“We like to do things differently”

This month marks ten years since Deborah Richards launched her independent estate agency Maddisons Residential. Eileen Leahy caught up with the entrepreneur to discover why she and her team are changing the traditional culture of buying and selling houses…


As local entrepreneurs go, Deborah Richards from Maddisons Residential is certainly one of Tunbridge Wells’ most notable.

Having spent the first half of her professional working life working in finance for Barclays and then at the private bank Coutts, she decided to walk away from her prestigious career a decade ago in order to pursue her passion for property.

That seismic change has resulted in Deborah now running one of the town’s most well-known and successful estate agents, Maddisons Residential, which this month celebrates its 10th anniversary.

But as the first ever winner of Times of Tunbridge Wells Business Entrepreneur award in 2016 tells me when we meet at her smart offices on The Pantiles, things didn’t quite go according to plan at first.

“I placed an advert promoting my new business in the Wealden Times and was panicking because on the day of publication BT still hadn’t connected my phone line. They were only an hour or so late in doing so but I was so worried I would miss a lot of calls from prospective clients, but the irony is the phone didn’t ring once,” she laughs.

Yet it was when the publication called her to discuss what the feedback from her ad had been like that she had a moment of serendipity.

“They asked me if I’d like to place another and obviously I declined, but then they told me that their Commercial Director had been intrigued by my story and wondered if I’d come and give her a valuation on her property.

“It was a small terraced house miles away in Aylesford but I actually won the pitch and came away elated. It was my first listing and things started to take off from there.”

Sitting in her beautifully appointed HQ, which is tastefully decorated in Maddisons’ hallmark soft grey tones and boasts a stylish seating area complete with velvet cushions, statement lighting and framed pictures of the agency’s current crop of stunning properties for sale, the phone lines are constantly ringing. Deborah tells me that the agency currently has around 100 properties on its books and also a successful lettings division which is headed up by her husband James, also a former banker. The business also specialises in land sales and new developments.

Such a prolific portfolio certainly makes it hard to believe that it was only ten years ago that Deborah found herself quitting her career in finance to take a punt on a personal passion.

“I’d enrolled on the Barclays graduate trainee scheme thinking ‘I’ll do this for a bit’, but then on my 40th birthday when I was at Coutts I remember thinking ‘How on earth did this happen?’

“At that particular time I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I just knew I had to do something different. So I handed in my notice at Coutts and they said to me ‘Whatever you do, please do something that involves people as you are such a good communicator.’”

On finding herself without a job, the mother of three says she got a dog and did lots of walking in order to think things through.

It wasn’t long until she came up with the idea of blending her professional and personal skill set with her life-long passion of doing up properties.

“It was something I’d always done, even when I was working in banking,” she explains.


“I was 20 when I bought my first property and did it up. Six months later I saw a house that I’d always loved had come onto the market and I ended up buying it and making £60K profit, which was a fortune back then.


“I remember my mum saying ‘See if you can do it again’ because flipping properties and specialist TV shows didn’t really exist thirty odd years ago. I started renovating places because I loved that sense of looking at something that no one else could see any potential in and deciding what could be achieved by changing the décor or switching up the layout. I adored that high of people visiting and going ‘Wow look what you’ve done!’”

Deborah explains that on finally deciding she wanted to open an estate agency she instinctively knew she wanted to do things her way.

“It just seemed completely logical to me! I started by making a checklist of all the things that bugged me when I was buying and selling houses.”

However as Deborah has already admitted to me, turning a dream into a reality didn’t necessarily come easy.

“Getting off the ground was a nightmare! I totally underestimated the difference when you don’t have a big company like Barclays or Coutts behind you.”

Yet despite her initial ad bombing, it did eventually lead to her first commission and things started to grow from there by word of mouth.

“The Commercial Director I sold the house for started telling people about me and then mums at the school started hearing about what I was doing. Two years later, in 2015, I took on my first member of staff and eventually moved from working at my kitchen table to a garden office.”

Deborah goes on to tell me that in the early days of running her business, if she didn’t have access to WiFi she’d have to seek it out wherever she could so as not to miss any calls.

“Back then I’d have missed a couple if I was on holiday, but now we have ten lines in our Pantiles office and receive on average around 300 calls a day!”

Deborah reveals that when she first launched Maddisons Residential – so named simply because she liked the sound of it –she did everything herself from the viewings and listings to overseeing the pictures. But she also learnt the important skill of giving advice to sellers on what potential buyers might be looking for in a home.

“When I started in estate agency I couldn’t believe that the majority of agents didn’t do this or that, they wouldn’t ask potential buyers for immediate feedback upon seeing a place. They are literally standing right in front of you so why wouldn’t you, as their agent, ask them what they thought!”

Deborah says this kind of ‘disruptor thinking’ is what makes Maddisons Residential stand out from the crowd.


“We constantly evaluate and see where we can do better. We are committed to communicating with our clients and always want to do things differently.”


Deborah then tells me that being totally independent allows her team to be more dynamic in their approach to all aspects of buying and selling houses.

“I’ve always been about switching things up. There is so much jargon in this industry such as Under Offer, Sale Agreed. But what does that actually mean? When it came to putting up boards I wanted a way of saying I’m currently off the market but I could be back again and that’s when the ‘Spoken For’ board was born. It’s been widely copied since, but as they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery! We also put up To Let and then Too Late boards on our rentals, which people really like.”

Other examples of Maddisons Residential doing things differently include telling clients how to make their home more appealing to their target market.

“Did you know that 78% of people think their house is the best on the road? People love their own homes so they are blinded to understanding who their audience is. So it’s our job to tell them what they might need to do in order to make it more sellable. Sometimes people might not want to hear this, but we know what our buyers are after. Other agents will simply say how lovely their house looks, but that isn’t necessarily going to sell it.

“Essentially it comes down to knowing what a seller’s target market wants and making their property appeal accordingly. We take all the emotion out of it as we need to see how the buyer wants it.”

Deborah says that could include telling people if there is a ceiling price on their road or if they have overdeveloped a house.

“The thing is you’re in no man’s land if you have created a five-bedroom house but there is no parking and a tiny garden. You won’t appeal to a downsizer as it will be too big and a family won’t want to look at it due to lack of car space and the outside not being big enough. The other thing we have to sometimes warn people of is treating their home like a stop-gap. If it looks like you don’t want to live there then why would anyone else want to?

“Buyers make judgements and assumptions all the time. So it’s about understanding what a buyer wants and then putting together a programme. Most long-term sellers will be relieved you’re giving them this type of advice as other agents will just tell you to drop your price or that the market is hard right now, but it’s not. We offer this kind of advice so ultimately you don’t have to drop your price. To have to shave off £25K is a lot of money to the average person and I realise that. Despite all the success, I have never forgotten the value of money.”

It’s clear that Maddisons Residential has a very tailored and personal approach to each client and their needs – whether that’s buying or selling.

“I personally believe you have a duty of care on behalf of your client to get them the best deal. There are lots of things we can do before we talk about dropping the price.”

This strategic approach to helping Maddisons’ clients achieve the most from their property asset is not surprising, given Deborah’s business degree in economics and her previous banking experience managing clients’ assets.

Her professional experience and qualifications are reinforced by membership of the Property Ombudsman.


“They have a Code of Conduct, which obviously we observe, and the details of that code are all just good common sense combined with how any seller would expect to be treated.”


Deborah does tell me that her husband James, who opened the lettings side of the business a few years ago, did his formal ARLA qualification because the rental market is highly-regulated.

And on the subject of her husband, Deborah says that James has always been ‘so supportive.’

“I remember presenting him with a full business plan as I wanted to take five thousand pounds from our joint account in order to set up the Maddisons’ website and buy stationery. I did it because I wanted him to realise that I might not earn anything for the first two years of running my own business, but he was so supportive. It’s funny to think that a few years after I had this mad idea he came to join me!”

Deborah, who also publishes a weekly vlog online, updating clients with news and info, reveals that working so closely together has its pros and cons, but that ultimately it means you understand each other’s worlds.

“James is a great asset to my team, and given what he was doing before, his skill set is very high. If you work with us both you wouldn’t necessarily know we are married, but every now and again a rare bit of domestic chat happens when I might have to ask James to pick up some blueberries from Sainsbury’s!”

While Deborah and James aim to keep work and home separate, being a working mother – like many of her staff – makes Deborah an empathetic employer.

“I have two older children – aged 21 and 15 – so Maddisons launched when they were becoming a little easier. However, in 2016 I found myself unexpectedly pregnant and had my ‘late surprise’, Esme, who is now six. I am therefore well aware of the complexities that the working mum faces, having to keep many plates spinning and quickly swap from career woman to mum, in a heartbeat.”

Maddisons Residential now employs a team of 11, who are a mix of full and part-time and Deborah admits that the work schedule is always full-on.

“Anyone who thinks ‘Oh I’ll do a bit of part-time work as an estate agent as it will be nice looking around people’s houses’ gets quite the shock coming here as it’s always so busy. It’s a great success story, but we are always wanting more hours in the day – yet we do have a brilliant retention of our staff.”

Currently Maddisons Residential, whose instruction fee is a minimum of £5K, has around 100 properties on its books, which means the team is not only dealing with sellers but also correlating buyers, and everything else involved in the process, such as partners, chains and then potential sellers.

“The reality is that for every one of those people buying or selling a home it is the most important thing going on for them in their life. And we must ensure that in turn they are the most important person for us too. You can’t let a phone call go unreturned and you must respond to emails on the same day. So yes, the workload is phenomenal and you have to be so good at prioritising, dealing with pressure and spinning a million different plates at once. You’re also working on constant interrupt mode as you’ll be doing something and then you’ll get a call to see a property.

“But the biggest thing is my team and I really, really care about all of it. I don’t like it when a deal is about to collapse so I’ll get fully into the guts of it and try and work it out. I hate to phone sellers and tell them that their buyers have pulled out – especially if they have found a house to move to. It’s almost like being a therapist to someone!


“I often describe selling houses like a short, intense relationship. You get to know people so intimately – seeing their house, meeting their family, talking to them all the time. I often say ‘I bet your best friend hasn’t seen your bedroom as much as me!’”


In addition to the client loyalty and transparency, the attention to detail, forward thinking and ongoing communication both in person and online, Deborah also employs a stager to ensure all homes on the market look their best, which is something she personally foots the bill for.

“The stager will make a place look lovely for the photos and then also give tips for future viewings. Sometimes it’s not needed when the house is so beautiful, but it’s something we offer free of charge. We’re just trying to constantly think about doing things differently and better.”

That also includes a regular review programme for houses currently on the market. The agency’s most popular areas tend to be the heart of Tunbridge Wells – or the village as it’s known – and south of the town in places such as Frant and Wadhurst.

“Every two weeks clients will get a full summary report about their properties, including information on all the viewings, any competition in the area, what we’ve done to market their home on social media and then we just have regular conversations.

“When I was regularly buying and selling it used to drive me mad as you’d list your property and then it would be tumbleweed, but the Maddisons’ review process ensures that we are always connected. Some agents don’t provide feedback, but we always do. I’m as focused on getting the job done as I am with winning the instruction. I always have that mantra in my head which is a property is always a liability on your books until it’s sold, and that is absolutely true.

“Our viewings are a different model to the usual. Here you need to know your company’s stock because if one place is not quite right then we can suggest another of our properties. An agent has to know how to cross sell.”

Deborah is also extremely passionate about Maddisons Residential, which now a dominant agent for family homes in the town, being a part of the local community.

“We always do as much as we can to help. We have done lots for local charities including Hospice in the Weald, Pickering Drop-In Cancer Centre, West Kent Mind and Taylor Made Dreams.

“We have also supported the Tunbridge Wells half marathon and sponsor Langton Girls Football club.

“Looking forward five or ten years I’d like to put back into the community even more by mentoring small businesses voluntarily or take on some non-exec roles. I’d love to mentor more people and be even more of a contributor and mentor to this town.

“In 2016 I won the Times of Tunbridge Wells Business Entrepreneur and at the time I had such imposter syndrome telling myself I wasn’t that. I said I’d just had an idea about how something could be done differently and better and luckily that had legs and it’s done well.

“But equally what I’ve learnt is that I am actually an entrepreneur. I will look at something and go, ‘Now, why is it being done that way?’ I’ve got friends who say ‘Can we go out for lunch as I want to run a business idea past you’ and I’m always looking at ways to improve our own business.”

Given that Deborah was an outstanding co-host at this year’s Times of Tunbridge Wells Business Awards alongside LBC broadcaster and journalist Nick Ferrari and has since won and been nominated for plenty more industry awards, we have no doubt that she and her business will continue to move on up for many years to come…



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