CAMERON GARRY ISN’T your run-of-the-mill PM business owner. As co-founder and director of Adelaide-based Affordable Property Management, the former chartered accountant travelled an interesting career path before successfully landing in property management. Story by Anthony O’Brien.
AFTER GRADUATING WITH an accounting degree from the University of Adelaide in 2005, Garry worked for global Chartered Accounting firm Grant Thornton in Adelaide, crunching out clients’ tax returns and financial statements. “I got sick of [tax accounting] because I was working on people’s accounts that they had done a year ago. Even if I saw they’d done something that was a bit strange, they wouldn’t be able to make any changes until the next year,” he explains.
In 2008 Garry took a job with listed property trust GPT Group, which was in the process of distancing itself from a venture with failed investment bank Babcock & Brown. This was Garry’s first taste of the property industry, and he was part of the finance team that prepared the ASX-listed company’s financial statements.
After a couple of years at GPT, the young bean-counter decided to take some time off to go backpacking through Europe, the UK and Asia. In August 2011, he returned to Australia and soon accepted a position as a manager with Affordable Housing Consulting in Adelaide. Affordable Housing Consulting specialises in the management of residential properties and is heavily involved in the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS). This scheme is a partnership between the Australian Government and the states and territories to invest in affordable rental housing. In this role, Garry was involved in training property managers in the vagaries of NRAS.
LAUNCHING INTO SMALL BUSINESS
After a few years with Affordable Housing Consulting, Garry’s exposure to the property management industry, coupled with a desire to be his own boss, led him to launch Affordable Property Management in August 2013, with two silent partners. “One of my partners helps with business leads and the other got us onto the NRAS panel. This gives us a one in five chance of winning NRAS work,” Garry explains.
Garry also believes that his background as an accountant made owning a business a good fit. “Depending on the background of an owner, doing things like a BAS, superannuation and setting the business up in the first place can seem intimidating,” he says. “But with my accounting skills, I felt I could weigh up properly the costs [of running a small business] against the revenues we’re likely to get, which means that our business is a bit more grounded.”
It might be grounded, but Affordable Property Management seems to be headed skywards. “In just over two years, we have more than 360 properties under management and a few staff,” Garry says. “However, growing that quickly certainly comes with challenges from all perspectives, including HR, finances and general business management.”
THE NUMBERS GAME
Using finance and cash flow as examples, Garry cautions, “While you’re growing you have to be careful that you have access to money – you don’t want to be growing so quickly that you can’t pay your wages.
“My background in accounting helps because it’s very procedurally oriented. It’s very black and white. Perhaps it also helps that because I haven’t worked for other agencies I’m not moulded into [running the business] one way or the other. I’m also more likely to question why we do that, or ask what’s another way to do something.”
For example, Affordable Property Management recently purchased a small rent roll of 60 property managements. “Buying rent rolls is certainly a popular trend at the moment and something I take an interest in. As I come from a different industry and non-traditional background, my perspective on property management is fresh, and perhaps I am a good example of the new wave of professional property managers and agencies that are starting to surface.”
In the early days of Affordable Property Management, Garry found that his extra qualification as a chartered accountant was very useful when it came to attracting clients. “We found early on when we were trying to win business that having a CA as the owner of the business worked. It appealed to many people,” Garry says. That said, he has let his membership of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand lapse. “It’s not so much the membership fee; I just can’t clock up the professional points to maintain it.”
In addition to being a chartered accountant, Garry has plunged into the art of property management, becoming a certified real estate professional. He holds a Certificate IV in Property Services through the Real Estate Institute of SA (REISA) and has a Diploma in Property. Garry is a big advocate for REISA: “I send my staff to institute training. Being a small business, it’s good to have the REISA there, rather than paying for internal consultants or doing it myself.”
Likewise, Garry steers away from the flashier real estate conferences, favouring events run by REISA. “I prefer to target training that focuses on property management,” he explains. “When it’s sales and property management combined, there are more personalities in sales and that aspect of the industry tends to dominate. This is good for salespeople and it’s why they go there, but property management is treated as a sidebar at the bigger events.
“Property management is becoming its own thing. It’s no longer the little brother on the side any more that is helping to keep sales afloat. It’s been turned up a notch, thanks to technology that is advancing quicker than ever before.
“There are more apps and websites that are focused on PM, making it more efficient. There is a greater focus on customer service and, as employers, there is a greater emphasis on employing property managers who have a Certificate IV.”
An accountant by nature, Garry believes having more training and education can mitigate risk, and as a consequence more employers are looking for higher levels of certification before hiring PMs. “REISA are talking about separate training for property managers and I completely agree with that,” he says.
Property management is not an afterthought with specialists such as Affordable Property Management. “It does make a difference. Some people will have had bad experiences, which may not have been caused by an individual; rather, it comes from a lack of direction from the top, which is understandable.”
It is the ability to work with people that makes property management a more satisfying career choice for Garry. “There’s a sense of satisfaction when you see people trying to do their best and you can help them into a home. That’s quite nice.”
Garry also enjoys the ability to get out and about in his role as a property manager. “With accounting, it’s numbers and paper,” he says. “With property management, you have people and properties to visit. It’s very different and enjoyable.”
Focusing on IT and branding has also contributed to the early expansion of Affordable Property Management. “I always wanted to make sure my website was better than my competitors’. Early on we saw that an investment in the logo and website would help build trust,” he says.
Interestingly, Garry doesn’t use scripts and dialogues. “I can see merit in scripts and dialogues for a bigger business. While 350 managements is average, six months ago we were small and six months before that we were tiny. I’m close with my staff and we only do property management, so I’m not distracted by other things. We also have property managers with six to nine years of experience who have come from other good agencies, so I take advantage of their knowledge.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Again the accountant, Garry says consolidation is the name of the game at Affordable Property Management. “We want to consolidate on our very fast growth. We don’t want to undo all the hard work by getting ahead of ourselves. That said, there’s no real limit on where we can expand in Adelaide, but I want to be sure of my processes and systems before we expand.”
As for those considering starting a property management business, Garry advises, “Nothing is as scary as it seems. If you’re an owner and try to be a jack of all trades, it might not seem like enough. Alternatively, you might be good at one thing and not another. Learn what you’re good at and not good at. Either accept it or improve it.
“Also, get help when you need it. There’s also no point procrastinating. If you want to get into PM, do it now while there are low barriers to entry – and before people like me think of ways to create some barriers!”
CAMERON GARRY’S KEY TIPS FOR PROPERTY MANAGEMENT SUCCESS:
- Invest in an appropriate website and branding. You don’t want to fail because your website or branding gets outdated quickly. There are very low barriers to entering the PM sector, so if you’re going to do it, this is the major cost.
- Get yourself up to speed with education. If you’re like me, or you did your PM training a long time ago, go back to school.
- Do your research on the right PM software. We went cloud-based early on and it’s paying off. The cloud is working because it gives us flexibility. We base ourselves in the office but we do get out. And most [software programs] are subscription based, which means you don’t have a big outlay upfront; rather, you pay as you grow. If you’re not doing business in the cloud, you’re probably behind, whether you’re in PM or accounting.
- Have a long-term plan. Don’t do something simply because it suits you today. Think what impact an initiative will have in a year’s time. For example, am I going to create a process today that will be outdated in a year’s time when I’ve doubled my managements, whether it’s 10 to 20, or 100 to 200?
- It’s an old chestnut, but keep yourself sane. Play some sport, do some exercise, go to the movies and don’t work to midnight every night. If you’re tired, you’ll be grumpy and not smile as much when you’re on the phone to that next client.