Leaders List Interview: 60 seconds with Gail McCourt, RBC Wealth Management
Gail McCourt, Head of Private Client Fiduciary Services at RBC Wealth Management shares an insight into her daily life, and career so far.
14 June 2021
My role is two-fold. I spend two-thirds of my time advising high net worth clients who are acquiring London property. Approximately 70% of our clients already live in London and can range from a hedge fund partner upsizing to a £10m house in Hampstead, an entrepreneur who has just had a major wealth event and is spending £20m on a family home in Notting Hill, to a FTSE 100 CEO wanting to purchase 4 identical properties as long-term investments for their children who are under the age of 10 years old.
The other third of my time is spent as Managing Director of the business, working with our management team to make decisions, or devising ways we can improve what we do. I’m always striving for improvement and that’s a key characteristic of what we look for when recruiting. For example, we are currently developing a ‘Home Management’ service within our property management team. We are entrusted to maintain the smooth running of more than £1.5bn of rental investments and I knew we could roll out the service to private homes, which we soft launched last year to a few key clients. We are currently building a dedicated IT platform to run our properties on and automate a lot of the maintenance and yield reporting.
We work very closely with many of the leading wealth managers, private banks and law firms and a lot of our clients are recommended to us by them. Our other clients are usually recommended to us via previous clients of ours. No client or client search is ever the same so it’s rare for us to have a conflict – we have had a waiting list only twice in 15 years. And no purchase is ever the same either.
A typical client search will start with us understanding the requirements and where they’ve got to with their search so far. Whilst some clients have never even been to London before, many know the city very well and live here already, so they might have been searching themselves with no success, they’ve missed out on properties because they were too slow to make a decision, the seller went with another buyer, or they’re conscious there’s a big ‘off market layer’ and they’re not accessing it.
From the moment we’re retained, we spend an intense two weeks exhaustively searching the market to produce a shortlist of the best properties to view. As well as searching the open market, we heavily leverage our relationships to uncover any suitable properties which might potentially be open to a one off viewing. Approximately 30 – 50% of the properties we buy for our clients aren’t on the open market and our track record and relationships make this possible.
We then usually spend a full day on a property tour with our clients to show them the very best options back to back – usually 8 – 12 properties. The tour is meticulously organised with military precision and a driver takes us to each property, so our clients can easily compare and contrast and we can discuss in detail between viewings. It is crucial to see properties one after the other, rather than a scattered approach as it’s the best way to understand the market, the difference in architecture and price points for different areas or roads.
Because the first round of viewings is so exhaustive, many of our clients will offer on one of the properties we show them in that first property tour.
Once we’ve identified the right property, then comes the art of negotiation, where we utilise our knowledge of the local market and detailed price per square foot data which is not openly available to standalone buyers, but essential to determine value and justify offer levels. We couple pricing data with a carefully presented offer package that we know will appeal to the seller. Securing a property is not just about the price you’re paying – it’s the narrative around the buyer, which we carefully curate, as that can be the difference between securing a discount or not. We then project manage the entire purchase process through to completion.
Requirements often depend on the background of the client. With our younger clients in their 20s and 30s, it depends whether it’s family money or they’re self-made. Family money clients and family business heirs tend to have pressure from their parents to choose certain types of properties or areas, and they often feel a lot of pressure to demonstrate how well they purchased - and our role to ensure they achieve that. Our self-made clients are much more free with their choices. We’ve acted for social media celebrities who require the property to be incredibly photogenic, and self-made tech entrepreneurs who are keen to make a statement with what they’re buying. Often the wealth level is so new, we’re there to challenge them, suggest wild cards and really open their eyes to what they can buy.
With our clients in their 40s and upwards, their searches will often revolve around children (or beloved pets!) and the key drivers relate to how they use the space and their lifestyle as a family. Whether or not they have household staff also drives the layout of space and whether a house or apartment will best suit their needs.
A lot of the acquisitions we’ve been working on over the past year have been dominated by the need for larger family houses in prime locations – whether it’s Wimbledon Village, Chelsea or St Johns Wood – the ‘must haves’ are good garden sizes, plenty of internal space, often two studies are required, we’re seeing more gym and swimming pool requests and one client even insisted on a hairdressing salon in their basement.
One potential future disruptor could be the use of cryptocurrencies for buying properties. We have had two enquiries from buyers keen to purchase with Bitcoin, but currently the UK property and legal system doesn’t allow it as there’s no traceable source of funds. Anti-money laundering measures have become incredibly strict and transactions in cryptocurrencies don’t currently satisfy current regulations. Time will tell whether the market adapts for this.
The best part of my job is being able to work so closely with our clients and get to know them, their families and their lifestyles – and then match that with our expert knowledge of London. We work with some extremely impressive clients and the trust they place in our discretion and market knowledge is very humbling and not something we ever take for granted. The properties we see are truly incredible in many cases, and even though I have seen thousands during my career, I never tire of it.
The worst part of my job is possibly the 24 hour nature of it – I don’t mind at all but my husband and daughters have learnt to be very patient and accepting. Our clients have very demanding lives and we need to fit in around their schedules, so doing a 6am viewing of an off market house before they catch a flight or discussing last minute negotiations at 10:30pm on a Sunday night goes without question.
I still remember the first fee I was paid by my first ever client. The acquisition was a very small flat and the fee was paid by cheque. It was such a small sum but it was what it represented – a client putting their trust and faith into a service and company that I had created. There have been many other highlights along the way – being asked to write a weekly property column for The Metro newspaper, being invited to be the property expert on various news broadcasts and property TV series, exceeding our first £1m of revenue, being formally announced as one of London’s Top 5 Buying Agents and many others. But I will never forget the first milestones from which this all came from.
I am a big fan of Little Venice (W9) which sits next to the canal running between Regents Park and Paddington. As an area it was historically overlooked it in favour of neighbouring Notting Hill and St Johns Wood, but the price per square foot gap is closing and I think it’s likely over the next 5 years that Little Venice will be considered on par with Notting Hill and St Johns Wood. The area is slightly more discreet, and residents range from celebrity actors and singers to British and American industry leaders and tech CEOs. There is no stereotypical resident. Architecturally it is very similar to the white stucco houses of South Kensington and buyers also flock for ground and lower ground duplex apartments with direct access to communal gardens, which are amongst the best gardens in London. The development of neighbouring Paddington basin, crossrail and Queensway are also contributing to the growth.
For those investing for capital growth and yield, we are positive on Clerkenwell as a long term 5 – 10 year purchase. The demographic of residents is very well balanced and gross yields are approximately 4% which is much higher than many parts of London. Unlike other parts of London, Clerkenwell is quite a small, contained area and most of the developments are relatively quite small, so there is no oversupply risk. The area has changed significantly (I lived there 20 years ago when I was at university) and we believe there is further capital growth to come.