Words: Alastair James; Photography: Daniel Hewitt
Buying and selling property should be an easy and comfortable process for everyone, according to Thomas Avery, managing director of Rhubarb Property, which he founded after acquiring experience elsewhere in the industry. As well as selling and letting properties, the agency offers services including interior design and property managment.
Here, Avery tells us how he set up the business in the middle of a financial crisis, how he’s adapted to the pandemic, and he talks about casual homophobia at work.
Thomas Avery is managing director of Rhubarb Property (Photography: Daniel Hewitt)
Why the name Rhubarb?
When I set up the business in 2008, I was working for an agent and decided to give it a shot on my own, which probably wasn’t the best idea, but it turned out to be quite a good time to move. I was in the car one day and just randomly came up with the name Rhubarb. It’s one of those names that you either love or hate, but you don’t really forget.
Fair enough! What got you started in property?
I’ve always been interested in property. My uncle is an estate agent. I like nosing around people’s houses — I like the interiors and the architecture. I worked for an agency for about three years in Birmingham. There was an incident where I had to deal with a young single mum from France moving into a property with her two kids and it wasn’t ready for her. The landlord wasn’t helpful at all. I just thought I could do a better job.
What was it like setting up Rhubarb during the financial crisis?
I was keen to put my own stamp on the service I could provide, and thought I’d take a risk. I had good connections with clients and in the property industry and I thought, I’m just going to give this a shot. In Birmingham at the time there were a lot of new-build properties, and a lot of people moving into the city. Although there was a recession, the lettings market was and always has been relatively stable.
Roots: Rhubarb’s Birmingham office
What did you learn from that?
As much as I love working in the property industry, being self-employed and having to deal with all aspects of business, whether it be accounting, where to register your business name, general tax enquiries, all sorts of things, is hard and I learned as I went along — I’m still learning today. It’s been an interesting process. It’s difficult at times if you don’t have anyone to fall back on, but you do reap a lot of benefits at the same time.
And you’ve got a team now?
Yes, we’ve just moved into two new office premises. We broke into the London market in 2016. We have a team of seven guys up in Birmingham and there’s three of us down here [in London].
How have you found working during the pandemic?
It’s been a massive shock to the system. We had to make a lot of changes quickly. The furlough scheme helped us massively for a short period. But it was one of the first industries that had restrictions lifted so people were able to move house. I had to carry on working, although mainly from home. It’s been a very interesting time adapting to virtual viewings and videos. The market’s unpredictable at times but the lettings market ticked over, as it always has done. People’s priorities and what they expect now are a lot different — they are looking to move closer to green spaces. It’s been challenging, but I think the [hardest part] is actually going to be coming out of the pandemic.
Photography: Daniel Hewitt
What concerns do you have?
Mainly just an increase in overheads and generally having to monitor how people work in the office and from home. We’re still — I feel — in a relatively grey area in terms of how things are going to be. But I think we’re able to adapt and change along with how society moves forward. It’s also a creative opportunity to look at how we run our business and how we provide services [in the future].
Do you see some of those changes, such as virtual viewings, sticking around?
I think so, depending on the property, where the property is and who you’re aiming it towards. Some people will take a standard one-or two-bedroom apartment just by video. But others, especially when buying a family home, will still want to view it in person.
What do you think sets Rhubarb apart from other agencies?
We deal with all types of property services. We do interior design, investments, sales, and property management. It’s definitely down to the personalised service we can provide. We can be as bespoke as any of our clients wants us to be. It’s about thinking outside the box and being more creative with the service we can provide. Interiors has been an avenue that Rhubarb Property has recently gone down. Called Sell Buy Design, the team on this side of the business have put together some really creative and interesting furniture packs that have helped many achieve real value for their property. This has also captured a more diverse clientele, too, especially among the gay community. A lot of our landlords are gay, and I think that is because they know I am.
What’s the best business advice you’ve ever been given?
To always listen and not to force your opinion or too much of a pitch onto people. People like to be listened to and to feel comfortable that they’re dealing with someone that actually understands them.
What’s the best business advice you would pass on to someone else?
To not take things too personally, try not to let work overrule your life, and be as confident as you can be and believe in yourself.
Has being gay impacted your career at all?
I’d say it probably has. [There hasn’t been] any particular homophobia as such, but I do think there has been an element of that in terms of when a client is choosing me personally. It’s quite a masculine industry and there’s that slick, suited-and-booted geezer image [of estate agents]. There’s definitely been elements of homophobia. You get a feeling sometimes when you’re dealing with a client, and you can sense that maybe they’re being slightly different towards you because they know you’re gay. So, it’s just a casual homophobia that I’ve had to overcome.
Where the heart is: Thomas at home with his dog MJ
Do you think that image of a typical property person puts people off?
I’d say so. Buying property and renting property are big steps for a lot of people. It can be quite a stressful time, and I think people want to have faith and feel as if they’re in the hands of someone that cares and somebody that’s on board with what they want, as opposed to being overpowering. No one really likes to feel that.
Has the industry altered?
Definitely. It’s had to change, and I think people’s attitudes have, too.
What’s next for Rhubarb?
This year, we’re really trying to push the interiors side, but also, since moving to London, I really want to focus on building the business here and enlarging our management portfolio. I think what’s next is having an all-in-one property package to offer our clients.
Des res: Thomas’s flat in Hackney, London
One last question: I saw on social media that you’re a fan of Michael Jackson and you can dance! Where did that come from?
[Laughs] I’ve been a fan of Michael Jackson since I was very young. I’m very much into my music and art and theatre, which is actually where the inspiration for Sell Buy Design came from. I was just really inspired by his [Jackson’s] dancing, but I ended up taking a different road.