Small Business: Business coaching - Custom Residential

By Gill South

Custom Residential founder says firm wants to give vendors a more bespoke service.

Keith, left, and Sandy Dowdle now hold a 30 per cent share in John Wills' real estate business. Photo / Dean Purcell
Keith, left, and Sandy Dowdle now hold a 30 per cent share in John Wills' real estate business. Photo / Dean Purcell

Taking on new senior staff early in your business' life is an anxious time. Will it work out? Will they fit into the unique company culture you have painstakingly created?

When Keith and Sandy Dowdle joined Grey Lynn-based Custom Residential three years ago, the business was nearly two years old.

Founder John Wills admits feeling nervous about how the couple would fit in. They came from Ray White Ponsonby and had been star agents there. But that didn't mean they would shine for him. He admits he has made hiring mistakes in the past.

"With Sandy and Keith I was looking for experienced people and I realised that the skills were there. They had big-picture buy-in from day one," says Wills. And excellent life experience.

Since arriving, the couple have helped take the business from $2 million in turnover to $3.5 million. The agency has sold 507 houses to date.

Two years after joining, they took a 30 per cent shareholding in Custom Residential and are using their skills to help Wills run the business as well as listing and selling properties.

Keith Dowdle, the principal of Ponsonby Intermediate School from 1999 to 2002, has taken on the firm's staff training and is helping Wills with recruitment. Sandy, meanwhile, oversees the office administration.

"What John was doing was very much hands-on, very much vendor-focused," says Keith. "We had a belief in what he was doing, turning the old model on its head."

When Wills, a former policeman, started the business, he came from Premium Real Estate. He wanted Custom Residential to give vendors a more bespoke service.

"I wanted to do a better job for a smaller number of clients. I wanted to be nimble and agile," says Wills.

"The price of a house is not what it was - people are selling a very significant asset and to put that into a box or template, to me, is not right."

Custom Residential auctions are generally held on site. "Having an auction at the agency rooms, the main beneficiary is the [real estate agency] brand," says Keith Dowdle.

Having the auction on-site makes the house the focus and enhances the emotional connection the buyers have with the property, he says.

Wills' model is that houses are extremely valuable assets so each one needs to be marketed individually. That has been adopted by Keith and Sandy Dowdle to good effect.

"From where we were with Ray White, our sales doubled over the next two years," says Keith Dowdle.

Custom Residential is expanding its reach from the city fringe of Herne Bay, Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Kingsland and Arch Hill, following clients out to suburbs such as Waterview, Pt Chevalier, Sandringham and Titirangi.

The three shareholders, meanwhile, have worked with business coach Zac de Silva to define the company's ethos and to communicate that to vendors and prospective employees.

Staff numbers have now hit 20 - 15 sales people and five sales support.

New agent Robyn Ellson has been a star performer. The former PR woman was the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand's property manager rookie of the year last year.

"It was reinforcement that we were on the right track," says Keith Dowdle.

Wills says he wanted to offer a really pleasant workplace where people had access to mentoring.

Top Tip

When hiring, take your time and use a panel. Don't make the decision by yourself.

Best business achievement

Making an immediate impact during recession in a descerning market and seeing consistent year-on-year sales growth.

- NZ Herald

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