Super League rugby player Liam Watts is already planning for life after retirement by kicking off a new career as an easyProperty franchisee
It’s the question every professional sportsperson has to answer: how will you cope when retirement inevitably arrives and you’re still fighting fit, ambitious and faced with the prospect that two thirds of your life could still lie ahead?
It doesn’t bother Liam Watts. At only 29 and with hopefully years of Super League rugby still to come, the Castleford Tigers prop forward has already sorted his life after retirement by kicking off a new career as a franchisee.
Although contracted to Rugby league high flyers Castleford until 2023, Liam has launched his own estate agency, W8tts Properties, in his West Yorkshire hometown as an umbrella for his online easyProperty franchise for the Castleford, Pontefract, Knottingley and Featherstone areas.
Determined to be the best
easyProperty is a hybrid estate agency and determined to be the biggest and best of a new breed that operates online, while also providing local support. It claims to offer the perfect solution for house buyers and sellers who want the best of both online and high street worlds, hence the slogan: ‘Sell your property from your sofa’.
The friendly six foot four, 17-stone rugby star is an iconic figure in Castleford and cheerfully admits that being a local hero has done his fledgling business no harm at all - W8tts Properties’ Facebook page attracted 1,300 followers in just a few weeks and despite coronavirus restrictions inquiries and sales are on the rise.
Liam says: “We had only just launched the franchise when we had to go into lockdown. Now the market is moving again we’re trying to get as many viewings lined up as we can. We had a total of 13 in a week.
“The time available during lockdown meant I could do more training and gain more expertise, which is standing me in good stead now. Selling or buying a house is more complicated than you think.
“I still love rugby league. I feel I’m in my prime right now and have still got plenty of years ahead of me at Castleford. I’ve gone into franchising because I want to make sure my family is financially secure when my playing days are over.
“Going into business is a five-year plan. I’m 29 now, but if I get to 33 or 34 and my body’s not doing things I want it to do I’d rather not have to play on just to get paid. Already the family is getting involved - my wife Beth will be helping out in the business and running the social media accounts.”
A likeable and personable guy
Liam was the first player to work with Rugby league Cares, an independent charity that helps players find new careers once their sporting lives are over. He got involved with easyProperty, originally part of the easy family of brands created by easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou, after meeting Kelvin Brook, easyProperty’s business development manager.
“I pitched the idea to him,” remembers Kelvin, who admits to being “a massive Tigers fan.” “For me to meet him and have a beer after a game would for most people be like meeting David Beckham.
“He’s a really likeable and personable guy. He said he had thought about how he was going to look after himself and his family after giving up the game because most rugby players don’t make enough to retire on.
“Right from our initial discussions, we knew that we could teach him to be a good estate agent. We were extremely excited about how the orange Castleford tiger could work with the orange easyProperty brand. “Liam had shown his toughness on the field and I knew that would help him in the business world. The estate agency world is fiercely competitive - in many ways it’s just like rugby league.”
Kelvin says the easyProperty recruitment system is tailor-made for dealing with people like Liam: “Many companies only take on people who have been in the business for at least two or three years. We’re looking for people with the right characteristics rather than experience.
“We use a profiling system that ensures the franchisees we take on are dedicated, competitive and have the will to win - the attributes a successful sportsman must have. That’s one reason why Liam has been so successful.”
Dealing with a local celebrity
Liam says he wanted a business in Castleford. He lives in the town and his wife and two sons enjoy life there.
Kelvin points out that people like the idea of dealing with a local celebrity: “He’s having massive success and has the knack of getting viewers interested straight away.
“For instance, last week he visited a property in Castleford at nine in the morning and by lunchtime it was sold at the asking price. How many people have done that?”
We give franchisees a business in a box
Now owned by managing director David Brierley, but with Stelios still involved, easyProperty currently has 16 franchisees covering 35 territories, each totalling 30,000 households. There are monthly fees of £350 rather than a large capital investment and income from sales is split 70-30 between franchisee and franchisor.
David says: “We’re delighted to have someone of Liam’s determination and motivation to be our representative in the Yorkshire area.
“His approach to his new business is inspirational and is clearly winning the hearts and minds of buyers and sellers in Castleford with his refreshing approach towards customer service and engagement.
“Our growth is ahead of schedule despite the effects of COVID-19 and is a clear indication that for people who have been working from home during the lockdown period it has given them an opportunity to reassess their work-life balance and consider using their skills to their own advantage working under the easyProperty umbrella.”
“We give franchisees a business in a box,” is how Kelvin puts it. “We provide all the technology that’s needed for marketing and advertising and also a media specialist to help with social media campaigns that nowadays are so important. “We initially limit franchisees to three territories, but once they’ve proved the model works and everyone’s happy they can take as many territories as they want.”
The company has a target of 100 territories by the end of the year and claims to use the latest technology to create a smooth and stress-free selling experience.
“Our industry has seen a lot of changes in the last few years, particularly with the arrival of companies like Purplebricks and Yopa,” Kelvin says.
“When you look around, you can see that some estate agents have got a little complacent. Rightmove and Zoopla are massive lead generating tools for us, but in our opinion, they can create lazy estate agents.
“How we wanted to do things was very different. For instance, Liam is having lots of success on social media with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.
“All our guys work from home and our shop window is the online world. We still take our properties to all the major portals like the high street agents would, but we do things differently by having a strong social media presence. “There have been some casualties on the high street since the pandemic and a lot of traditional agencies are looking at our self-employed model. That’s the modern way now.
“We get to know our buyers and speak to them on the phone, but we just don’t have a high street presence. The grand plan is to cover the whole of the UK and become the biggest hybrid estate agent. The reason Sir Stelios got involved is that he felt easyProperty should be to real estate what easyJet is to the travel industry.
“The busier we are and the more momentum we gain, the more people will come to us. No one could have predicted the coronavirus and the lockdown, but Liam has been massively successful through the crisis and social media is the key.
“For instance, a man in Castleford put a post on Facebook asking for recommendations for an estate agent. Out of the 42 replies, 25 recommended Liam and at the time he had only been doing the job for three weeks.
“He’s doing superbly well and has learned so much so quickly that he now values property on his own. Only yesterday he was telling me that he had been out to value eight properties and had listed seven of them.”
A life in rugby league
Liam says there was never much doubt he would make a life in rugby league: “Mine was a rugby family - my dad, grandfather and uncle all played.
When I was eight my dad took me to the amateur league club at Lock Lane, Castleford and asked if I wanted to have a go and see if I liked it. I’ve never looked back since.”
Leaving school at 16, Liam became a junior player for Featherstone Lions. “It was tough at first and the money was next to nowt, but all we young lads wanted to do was play rugby,” he says.
Liam made his professional debut for Hull Kingston Rovers in a Challenge Cup fourth-round tie in 2008, which resulted in a two-year contract. After a fine 2010 season, in which he played in 26 of 27 Super League matches, Liam joined the England Four Nations Championship training squad and was awarded the 2010 Albert Goldthorpe Rookie of the Year medal.
He left Hull Kingston Rovers at the end of the season to join Hull FC, with whom he twice won the Challenge Cup. Since joining Castleford Tigers in 2018, Liam has been called up for England performance squads and England Nines. He hasn’t given up hope of a full England cap and many pundits are at a loss to explain why it hasn’t happened.
It’s been everything I was hoping for
“If I hadn’t had the franchise, things would have been pretty frustrating during the lockdown, but it gave me the opportunity to put time and effort into the business and get things moving,” Liam says. “How well we are doing has taken me by surprise.”
What had Liam originally planned for his retirement? “My original plan was buying property and doing it up - I’m pretty good at DIY - but I now have more of an insight into the market, what to buy, what not to buy, where to buy, not just jumping in,” he explains.
“Now easyProperty is my future and has been everything I was hoping for. With everything being online, the job fits perfectly alongside rugby. My house is my office and that was one of the most appealing things that got me on board.
“Obviously, my hours will be reduced once I get back to playing rugby, but by that time I will hopefully have learned pretty much everything I need to know for when I eventually retire and work on the franchise full-time.
“I’m glad I decided to take on the franchise while I’m still playing and while I’m still a bit of an iconic figure in the area, rather than wait until I’ve retired and then start learning the business and hear people saying: ‘Didn’t he once play for Castleford?’.”
Ahead of the game
Already Liam is wondering about expanding his area, but Yorkshire caution creeps in: “It would generate more revenue, but we would need more staff and at the moment we’re in a good place and I’m happy with things as they are.
“I want to build the brand before we seriously think about expansion. It’s not about money at the moment, but about getting to the stage where the business is self-sustaining.
“Things are looking good. Estate agent’s shops will become few and far between - the first thing an ever-increasing number of people do is to look on the internet, book a video viewing and put in an offer online. Who needs a shop? That’s why we’re ahead of the game at the minute - and determined to stay that way.”
Kelvin goes along with that: “Liam is showing the same desire to make the business succeed as he has always shown in a Castleford shirt. To me, that’s a pretty good guarantee for success.”
7 reasons why liam watts chose the easyProperty franchise
1. It fitted in with his interest in buying and selling property and gave him a unique insight into the market.
2. He could work at home, enjoy family life and his wife Beth could help in the business.
3. He was able to continue with his rugby league career while building a business for his eventual retirement.
4. It was an opportunity to work with iconic entrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou.
5. Online estate agencies are transforming the way people sell properties - and now is the time to get on board.
6. The franchise package includes full support, training, centralised digital marketing and PR and a bespoke customer relationship management system.
7. The opportunity offers uncapped earnings potential and independence to make your own decisions.
An award-winning journalist and author, Tony James specialises in business and sport