The boys are back in town

14 February 2018

They carved out a career in the UK and now they’re back on home turf.

Linda Daly talks to expat agents

It was a failed bid to woo Sir Alan Sugar on The Apprentice that led Robbie Dillon to fall in love with London and find a career in estate agency. The year was 2008, the recession in Ireland was biting and Dillon found himself with itchy feet. He decided to apply for the BBC1 show and made it to the final round of auditions. 

His return to Ireland the next day was delayed when the radar went down at Dublin Airport so Dillon used his spare time to tour London, and was smitten. He was working in IT for Merrill Lynch, the banking company, but he already had associations with estate agency: his mother, Mary Dillon, is chairwoman of Sherry FitzGerald. She suggested he apply for a job at Marsh & Parsons, the London company run by Irishwoman Liza-Jane Kelly and part-owned by Sherry FitzGerald at the time.

Dillon, who was 24, had to be interviewed, first. He impressed and received a call the same day offering him the job, but was told he had to be there in less than a week or it would be gone. After speaking to his parents — and getting a loan for the flight — he made the move.

“I soon understood why they wanted me there so quickly. It was so busy; September was wild. What I learnt in that week stood me in good stead for years and I fell in love with estate agency,” he says.

In his decade at Marsh & Parsons, Dillon worked his way up from being a trainee negotiator to director of the company’s Notting Hill office, in charge of lettings. In the meantime, he did a stint at the Holland Park office, and while there let out his priciest pad — a £19,000 (€21,700)-a-week house in Holland Park — to fellow Irishmen U2, who were recording with producer Danger Mouse in 2011. When Dillon moved to London, Ireland was in the throes of a recession and the property market was crashing hard. In contrast, London was filled with optimism, he recalls.

“On evaluation pitches, big, confident London men would say, ‘Prices haven’t come down since the Second World War, they’re not coming down’. It was a really good time. Compare that with now, and it has been depressing. Since Brexit, it has been a car crash,” he says.

Dillon, 34, and his new wife Georgy, decided to return to Ireland last year to settle down. “We lived in a top-floor flat, without a lift, so if kids came along it would be a struggle.”

In January, he was appointed head of residential at Savills in Ireland, and he and Georgy put down a deposit on a new house in Terenure in Dublin.

“The most refreshing thing for me coming back is the way people look at estate agents here. It’s really well respected; people are experts in their field. It’s so pleasant, whereas in London you’re considered a dime a dozen. You’re looked down upon and regarded in the same vein as a clamper.”

Savills, Dillon’s new employer, has seen an upsurge in returning emigrants applying for jobs. Andrew Smyth, of the estate agency, says: “Over the past 18 months, we have witnessed a significant increase in the number of new employees who have returned home, following a time working overseas. The majority had been based in the UK — primarily in London. However, some have come from further afield, including Australia, the US and Malaysia.”

Guy Craigie, 32, is another returning emigrant, working at Knight Frank here. He moved to London in July 2010 “at the height of the Irish economy crumbling”. He had completed a bachelor’s degree in geography and sociology at Trinity College Dublin in 2008 and had started a master’s in property studies at Dublin Institute of Technology. While on a summer internship in London, his parents called him and encouraged him to transfer his master’s to a UK university, and to find a job there.

“I did it all within a week. I came home sold my car, moved to London, called Chestertons, the London estate agency, and started the week after in Wimbledon.”

Craigie worked for seven years at Chestertons, coming in as a negotiator and leaving in 2017 as an associate director. He also completed a course in surveying at Reading University. During his last four years at the firm, he worked at its Kensington office, where he was involved in the sale of a house for £22.5m and led the sale of an £8.5m apartment overlooking Hyde Park.

“It was an amazing four years working with the team in Kensington,” says Craigie. “Then things began to slightly unfurl, with the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit. Various things came along that inhibited the market. Stamp duty increased dramatically and London didn’t seem like a great investment choice any more.

“Most of our buyers were international, high-net-worth individuals, but it wasn’t making sense, because the yields were so low and it was very expensive.” Craigie says his decision to come home was a personal one. “I had spent seven years in London, and had to decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life? Did I want to stay in the UK or come home and carve my own path?”

Knight Frank, the London brand that operates in Ireland, was the company he wanted to work with. Three months into his search, which he conducted from London, he got a call from the company in Ireland, completed his notice with Chestertons, and took up the position of associate director with his new employer.

“The benefit of Knight Frank is that we’re a great international company. We’re still a small residential team, but we have the backing of 70 people in the UK, and Rena O’Kelly and Peter Kenny [who head the residential team] are highly experienced,” says Craigie.

He says his time in London armed him with a different skill set and a slightly different perspective of how things can be done in Ireland. He doesn’t regret his time there, but he is glad he has returned.

“The quality of life here is so much better. My family is here and there is easy access to the sea, the mountains and the countryside.”