Nicola Fleet-Milne wanted to be an RAF pilot. When that failed, she entered a TV gameshow, winning two rent-free apartments for a year. Now she owns a leading Birmingham lettings agency. Steve Dyson took her to lunch.
When Nicola Fleet-Milne arrived at the University of Birmingham in 1997 to study English and Classics, she soon decided on her dream career. She joined the University of Birmingham Air Squadron and started training to become a pilot – spending two years of her spare time flying single-engined Bulldog trainer planes.
“I went solo and built up 60 hours flying time,” recalls Nicola, now aged 37. “I did all the basic aerobatics, like looping the loop, and loved it. The RAF offered me a navigator’s bursary, but I turned it down – I wanted to be a pilot.”
But on graduation, Nicola failed the pilot medical because of her reach: “They said my arms weren’t long enough, which meant that on paper I couldn’t achieve what I’d been fully doing when flying!”
With no ‘Plan B’ – she says she’s now “obsessed with having a plan for everything” – Nicola said she “did what most people who don’t know what to do did: I temped.” She spent four months working in London, and then came back to live with old pals in Birmingham while temping as a secretary for the Knight Frank residential lettings company.
In 2001, she entered herself and housemates into a TV gameshow called Rent Free, hosted by Richard Bacon on BBC Choice – and they won two city-centre apartments rent-free for a year, giving Nicola unique insights into the residential lettings sector.
She explains how her new career idea developed: “At the same time, Knight Frank said: ‘You’ve got a brain in your head – do you want to join us?’ I started as a secretary, then moved into lettings administration and soon became a negotiator. It was a wonderful 18 months of learning, but then they sold the lettings side to Bruton Knowles, and I was TUPE’d across.”
She spent 13 months at Bruton Knowles, but “it wasn’t the same”, and Nicola found herself working her socks off until 11pm every night while male colleagues enjoyed “long boys’ lunches” every day.
“That irked me,” she recalls, “it was my department making all the profit, but why should I fund their lunches? Eventually, my then boyfriend said: ‘I’m fed up of you coming home crying every night, I’ll lend you the cash and you can set up on your own.’ And that’s what I did, launching FleetMilne in March 2004.”
Nicola remembers how she didn’t know anything about running a business to start with, but had “sussed” the correct software needed to run a decent residential lettings agency. She rented serviced offices near the Mailbox in Birmingham city centre, and on day one sat at her desk with a phone and computer in front of her and – like the classic scene from The Simpsons when Homer starts his Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Neta business – thought: “Right, now what?”
Then the phone rang, and Nicola snatched it up: “FleetMilne properties, how may I help you?” But it was just her mum, from the family home in Middlesex, asking: “How’s it going?”
Nicola says: “For the first six months, I was subject to a restricted covenant from Bruton Knowles, so was just letting people know I’d set up. After six months, I sent a taxi round to their offices to pick up all my files, because my old landlord clients had come and found me. I pretty much cleared them out!”
By the end of 2004, Nicola employed her first member of staff, and by the end of the financial year she’d smashed all targets – with turnovers of £117,000 against a planned £70,000, and 120 lettings against a planned 75.
FleetMilne never looked back, with even the recession being “really good to us” because “everyone stopped buying and moved to rent, and rental prices went up”. By 2013, annual turnovers were topping £1m, with 600 properties in management, and staffing reached 25, although it’s currently 16 full-timers – “because we niched down to fewer but better people”.
Nicola admits there was “a bit of a dip” in 2014, partly because of a lack of property, but also because of a personal trauma: her then boyfriend, Lee Kemp, fell into a coma and nearly died from pneumonia while running a 156-mile marathon in the blistering heat of the Sahara Desert.
“This meant weekly flights to his bedside in Casa Blanca,” says Nicola, “and all the worries that go with someone being so ill.” Fortunately, all that’s behind her – Lee survived but their relationship didn’t – and a now single Nicola is fully focused on the next stage of FleetMilne’s development.
“I’ve been through it all,” she reflects, “but we’ve hit all our targets, and in many ways
I’ve done everything I wanted. But what’s next? People say the first year of business is the hardest, but I think that’s when you’re most motivated. Ten years in – last year – was the most difficult.”
Nicola recently appointed Ben Evans, who joined her in 2005, as FleetMilne’s new managing director, along with a 20% shareholding, while she became commercial director, still with 80% of shares, planning to forge a future for the company, now based on Colmore Row in Birmingham.
She says: “It’s crunch time – where do we go? I hear people talking about a glut of property [to rent] but that’s nonsense since 2010. Nobody’s built anything since – it’s all old stock. But as we come out of the recession, the developers and banks are starting to come back, and ‘build-to-let’ is happening. This is where the developer builds properties but does not sell them on, renting them out themselves instead. This becomes a sellable asset – with all those rents – and can be sold on to investors, like pension funds.
There will be new stock by 2016 to 2017, and I want to get relationships with those builders and developers, and with the funds that will eventually buy those assets. And I want to get there early enough to influence what’s built, rather than finding it hard to rent them.
In Birmingham, there are just so many different neighbourhoods, each needing different types of properties. It’s going to be really nice to start influencing what’s coming out, and I can do that with the name and connections I’ve built up in the last ten years, with all the ex-clients, landlords and tenants I’ve worked with.
It’s a slow game but there’s a lot of potential for FleetMilne, and I’m in a position to let myself do that. I’m currently the company’s most expensive member of staff, but the eventual fruits of that labour will be worth it.”
Nicola certainly doesn’t let the grass grow under her feet: as well as networking and setting up relationships across Birmingham for FleetMilne, she has numerous other interests: she’s relationship director for BPS Birmingham, the professional membership organisation; a board member at Colmore Business Improvement District; and a trustee of Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre.
She’s won high-profile business awards, including the ‘Entrepreneur’ category in the Birmingham Young Professional of the Year, and the Institute of Director’s ‘Emerging Talent’ award in 2007. She regularly mentors younger entrepreneurs, and is a fledgling start-up investor – helping what’s now the thriving Yorks Bakery Cafe get off the ground in 2012, and currently backing a documentary film called Bicycle, directed by BAFTA award-winning director and keen cyclist Michael B. Clifford.
We’ve already mentioned Nicola’s personal life – the boyfriend who helped her start FleetMilne, the other boyfriend who nearly died. In between these relationships, she married financial advisor David Neale – and they were divorced within 18 months. But she says she’s staying single for now, pouring her passions into developing the business.
“I’ve got pretty much zero interest in children,” she explains, “and I want to spend a couple of years focused on work because the next stage is so exciting. And I don’t feel I’m missing out – I’ve got great friends, love snowboarding, play netball twice a week and am a bit of a socialite.”
Back to work, Nicola puts her love of the property sector down to being “a born fixer” who enjoys the challenge of “something that needs solving”. She hated the way people practised in residential lettings. “In short, the computer should never say no,” she says. “It’s not that difficult, but it’s difficult to do well. And there are agencies that don’t do it well.
“Part of my motivation was proving that it can be done very well with the right people, the right training, and dealing with clients and customers in a reasonable manner. Also, there were some in the industry who didn’t believe I could do it. You know, a single female starting up against big agencies just couldn’t work. I was determined to prove them wrong.
“Now that’s done, I’m driven by the team at FleetMilne and want to succeed for them. I don’t think we’ve hired many from within the industry, by the way. Instead we look for the ‘soft’ skills – communications, empathy, knowing how to utilise common sense – and then train them up.”
Before Nicola departs in her new BMW 4 Series – her “pride and joy” – I ask for her tips for would-be entrepreneurs: “Be self-aware, know your own strengths and weaknesses, and employ people who are good at the stuff you do badly.
“Be money savvy – cash-flows are boring but essential. Don’t scrimp on accountants, or advice. If you pay peanuts you’ll end up with monkeys. Seek out more senior people in the industry and ask them questions. They can save you from making a lot of errors that cost money and reputation.
“And don’t forget to give back. If you succeed, someone a little more junior than you might need a helping hand. It’s the cycle of business life. On that theme, don’t burn bridges! You never know when you’ll need to come back.”