. She explains a performance-related competition she is currently running where the top 10 members of staff will be taken, along with her own family, on a trip to Las Vegas.
“We’ll go to a realty exhibition out there which will be fantastic for new ideas. So it’s partly work but it’s also fun.” The cheeky grin and glint in her eye suggests a trip to Vegas with Sarah Mains couldn’t be anything other than fun. The real estate boss can count on one hand the number of staff she employs under the age of 25.
“It’s not deliberate, it’s just at the recruitment stage they often don’t meet our criteria for experience of the industry.”
She also explains her workforce is predominately made up of women – hardly surprising at a company run by a strong female role model who cites Margaret Thatcher as one of the people she admires most.
“Down South, estate agents are predominately male but in the North, it’s mostly females. I think females can be more homely, whereas males want to progress faster. They can’t keep still and want to be on the road all the time. Females are more comfortable working in the branch.”
Sarah’s position at the company is now far removed from the role she played earlier in her career when she cut her teeth as a young property saleswoman.
And while the self-confessed control freak is extremely happy to be in the seat of power in her own empire, she admits she still misses the daily grind of life as an estate agent.
“I do miss going out on the road, meeting people and selling,” she says. But life isn’t always easy for estate agents working on the front line and Sarah believes criticism heaped on them by the public is often unfair.
“You have to be thick-skinned in real estate but what amazes me is that with something like the NHS, for example, they have a lot of problems and people complain about them but not directly.
“In real estate, you could have a client turn up for a viewing half an hour early and then shout down the phone at you to complain when you are not there, so it’s hard to maintain customer satisfaction because the public has a preconception of what estate agents are like. Once we work with the public, we manage to turn round their beliefs, however.”
So, as well as doing everything she can to change the public’s perception of estate agents, what’s next for her business?
She tells me she has no plans to spread the brand too thinly by branching out across the UK or abroad, although further acquisitions in the region are not ruled out.
Something tells me this conservative prediction could change within a few years if the company’s leader continues her rapid rise to power.
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Education: Breckenbeds Junior High and Heathfield Senior School.
Employment: Nationwide Anglia 1989.
Keith Pattinson 1990 to 1999.
Sarah Mains 2001 to present day.
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What car do you drive?
A Range Rover Sport.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Who or what makes you laugh?
Being nervous and seeing people trip up or fall over, as long as they don’t get hurt.
What’s your favourite book?
Walking Tall by Lesley Everett.
What was the last album you bought?
James Blunt’s new album.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
A mystery shopper who goes to hotels all over the world to review them.
If you had a talking parrot what would you teach it to say?
Performance is everything – I’d have it say that in the office over and over again.
What’s your greatest fear?
Birds. I hate walking through Greys Monument when the pigeons fly up at your face.
What’s the worst piece of business advice?
A design company told us we had to have a logo that related to houses and we’ve proved them wrong.
What’s your poison?
Bollinger Champagne and Strongbow Cider.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
It was as a trainee hairdresser. I worked 55 hours a week and got paid £31.75.
How do you keep fit?
I don’t. That’s the problem.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Finishing other people’s sentences.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Jimmy Choo handbags.
Which historical or fictional character do you identify with / admire?
Which four famous people would you like to dine with?
Brad Pitt, Richard Branson, Shayne Ward and Jeremy Clarkson.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a firm but fair boss who gives their staff the best opportunities to get on in their own right.