Estate agent seeks to repair reputation after former company collapsed owing landlords £28k
PUBLISHED: 16:31 19 February 2020 | UPDATED: 07:59 20 February 2020
The former owner of an estate agents which went bust owing thousands of pounds after being sold to an ex-employee has spoken of the challenges overcoming the damage caused.
Jonathan Waters set up an Ipswich estate agents in his name in 1999, which he said operated successfully for 15 years, achieving an "outstanding reputation".
But after he sold Jonathan Waters Estate Agents Limited (JWEAL) to find more time to care for his ill mother in 2014, the company struggled. It went into liquidation in 2018, when it emerged £28,000 of tenants' rent and deposits had gone missing.
Jane Russell, who had bought the company, having worked there since 2000 including as Mr Waters' personal assistant, was last week disqualified from managing companies for five years for failing to safeguard the money that had should have been paid to landlords.
MORE: Estate agent disqualified - but landlords still furious over missing £28,000
Insolvency Service investigators found Ms Russell, 51, from Frinton on Sea, had failed to follow regulations requiring tenants' deposits to be placed in a government-backed scheme. They said the money was generally spent on running the business.
Mr Waters, who has since opened Foxhall Estate Agents, said perceptions of the new business, which is trading from the same address and has the same phone number as JWEAL used, had been tarnished by what happened. He said disgruntled landlords, who had lost money to JWEAL, had approached Foxhall Estate Agents, believing the new business should be refunding their missing deposits.
"Boycotts and demonstrations were threatened as well as the local MP being involved," he said, "This was all very worrying to us, as totally innocent parties."
Mr Waters said there had been challenges informing people the new team was not connected to Ms Russell or the four-year period in which she was running JWEAL.
Although he said he felt the new business was slowly changing perceptions, he added there was still a "stigma" around the name, which had resurfaced due to Ms Russell's recent disqualification.
Back in 2014, Mr Waters said he was pleased by Ms Russell's offer to buy JEWAL, as he felt she had been his "right-hand person" and would have known how to run the business. "There could therefore be no better buyer and it was on this basis that I was happy to have the company to continue to run in my name," he said. "I still had reservations bearing in mind that I would have no control of its running but considered I had minimised the risk by selling in-house to Jane."
While he continued to work part time for JWEAL, he had retired completely by spring 2015 to look after his mother's increasing health needs. He was also concerned by the company's new direction. Mr Waters claimed staff began leaving to be replaced by less experienced workers from outside the area.
After Mr Waters' mother died in January 2017 he decided he wanted to return to work as he missed the "team spirit, banter and camaraderie of working with colleagues".
Having assured Ms Russell he would not set up in competition against her, Mr Waters looked at other towns, such as Colchester.
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But over the summer of 2018, he said be began to hear rumours the old business was in financial difficulty. These were later confirmed, when he was told the business was going into liquidation.
Mr Waters said he went with some of the former staff to "drown our sorrows" and was told more rumours about financial mismanagement, which were later confirmed by the Insolvency Service investigation.
Despite initial hopes to re-open JWEAL to rescue the business and his name, Mr Waters said he was advised not to due to legal proceedings.
MORE: Anger after £30k of tenants' deposits went missing from Ipswich estate agency
"I was distraught it had not been a success but completely shocked by what happened," he said.
At the time, he was two weeks away from opening his new business, Foxhall Estate Agents.
Despite the challenges of opening under the shadow of what happened to JWEAL, Mr Waters said he was beginning to turn a corner.
"New clients under the Foxhall ownership I'm happy to say are discovering that the service has returned to normal in terms of its quality," he said.
Mr Waters also said much of his new team had been handpicked from original JWEL staff and was "exceeding the high quality of service" originally provided.