MARKET LEADER: The driving force behind the real estate evolution

Brendon Skipper’s role as CEO of New Zealand’s No.1 property site, realestate.co.nz, draws on more than 20 years of experience across sales and marketing, property, IT and telecommunications, but he is quick to point out that the CEO role is one that doesn’t come with a manual.

Could you describe a standard day for yourself?

There is no standard day, and that not only goes for me, but for the rest of the business. We’re a business that’s dynamic and we have a complex client base. We work with real estate agents and agencies at all levels. And then we have our advertising avenue, which deals with a range of clients from the financial institutes to the automotive industry.

Is it important with the complexity and the dynamic nature of the business to have some sort of stability as well?

Absolutely. We all have a stake in the business from a team point of view, and we all have an inner vision. The most important thing, and the most stable thing in any business in terms of driving success, is making sure you have a strong vision and a strong strategy. This is so everyone knows their part to play, and understands how they can help and leverage off other people within the business.

The real estate advertising market is notoriously competitive, to say the least. What have been some of the secrets to your success?

Our people are the key to our business, [as is] having the right people in the right place at the right time. Strong leadership is certainly key, then creating the capacity for people to do what they need to do to get the job done.

In regard to our client base and our product base, it comes down to making sure we’re listening to the people that are engaging with our products at any given time. It’s also giving them information about how they can better engage with us as a business as well. We take a customer-first approach, which means that an open line of communication is crucial.

You personally have a vast amount of experience across all the elements that make up this business, from communications to IT to real estate, but was it a giant learning curve for you to really jump into that leadership role?

There’s no manual. There’s no book to say: “This is what you need to be to become a successful CEO.” But it comes down to a couple of things for me. I’m passionate about the real estate industry and I’m passionate about the online world and what that can offer, not only the benefits to business, but also consumers, from an information point of view.

Join those two together and what you get is an ability to think outside the box. It is about having the passion to share with other people, and to help them to understand what you’re driving for and what you’re striving for.

We’ve seen some big changes in the past 12 months here at realestate.co.nz. There’s new branding and we’ve just moved into new premises; there’s a real sense that we’re moving forward and we’re doing things that matter.

In terms of the pathway that you took to becoming a CEO, were there things that you set in place in your career that helped prime you for the role?

No, anyone that sits there and says they know it all, is probably not a CEO or at least won’t last very long as a CEO. I’m constantly learning.
The other thing I’ve always believed in is that you should have the ability to do a 90-degree turn if you need to.

What advice do you have for any aspiring CEO?

For me it’s always to be open and trust your gut. The CEOs that I engage with and know well tend to follow their instinct. While there is all this of this information, and people telling you that the right decision is this or that, sometimes you just should go with your gut. Often that is the most powerful tool we have. That, and a good support network.

When you become CEO, do you get the keys to a special club? Do you hang out with other CEOs and talk CEO stuff?

If there is, I haven’t got it yet, so I don’t know who to write to about that [laughs]. I have a strong network of people and becoming a CEO has just slightly expanded that a little bit. But it’s not an exclusive club. If people are wanting to move up and look at either being a business owner or CEO, then they should approach someone who is one.

It’s not as though we’re closed off and have this exclusive club. I do think there is a sort of impression about how CEOs are positioned, and that they have no time for anyone. That’s not the reality, because we learn off people. I mentor a couple of entrepreneurs and every time I meet up with them, I take something away too.

Did you have any mentors along the way?

Absolutely. My brother was a big mentor of mine. I still lean a lot on people within the industry, including CEOs of some of the big agency franchises who I’ve worked with and then realised that I could learn from what they’ve done in their business.

It’s been a year of the re-brand. How do you quantify the success of it?

The analogy (and I love analogies, just ask any of my team) is that you go to buy a new suit or a new outfit and you put it on and there’s a change in your demeanour and your attitude. That’s what we did as a brand. We put the new suit on, and suddenly, it’s like we are grown up, we are modern and we are ready for success.

We are still developing it too. A brand never sleeps. It’s not about ticking a few boxes and your brand is done. It’s constantly moving, and we’re always looking at the information in terms of where it’s been successful and where it hasn’t been so successful, and we’re managing that. And we’ll be moving that forward as we go. The logo is one thing, the advertising is another, but as a brand it’s a complete unit.

Another key driver for that new demeanour that you talk of is, of course, the actual working environment…

Yes, we’ve moved into new premises in the REINZ building on Khyber Pass Road, Auckland. It was two years in the making, with a lot of thought going in to what sort of business we wanted to project internally and also externally when people come in here. Personally, I think we’ve nailed it. It comes down to that tone in the brand we are. It’s a very open office, but it also has its breakaway areas so we can focus and look at what we’re doing as a business and then go do what we need to do from an actual operational point of view. The reality is that we work very hard and it’s important to have the right environment around that. One of our biggest achievements was taking our values and applying it to our work space in a visual way.

In terms of that function of work, have you noticed an increase in productivity or other benefits that have come as a result of the space?

The biggest surprise is the way that people get up from their desks and walk to another area to conduct their work, or have a discussion or have a meeting and then come back and get on with it. People want to see what’s happening around them and to all be part of one area, but the reality is that you still need to break away and have those concentrated conversations or meetings to make key decisions. Having these small private areas has made a big difference to how we communicate and how we deliver. We’ve come into this big open space and we communicate better, but we do it in a very different way.

In terms of that communication, you’ve even got the office decorated with some of your core messages. Is that part of your strategy as well, in terms of just making sure that everyone’s on point in terms of what you’re wanting to achieve?

It’s about tying in what we do externally with what we do internally. When you come into the office you very much see the public side of us. We’re a listing site first off, yet we’re helping potential buyers or renters or people buying businesses. And so, we position that in the public-facing environment. When you walk around into the building, it becomes more internal.

We’re happy to share that with external [people] – especially if they are business partners or clients when they visit. And when they’re in our domain and our office, they get a sense about what the culture is and what we are.

From a staff perspective, if someone’s having a challenging day, they can look at our vision and they can look at what we’re about and absorb it and say: “Actually yes, this is why I’m here. This is why I’m doing this.”

On the face of it, and first and foremost, you are a listing site, but there are multiple revenue streams to the business. Is there anything you’re really excited about in terms of future growth?

Absolutely. One of the biggest achievements we’ve made is moving away from the stigma that we’re just a classified site. We have our display advertising which we have now brought in-house. We have built that team from scratch to now having four intelligent people who are part of this business and adding value to the organisation daily. I’m very excited about that and also about the data and information we’re collecting from our users and our listing information. Then, it is about turning that data into insights that help guide us as a business and help inform our advertisers, too.

That data obviously gives you a lot of insight from which you can generate market reports and provide a lot of information to advertisers and that kind of thing. Do you see further potential in this collection of data?

Without a doubt. And while that data is extremely important it isn’t everything. The important thing is asking the data the right question at the right time. A lot of businesses rely too much on data, and they go down a path that is not reflective of what’s happening in the real world.

And in terms of the real world, property is such an emotional thing. And it has lately become a political football that everyone is talking about. Do you get a different sense of the market compared with the one portrayed in media?

Sometimes I feel like that doctor at the BBQ, with people constantly asking them about this ache or that lump. I’ve been involved with the real estate industry for 14 years now. Everyone asks me about the property market and my answer hasn’t changed.

When you have the money, buy a property if that’s what you want to do. If that’s what you want to do with your money and you can buy a house, then that’s when you should do it. There is a political football that’s being bounced around, but I try to step away from that and look at the practical sort of side of it.

The information and the data we’re getting is that there has been a cooling in terms of house prices and a pullback in house sales, but the reality is that we’ve got a growing population. We’ve got a housing shortage in certain areas. And so that momentum, and the fact that property is such a key part of our lifestyle keeps driving the market. So my advice is, if you can raise the funds, if you can get the mortgage, and if that’s what you want to do for your future and your family, then buying a property is still a great option.

Property is a big part of the New Zealand psyche, but we’re also very entrepreneurial and it’s interesting to see the ‘businesses for sale’ category on the site. Is that an area you see further potential in?

Absolutely. And those people that have seen property as maybe that step too far are looking at those opportunities. Businesses for sale is a real focus for us.

Is it potentially a typical thing, for someone, say, to be looking at a house in Auckland, and then they end up looking at a business in Wellington or even a bit of property in Fiji after going to realestate.co.nz?

Yes, there are several things that are going on. People will start looking in certain areas, and may end up buying an investment property elsewhere. In fact, there are several stories of my own team here having done exactly that. But there’s also that story of people saying: “My deposit of XYZ would get a better return elsewhere, and I could have a certain lifestyle or actually build something of my own.”

I know of a friend who’s bought a cafe. They have come from a financial background but wanted a lifestyle.

It’s interesting you bring up those individual cases because, as you say, the data is hugely important, but it’s not everything. And these are really big decisions that affect people’s lives on a really personal level.

One of the comments that I would make in terms of all that information – whatever source it’s coming from and whether you’re in an auction room, buying a business or putting an offer on a farm – is that there is always a level of emotion involved which data can’t capture. This is true even for investors to a certain point. There’s an element of risk and a lot of thought that goes into it. And that drives emotion. I make decisions in this business, and there’s an emotional drive to it as well.

People who think they can totally remove the emotion from those big transactions are kidding themselves. Whether you’re buying a business or a farm, or just renting a house, there is always a level of emotion and you can’t apply data to that.

There is a perception that this younger generation coming through is locked out of a lot of the access to the potential for equity growth that, say, baby boomers have had. A big element of this is, of course, being able to buy a house. Do you still see the potential for younger people to work the property ladder?

There’s a couple of things at play here, and property is not the be-all and end-all. I mean, we live and breathe it with what we do as a business, but say you are renting a studio apartment so you can build a business… to me that’s investing in the future. In regard to first-home buyers, which is one of the political footballs that you mentioned before, I think the landscape has changed. But there’s been a group of those people, first-home buyers, that struggled 20 years ago and 40 years ago. What’s happening now is that, just in certain areas, there has been this extra pressure on the market.

So we’ve seen people becoming more creative with their investments and I think that’s all part of the Kiwi ‘number eight wire’ kind of mentality. I think New Zealanders are becoming more open to opportunities in terms of their future and what their retirement may look like, or how their lifestyle may be built around that. Not everyone wants a $4million house in Ponsonby. Some people want to live up north and have a certain lifestyle.

That individuality means we cover the spectrum here from a business perspective and that’s what excites us. It’s not a closed door. If you can’t buy a house right away, it doesn’t mean we can’t still help or assist on that journey.

How do you rate the start-up environment in New Zealand? Would those under your mentorship be better off in Silicon Valley?

Not at all. There are some great examples of businesses that have started from ground up within New Zealand. New Zealand is a great incubator for innovation, especially in the tech environment. There’s also good support networks, and good services that are out there that can help entrepreneurs.

In terms of lifestyle, how do you keep a balance between work and life and family?

One of the things I try and instill here in the business is the concept that it’s family first. If there’s an illness or there’s a major event coming along, it’s always family first. And I’ve always operated like that.

In terms of balance, for me, it’s making sure that I take time out. I like heading away out of Auckland. I’ve got family down in Wellington, which I like to visit regularly. But it’s also about taking time out to read a book or to just watch your favourite series on Netflix. It’s just actually making sure you take that time out. When you get to that point where you don’t feel like you’re making decisions clearly, it’s probably time you step back a little bit, to step back in.