Simon Cowell, the new property idol
Super-developer Mark Hoffman tells us what it’s like putting together multi-million pound property deals with the help of the television talent show supremo.
Simon Cowell: ‘he doesn’t pretend to be an expert in things that he’s not’
Property developer Mark Hoffman is sitting pretty. Hardly surprising considering that one of his business partners is Simon Cowell, the multi-millionaire music entrepreneur and X-Factor judge.
Mr Hoffman, 36, is the founder of Commercial Property Investments (CPI), a London-based firm which he runs with Simon Cowell; his brother, Nicholas Cowell, co-founder of Estate Office; Adrian Levy, also of Estate Office; and Mr Hoffman’s father, Peter.
CPI was set up in 2005 to buy and sell buildings across the UK. Simon Cowell solely funded their debut deal, putting up the full £1 million to buy a vacant site in Commercial Road, London E1. They then let it to Tesco at a rent of £65,000 a year and later sold it to a private investor for £1.75m. “That was really good as it gave everyone some confidence that we can deliver,” says Mr Hoffman, who was introduced to Simon Cowell through Cowell’s brother, Nicholas. “It was before Pop Idol so I’ve known him before his TV days.”
What’s he like to work with? “Simon is fabulous. He doesn’t pretend to be an expert in things that he’s not. So, when it comes to music and entertainment, obviously he knows what he’s talking about but when it comes to property matters, he very much goes on our advice. He doesn’t interfere too much.
“He has the attention span of a gnat so trying to get him to make decisions can be quite difficult.
“Normally, what happens is that when we find a deal, we will talk about it and say, we need to borrow X amount of money, work out the business plan and then go to Simon and say: this is how much we need, this is the return you will get. It’s quite a good system.
“Simon has got some very good advisers around him and they are very protective of him,” continues Mr Hoffman, a chartered surveyor.
“He has his hands in a lot of different pies and it can be difficult to keep track of very specific things, which is why he tends to let Nicholas run things for him on the property side. At the same time, he is a stickler for detail. If we say we are going to do something, he will expect it to be done and if it isn’t then he will want to know why. I guess that’s the mark of a good businessman.”
Since Commercial Road, the Group has built the portfolio up to in excess of £30m. Their biggest deal to date was the £25m purchase of a call centre in Rotherham.
“We once went to see a building in the West End that we were trying to buy with Simon and when he walked in it was like royalty had arrived — everyone stopped working and started taking photos on their phones and asking for autographs. He loved it.”
In addition to CPI, Mr Hoffman is the founder of development and investment agency Hoffman Partners, which he set up with his father at the age of 30 — a move which he admits was a big risk. “I left the safety and security of a regular income,” says Mr Hoffman, who was working at Keneth Peters at the time.
“The property market was strong so we decided we would take the chance. I scraped together all my savings and put everything I had into it. It’s been a real rollercoaster over the past five years.” He acknowledges that he took a pay cut and has not always been able to take a salary but says he is delighted he took the chance. They recently bought Eastbourne Terrace in Paddington for Malaysian clients for £50m.
“We have tried to act with integrity in all we have done. We are not like a traditional estate agent, just after as much money as possible. We try to give a service to our clients.”
Besides, now he “knows how to cope when the chips are down and the market is tough.”
Mr Hoffman, a father-of-two, believes now is an opportune time for young entrepreneurs to start up their own company. “People who have been made redundant or lost their jobs, might think that it’s the end of the world but it isn’t. If they have built up a network of contacts, there is no reason why they can’t set up by themselves. We have the ability to make quite a nice living doing what we do, if you know the right kind of people.”
He advises setting aside “a reasonable amount of capital. Although you can earn some good money, the commercial deals don’t happen quickly. If you are going to rent office premises, you are looking at costs of around £10,000 a year in rent before you even start thinking about a salary. You probably need around £30,000 to cover your outgoings for six months.”
As for commercial property in general, he says the market is “definitely picking up. The crash was pretty swift and the recovery is pretty swift as well. I don’t think it’s as bad as was first feared. There are still a lot of people who made a lot of money when the market was booming but there isn’t very much stock around at the moment so there is a lot of competition.”
He adds: “There are still some bargains, but for prime retail, prices are almost back to where they were at the height of the market, which is a bit scary. For secondary property, they would be considered cheap at the moment and that’s where I think the opportunities are.”
Mr Hoffman, who lives in Stanmore, Middlesex, graduated from the University of Central England in Birmingham in 1994 before joining Jones Lang LaSalle.
Having qualified as a Chartered Surveyor, he then joined his father at Keneth Peters. He also runs APC Training, a company that provides courses for graduates.
Mark Hoffman's tips for start-ups
● There are no quick fees in our industry — especially at the moment, deals are taking longer to conclude. Factor that into your cashflow
● Keep costs to a minimum especially as you are starting out
● Treat your clients with respect — act diligently, prudently and professionally. Always give them best advice, even if that advice is to walk away from a deal
● Build a team around you that have experience — you cannot do everything.
● Network, network, network. Get out of the office and meet people — coffees, lunches, on the golf course — it doesn’t matter where as long as you are getting your name out there
● Work isn’t everything — never miss anything that your children are involved in — school shows, parents evening, football matches