Former staff recall ‘shock’ of Dubai estate agent closure
For years, Smith and Ken marketed itself as an award-winning, top real estate broker. So what went wrong?
Head up to the Dubai headquarters of the now-defunct real estate agents Smith and Ken - which declared a shock bankruptcy last week - and you’ll see signs directing you to the main door.
Yet the entrance, located on the 11th floor of one of the city’s countless office blocks, no longer exists. A wooden spare has replaced the glass door, which was mysteriously smashed shortly after the company shut down.
Now, all that is left from the company, which also had an office in Los Angeles, claimed to be a multiple industry award winner, and which had thrived right through Dubai’s boom and subsequent bust last decade, is a sealed-off office and still-live website. What had gone wrong?
An employee, who agreed only to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, said that she got a phone call last week “in the middle of the night,” from the office manager.
The office manager told her “not to come into work the next morning, because the company’s closed down.”
Still in shock hours later, the employee showed up to the office.
“We went in the following day to pick up our passports, because the majority of the staff were new, people who had flown over from the UK.”
Some of the company’s staff did not even receive the courtesy call. One agent, who also did not wish to be identified, heard only through a co-worker, who had sent him a photo showing a sign on the office door that read: “S+K is no longer open for business.”
“The HR manager and all the admin came. Everyone was just looking at each other’s faces.”
After pushing over the office door, the staff were surprised to see that the office had been stripped of valuable items – seemingly overnight.
“Everything was gone, the Mac computers at reception was missing. Somebody was there, and had took everything.”
However, some agents were unfazed by the closure. A rival firm, on a higher floor in the same office tower, had vacancies, and reportedly accepted many of the Smith and Ken agents right away.
But agents make up less than half the company’s staff list of around 70. The rest, according to former workers, are administrative staff, many in low-level clerical positions.
Those clerical staff “can’t even afford a can of coke,” said one employee. “They were crying about how they were supposed to pay their next month’s rent.”
The woes extend outside the company’s staff. In addition to the unpaid wages, and commissions, all the existing transactions and payments from buyers and clients remain in limbo, both of the former employees said.
The official press release announcing the firm’s bankruptcy, distributed by a PR firm on behalf of Smith and Ken, gave a reason for closure:
“The revenue being generated by the business drastically reduced over the first half of 2015, without enough income to cover operational costs,” according to the release quoted by state-owned UAE newspaper The National. The firm appointed to liquidate the company - as mentioned in the release – was not named.
A last-ditch recruitment drive mentioned in the release had been unsuccessful. Yet according to the managerial-level former employee interviewed, the new staff were only taken on because the previous had left out of dissatisfaction at the firm’s practices and at their treatment by one of the firm’s chiefs.
And despite loud claims on its website to be the “industry’s best agency,” an online search for the company shows a plethora of complaints of dishonest agents and malpractices, and an overall low-level of service - acknowledged even in the press release.
Former agents say one of the company chiefs is not in the UAE and cannot be reached.
The last thing the managerial-level staff member heard from one of the company’s managers was that he would be returning from Los Angeles. “He emailed everyone [from LA] saying he was coming on Tuesday. On Wednesday, there was no office there anymore,” she said, adding that she now felt “unbelievably” betrayed.
Many recalled one of the managers having an energetic, ruthless personality, flamboyance, and almost daily pep-talks aimed at firing up cash-hungry agents, most of whom rely entirely on commissions.
“You sometimes needed that kind of energy, and motivation,” said one former employee.
The motivational speeches kept on going right until the end, even administered through video-chat software Skype when one of the managers was abroad, as well as their imbued “work-hard, play hard” culture. And the rewards for success seemed generous.
Some staff reported that gifts from meeting sales targets ranged from a night’s stay in Dubai’s ultra-luxury Burj al-Arab, paid foreign trips to the U.S. and the Bahamas, and even Rolex wristwatches.
Yet for all the perks, there was an ever-looming dark side. “He [one of the managers] could really rip you off,” said the former senior-level employee.
“There were late payments, no payments, changing of payment structure,” the other employee said, reporting constantly shifting goal-posts, and commission and even visa applications - compulsory for legally residing in the UAE as a foreign national - withheld.
The number for the Los Angeles office listed on Smith and Ken’s website is no longer in service. One former staff member said that she believed that the U.S. office might now be trading under a new name.
The closure comes around the same time of a general market slowdown in Dubai, with the emirate’s Land Department reporting a 69 percent drop in transactions in the first half of this year.
Due to the sluggish market, in part caused by owners reluctant to lower prices and by a raft of new supply, Dubai’s seemingly countless real estate brokerages could be under pressure.
“Agents have got to be prepared for a certain period of lower sales activity, and that will obviously have implications for the number of brokers that the market can support,” said Craig Plumb, a chief researcher at analysts Jones Lang LaSalle.
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