Ex-surfer on the highs and lows of London property
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
How long have you been in London and W12 in particular?
I moved to west London in 1988 and we opened the Askew Road office in January 2013.
Where are your favourite local haunts?
I really love Caco and Laveli opposite. The Eagle is good for a burger and chips though obviously, I'm always on a strict diet.
It's more fun knocking buildings down
Where were you born?
Windlesham in Surrey, close to where I live now. I'm the oldest of three brothers and the best-looking. I'm sure they'd agree. One's a lawyer; the other's a surveyor.
You went to Eton. Was it like its reputation, a school full of aristocrats and millionaires?
No. There were some stereotypes but there was a wide cross-section. I'm very proud to have gone there, but Eton is more of a thing for other people. My parents chose it because it's a good, local school. My father didn't go there, although he was the first in our family to go to university. All three of us (brothers) went to Eton. My youngest brother and I loved it but the middle one hated it. We've all been spectacularly useless at networking, but it did make us all entrepreneurial, although that spirit also came from our parents who worked together running Dad's civil engineering business. All three of us (their sons) work for ourselves.
Are you glad you went to Eton?
Completely. I wasn't very academic – wouldn’t get in now – but I loved the sport – seven days a week. When I left, the Headmaster said: Well done, Mr Gresswell, a life of undetected crime. Which was completely untrue. I wish I was that exciting.
My A-level results were very ordinary. I won't tell my children my grades, but I went to Kingston Poly. God knows how I got in. They probably thought I was Little Lord Fauntleroy, but it grounded me and I loved it. I studied architecture. My dad hated architects. Being an engineer, he thought architects were high-minded idiots who drew impossible plans. I had three great years at Kingston and came out with a dubious degree. I wasn't a great architect, but I designed and built my first extension the year I left.
What did you do before setting up Finlay Brewer?
I went to Australia to learn to surf. The Australians are just fabulous. I had two jobs, selling ad space, and I worked on building sites. It was far better than architecture. It's much more fun actually making things – or knocking them down. When Dad retired, we joined forces and did some developing up the A1 corridor, building houses in places like Grantham and Boston. When the 80s recession hit I moved to London and was looking for an agent when I met Teresa (Brewer) and we concocted a plan to set up an agency. Paul Cosgrove has since joined us as a partner, though he needs no introduction.
Not about Paul. And only once about TB. When I stopped playing rugby I put on a lot of weight. I joined a slimming club and lost a stone and I was rather pleased with myself. Then a journalist phoned and said she wanted to interview me. She said it was unusual for men to join slimming clubs and it would be interesting. I agreed – until she said she'd bring a photographer. I didn't turn up and eventually I went home. Waiting for me, on my doorstep, was a pot of rhubarb fool. And the use-by date: 1st of April, April Fool's Day. Teresa had set me up. And, oh, how she laughed.
Have agents made a fortune?
Yes, the good ones. But, agents take all the risk. No sale, no commission. We've been in business 25 years and the market's always changing. My brother, the lawyer, thinks we're all a bunch of overpaid fly-boys
Do estate agents deserve their bad reputation?
Most don’t but a few definitely do. There’s plenty of new red tape to deter bad practice, but there are bad apples in every barrel.
You set up Finlay Brewer twenty-five years ago. Could you work for someone else?
I don't think someone else would have me. I used to do a lot of sports, team sports, but I was always the captain.
Your colleagues describe you as 'The Dad' of the firm. What's the secret to keeping your work family happy?
It helps to listen, to retain some perspective, and have a sense of humour. Playing rugby, I'd just shout at people, but now I try to keep everything calm. Our business isn’t life and death, it just feels like that sometimes. My dad was a quiet alpha male and I try to follow his example. Teresa and Paul also set a good example. They're both grafters.
If your children wanted a career in property, what would you advise?
I have three children: a daughter, 24, a veterinary nurse and very keen to buy and do up something; my other daughter's doing a master's in nutrition and very driven; both girls have followed their passion; my son, the youngest, just left school and has no idea what he wants to do – just like his father. I’d be delighted if he ends up in property, but I won’t push him into it.
If you weren't doing this, what would be your dream job?
Forty years ago, I wanted to be a beach bum but now I don't. If I retired, I'd have to do something. I get bored very easily. I'd happily be the postman; I like to do the rounds.
How do you relax?
I don't. No, by being at home. With my family. My wife, Jane, and I have been together for about 30 years; she deserves a medal. I still like rugby and go to Twickenham. And I like walking the dog and mountain biking.
A mid-life crisis in Lycra?
Not Lycra. Picture an out-of-shape 60-year-old skateboarder in a crash helmet. My wardrobe has been tweaked by my wife and daughters for my own good.
You're a beekeeper. Why bees?
I like honey. And I've always been an animal fanatic. As a kid I wanted to run a safari. Bees are very relaxing; they clear the mind. They demand total focus or they swarm or die. I went on a course, but I'm a hopeless beekeeper.
Surfing, bees? Are you drawn to danger?
No, but once I damaged my neck playing rugby against London Irish and couldn't feel my fingers for a fortnight, which was a worry. And once when I was windsurfing I thought I was going to drown. I got caught under the sail in a riptide. My hand was trapped between the mast and the board and I was seriously contemplating breaking my fingers to escape. Then I felt something brush my foot and, in blind panic, I thought: It's a shark! Until I realised it was the seabed. I could stand up. I was fine. And I remembered there are no sharks at West Wittering.
Have you a tattoo?
No, because I'm a born-again coward, but if I did, it would be one word: Jane.
Thank you, Simon. It's been a real pleasure.
Interviewed Nov 2017