Clarke and Simpson founder hangs up his tape measure after 32 years
- Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND
When Christopher Clarke quit his top London estate agency job after just a few months to set up his own business in Suffolk in 1989, it was an act of faith.
“I had a brief identity crisis and went to London for about four months, whereupon my darling wife (Fay) said: ‘Get back from London and start your own business,’” he explains.
The gamble paid off and 32 years on he is preparing to hand over the reins at Clarke and Simpson — the company he formed in his home town on Framlingham with the support of his secretary, Audrey Gobbitt, and his wife, Fay.
“It’s a big moment for me,” he admits. But he has always been planning ahead and believes the business has a bright future beyond his tenure.
“I built for the future – I have got some very competent people who now run it,” he says.
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“I’ll continue to do some client work but I’ll withdraw from the management of the business.”
From a small business started in a playroom in his house, the business now has a staff of 54, and several strands including an auction centre in Campsea Ashe – the place where his own career started.
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Chris believes the real secret to the business’s success has been its people-focused approach and traditional ethos.
As well as selling more than 200 homes a year, and managing around 475 residential lettings, Clarke and Simpson is also involved in the sale and purchase of much of the agricultural land and farms changing hands in Suffolk each year – ranging from a few acres to some substantial holdings.
It’s very much a Suffolk-centric business, but it does extend its operations much further afield. Henry Birch – who joined in 2003 – and Sally Watts in its estate management department are responsible for Lord Home’s 36,000 acres of land in Scotland – the Douglas and Hirsel Estates – and for the Harris Belmont Estate in Kent which includes 3000 acres and a magnificent 18th century house which is open to the public.
In 2013, the auction centre at Campsea Ashe came into the fold – a source of great pride.
It’s a business filled with long-serving loyal staff, including Chris’ long time former secretary, Audrey Gobbitt, who was with the business from the start and only retired two years ago on her 80th birthday.
“We are fiercely independent and we have got some wonderful, loyal staff, many of whom have been with us for over 20 years,” say Chris. “It’s very much a personal people’s business and I very much believe in that and having the right people with absolute loyalty and dedication to do the best job we can.”
Chris’s son’s Stuart, now 41, is among six partners at the firm, including Hayden Foster, Henry Birch, Oliver Holloway and Oliver Johnson. Chris’s daughter, Lucy, is a registrar at Framlingham College Junior School.
A year or so after the business was formed, Chris was joined by chartered surveyor Mike Simpson, and it became Clarke and Simpson. Mike retired in 2005.
Chris is the son of a barley merchant. E G Clarke & Son was started by Chris’s great, great grandfather and was sold to Bibby’s in 1959. Chris’s father launched Geoffrey Clarke Grain Company in 1969. He would go on to sell the business in 1987 at the age of 70 and it would eventually become part of Nidera.
Chris meanwhile set his sights on becoming an auctioneer and estate agent. In 1971, he left school at the age of 18 to begin his career with auctioneer Michael Spear of Spear and Sons at Campsea Ashe – which Chris now owns.
February 1 this year marked the 50th anniversary of his arrival at the auctioneers, bringing him full circle.
Spears was snapped up by Abbotts – which became Chris’ employers. Chris continued up the career ladder and was made a partner and managing director at quite a young age.
He was tempted away by one of the big auctioneers and lured to London. “I was 36 and I was MD but I had lost a lot of client contact and just managing things and was very unsettled,” he explains.
This proved to be a pivotal moment. “It was a terrible mistake,” he admits of the move. But he took his wife’s advice and returned to his home town to start from scratch. “I just came back and offered a personal service because I knew a lot of people.”
He has greatly enjoyed his time at Clarke and Simpson, but now feels it’s time to hand over the reins to the next generation.
“I have absolutely loved it. The great thing for me is it’s entirely and completely a people business. I have got some great clients,” he says. “I have aimed for the last 20 years to put a team together that I can trust to do the job now, quite frankly, better than me.”
Chris is a keen golfer and enjoys shooting — but he admits that it’s the people he enjoys the most.
“I love who I am with and where I am even more than the sport. That summarises my life really,” he says.
Now 68, Chris plans to play some golf and pay an extended visit to his wife’s home country of Australia.
“We are blessed to have good health. It’s the right time in every respect,” he says.
As Chris retires, James Durrant and Geoff Barfoot will become directors of Clarke and Simpson Auctions Ltd and Eleanor Havers will become a partner of Clarke and Simpson.