Leonie Freeman, the first woman to head the organisation representing New Zealand's commercial property sector, wants to know how it can resolve some of the real estate issues dogging this country.

As the Property Council's new chief executive, from next month she will head an organisation that describes itself as "New Zealand's commercial property voice", representing more than 550 member companies that control $50 billion worth of real estate. She has two goals for her new job:

• For the sector to become more diverse and inclusive, particularly given that this year marks the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage in New Zealand.

• Trying to solve commercial, industrial, retail and residential property challenges - "and as a sector group we need to ask more questions around leadership and what do we do to resolve some of the big blockages and challenges?"

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Freeman, often heard on radio and as a public speaker, has expertise in valuation, development, property management and technology in the public and private sector.

She grew up in Titirangi. Her parents Alice and Garry Freeman, now of Tauranga, took the family to Christchurch where they were teachers whose careers included teaching at schools for the deaf.

"They have been a huge influence, believing you can do anything you choose," says Freeman. "And they've always been 150 per cent supportive and encouraging for whatever direction we decided to go."

The late Rodger Alexander, a switched-on careers adviser at what is now Linwood College, encouraged her towards Lincoln's property degree. As a student, she met Christchurch real estate agent and valuer Peter Cook of the Simes real estate company. Cook - a father of four daughters who believed girls had no limits - had a big influence on Freeman's career.

"He trained me as a valuer," says Freeman, who graduated with a masters in commerce with the assistance of a Simes scholarship. She and Cook later worked together when he was national president of the Real Estate Institute from 1986 to 1988.

But more of that later.

She returned to Auckland in the 1980s to work at valuation and consulting business Darroch, establishing its technology systems and buying a St Heliers unit which she and her father renovated before she bought a residential portfolio.

Leonie Freeman, who grew up in Auckland and Christchurch. Photo/supplied
Leonie Freeman, who grew up in Auckland and Christchurch. Photo/supplied

"I was the first female in private practice in valuation in Christchurch during the 1980s. I was about 19 when a man in his 70s was bewildered why someone took on a female as a valuer," she recalls from her Queen St office.

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She was 23 when she bought her first property for about $120,000, a run-down home in Wellington's Wilton, which she bought with her brother John, renovated, then rented out when the two travelled. "And it was third world adventure travel," she recalls of an organised truck tour from Kathmandu to London via the Middle East, then six months from Zimbabwe to Ethiopia.

Connal Townsend, who finishes at the end of December. Photo/Jason Oxenham
Connal Townsend, who finishes at the end of December. Photo/Jason Oxenham

"When I came home, I decided I wanted to work for myself as a property consultant and it was a big thing because for my parents, life was about job security. I decided to follow my passions: technology, research and education."

She founded Crest Consulting, named for a wave's crest to signal change, and worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Fiji, "assisting valuers there to understand leasehold land, how to value it and set strategies."

Freeman with former Housing Minister Nick Smith. Photo/Jason Oxenham
Freeman with former Housing Minister Nick Smith. Photo/Jason Oxenham

In 1996, she created the concept for one of this country's first major commercial websites, a venture initially called RealENZ.co.nz, but now known as realestate.co.nz.

But it wasn't all plain sailing when she was on that wave crest. Freeman almost gave up trying to convince people the internet was the future for home sales. It was only when she met Cook again when he was REINZ president that she was re-encouraged: he told her that if his agency was to buy computers for every Christchurch household and agents listed their properties there, that would be cheaper for those agencies than their annual newspaper advertising costs.

She then went into property management, initially buying a small Ellerslie-based entity with about 300 homes, then expanding by buying other managers and, by 2007, selling what was then known as Interactive to the Crockers property management company.

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"Then I took two years off, it was a gift for my soul. I was recouping," she says, describing a break in Auckland, travelling to Asia for six months and re-evaluating her career.

Peter Cook of Christchurch, pictured here in 2004, had a big effect on Freeman's career.
Peter Cook of Christchurch, pictured here in 2004, had a big effect on Freeman's career.

By 2009 she had decided to focus on property in the public sector and was appointed as a strategic property adviser in the establishment of the new Auckland Council.

An 18-month stint as the general manager of development for Housing New Zealand broadened her social housing experience. In 2011, she was appointed a director of NZX-listed Goodman Property Trust, and has lectured at Auckland University

For fitness, Freeman chose boxing. About a decade ago, she took part in one of Monty Betham's boxing events, where - unusually for her - she did not win.

Dakin says Freeman has a unique set of skills. Photo/Colleen Tunnicliffe
Dakin says Freeman has a unique set of skills. Photo/Colleen Tunnicliffe

"Learning how to hit someone and for someone to hit you ... I found with boxing, you're so in the moment."

Soon, Freeman publishes her own book, Ready, Set, Grow - How To Build a Business, Not a Job, self-published on Amazon, in which she recounts much of her career and influencing factors.

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Tramco's Angela Bull says Freeman is a leader. Photo/Dean Purcell
Tramco's Angela Bull says Freeman is a leader. Photo/Dean Purcell

From December 3, she will be based in the Property Council's Shortland St offices, stepping into the role Connal Townsend has filled for almost 15 years. And what then?

"One of the first things I want to do is go out to the members and ask what's the role and purpose of the Property Council. It's not that there's anything wrong now, but it's a chance to get really clear about what it wants to contribute.

Bindi Norwell said Freeman brings significant experience to the role.
Bindi Norwell said Freeman brings significant experience to the role.

"And then we can get a clear strategic plan. We've got big issues facing the country. I want to ask the members what's our role? Is it advocacy and membership services or leading and solving some of the issues facing this country? It's a wider sector question."

WHAT OTHERS SAY
Angela Bull, chief executive of property investor Tramco: "Leonie is a leader in the property industry. She has demonstrated great passion and purpose in wanting to make the property sector better, particularly in access to housing and her enthusiasm and energy is admired."

Connal Townsend, Property Council chief executive: "A very exciting appointment that places the council in very wise hands. Leonie is a well-known and passionate advocate in the housing sector, but she also brings extensive industry experience in the commercial and industrial realm as well. The council will face a number of exciting opportunities next year with Government announcements on an Urban Development Authority and reforms to our planning legislation. Given her background, I am confident that she is the right person to seize these opportunities for our industry."

Peter Cook, formerly of Simes, Christchurch: "There are very few people in real estate with her range of skills. She's enthusiastic, disciplined, personable, totally career-oriented in property, has intelligence and common sense. She sets targets and achieves them because she's determined."

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Bindi Norwell, REINZ chief executive: "As New Zealand celebrates women's suffrage, it's wonderful to see another female chief executive appointed in the property industry. Leonie brings a significant level of experience to the role and throughout her career, she has worked tirelessly to better the industry and to try and solve the housing crisis."

John Dakin, Property Council president: "She has a unique set of skills spanning the private and public sector and a wide understanding of all real estate sectors. She also brings a lot of energy, well-developed people skills and a strong entrepreneurial spirit, all of which we believe will be huge assets. She has demonstrated strong leadership and courage throughout her career. These values will be critical as the organisation seeks to lead debate around the future of New Zealand's cities and how we can create urban environments for the future."

Leonie Freeman
Job: Property Council chief executive from December 3.
Family: Single.
Lives: In Remuera.
Last book read: Her own: Ready, Set, Grow - How To Build a Business, Not a Job, by Leonie Freeman, self-published, $30 on Amazon.
Last holiday: Ski-ing at Queenstown and Wanaka in July.
Last film watched: A Star Is Born.