Thirty years ago a decision prompted by the oncoming recession resulted in work colleagues Damien Cooke and Mike Bastow leaving the world of sales, and daily trips to London, to set up a new business in the heart of Cliftonville.
Three decades on and Cooke & Co estate agency has three Thanet offices, employs more than 20 people and continues to adapt to changing times while still being determined to retain ‘traditional’ values.
The agency was one of the first to embrace technology to offer online tours and videos but, Damien says, the traditional face-to-face approach is also still much-valued.
Damien first gained experience in the estate agency trade when working for businessman Ron Foster.
He said: “He was a traditional agent and he taught me an awful lot. I worked all hours God sent.
“Then my neighbour Mike said he had seen how hard I worked. He was working in sales for a photocopier company in London and suggested I join him. I had never been to London.
“I would drive him to Tabard Street in London at 5am and we were together a lot of the time. It was commission only sales but there was a considerable amount of money in London at the time.
“But then it all was coming to an end as the recession started biting.”
The pair considered options and decided to use Damien’s experience as an estate agent combined with Mike’s knowledge of sales to start a fresh business, with Cooke & Co opening in Northdown Road in 1992.
Just a few months in and a request from farmer and round the world yachtsman Nigel Betts to manage some 80 properties resulted in Damien taking a course with the Association of Residential Lettings Agents (Arla) and the business expanding.
Mike and Damien were business partners for 25 years until golf fan Mike’s retirement.
A Ramsgate branch was opened with team member Bernard Hinson – now retired and living in the West Country – but then, due to the specific location, was closed in favour of a Broadstairs site.
Damien said: “I loved Ramsgate so we then opened another office by Waitrose, my daughter Becky opened it, and it has gone from strength to strength.”
Becky, 19, has since left to take an internship with Polydor.
Damien, who reveals he gained 8 GCSEs and 8 O Levels and had initially wanted to become a chef, says one of the most satisfying things through the 30 years of business has been seeing his team’s achievements in life.
The 51-year-old said: “At Cooke & Co the staff tend to stay with us so most staff have worked for me for 10 years or more. The best thing is watching them as they have families and buy their homes. Staff like Roger Forster, who is our boardman/maintenance man and is 70, keep us going!
“Over the years the industry has changed write a lot with hybrid models online but I still think there is room for traditional agents, people still like to have a place they can come into.
“After covid I kept flexible working so staff can work from home if they want to but most want to be together and work. During covid we did not know what would happen but we had Zoom calls and we would call clients just to see if they needed anything and to make sure everyone was ok. I also said to the team not to worry and I would look after them.”
Damien, who lives in Margate with wife Louise, says keeping it local is also key from using Thanet trades and suppliers to supporting charities such as Oasis Domestic Abuse Service, Pilgrims Hospice and youth football team Manston Spitfires.
Damien said: “If you look after people locally, they will look after you.”
Looking to the future, Cooke & Co has taken a green path with its power supplied by solar panels. “We’ve saved 118 tress this month,” Damien says.
And eventually the business may be taken on by the staff. Damien said: “I’m hoping staff will take shares and run it but that’s a few years off yet, I’m not planning to retire yet!”