Against all odds: Cathy Cattell

In the midst of the Global Financial Crisis, Cathy Cattell hit rock bottom. Her once successful horse stud business was going under and she had no idea what to do next. Enter a passion for people, a job in real estate and more tenacity than you can poke a stick at and things started to turn around. Here, Cathy tells Kylie Dulhunty how she fought back, the secrets behind her real estate success and why standing on the AREC stage was a career highlight.

In 2008, Cathy Cattell had to make the toughest phone call of her life.

The then horse stud owner had to call her husband to reveal the 15 yearlings she’d just sold at the Magic Millions sale had sold for just $68,000.

They usually would have made five times that amount.

But this was in the grip of the Global Financial Crisis, and the writing was very clearly on the wall for Cathy and the horse stud she’d built from scratch.

“I remember sitting up there on the Gold Coast after the sale in March 2008 thinking, ‘We’re doomed, we’re finished, that’s it’,” she recalls.

“The sale was that bad, and I had to ring my husband to say I had to work out what I would do next because we weren’t coming home with any money.

“We should have brought home our next yearly income of about $350,000, and we didn’t. We brought home $68,000.”

It was a devastating blow, and it came hot on the tail of the failure of her husband’s transport business, which also fell victim to the GFC.

The couple was almost $2 million in debt and staring down the barrel of bankruptcy.

And while their accountant advised them to declare bankruptcy officially, Cathy was determined to fight her way back into the black.

“I just looked at him and said, ‘That’s not the answer’,” Cathy says.

“If I go and declare bankruptcy, that means we’ve lost everything. Everything has to be sold, and our credit rating will be stuffed.

“Bankruptcy wasn’t an option.”

A new start

With an endless work ethic, experience buying and selling many of her own homes and investment properties, and friends in the real estate industry, Cathy thought a job in real estate could be her way out of trouble.

Based in Windsor, Cathy tried the local agencies for work but was immediately hit with her first hurdle.

She was 48 and no one wanted to give her a job.

“Camden, Narellan, Campbellton – I went and did the rounds of the lot,” she explains.

“But they said they only employed people under 30 and people with experience, and I had none of that.”

Cathy, who grew up with her music-orientated family in Parramatta, came almost full circle and ended up scoring a job at Starr Partners Merrylands, thanks to a “gut feeling” director Greg Okladnikov had.

“At the interview, he looked at me and said, ‘You don’t tick even one of my boxes, but my gut is telling me to employ you’,” Cathy says.

So in late 2008, Cathy became the new girl in the office, learning the ropes as a buyer manager working 10-hour days.

But rather than it being a chore, Cathy took to it like a duck to water, and by her second month, she was selling between seven and nine properties a month.

“It was a really great place to learn because they had such good systems and procedures in place,” she says.

“I learnt from the ground up… by the end of the third month, Greg turned to me and said, ‘I want you to start being in on our listing meetings every Wednesday and Friday’.

“When I asked why he said I’d be a listing agent by the end of the year. It was just a natural fit.”

One of the biggest things Cathy learnt during her time at Starr Partners was the art of negotiation in the cultural melting pot that was the Parramatta/Merrylands community.

It gave her an infinite understanding of customers from different cultures, the kind of service they expected and how to handle clients who had perhaps grown up in a culture where bartering was commonplace.

Another hurdle to overcome

After about a year with Starr Partners, Cathy and her husband sold their home and moved to Maitland in the renowned NSW Hunter Valley.

The money they made selling their home in Sydney not only helped secure them acreage at Maitland, it contributed towards paying their debts down.

It was a win-win all around.

But if Cathy thought securing a job in her new home town would be simple, she was wrong.

This time it wasn’t her age that was the problem but her perceived lack of local knowledge.

“The biggest issue I found when I moved to the Hunter Valley was that a lot of the agencies didn’t want me because I wasn’t local,” she says.

“As I wasn’t local, they didn’t think I knew the market.

“One office told me they ‘Didn’t take clean skins’.”

What they didn’t realise was Cathy had spent a significant amount of time studying the market before buying her property and has a Rainman-esque brain for dates, facts and figures.

“I may not have been working up here, but I did my homework so that I knew what had been sold,” she says.

“Even today, I can remember that property sold in 2009 for $450,000 and this property sold in 2010 for $800,000.

“I might not have sold those properties, but I sure as hell knew about them.”

Finally, a local office gave her a chance, and while Cathy says 2010 was a rough introduction to the area, with a difficult office culture to contend with, it allowed her to get local ‘runs on the board’.

The bulldog from Sydney

In her first six weeks, Cathy sold eight properties and quickly built up to consistently selling seven to 10 homes a month.

She earnt herself the nickname ‘the bulldog from Sydney’, but she saw it as a compliment rather than a putdown.

With her solid background from Merrylands equipping her with the skill to target buyers, Cathy says she somewhat pioneered buyer work in the Maitland area.

“I was on the ball,” she says.

“I was contacting my buyers, and nobody up here did that at that point in time.

“No one up here did open homes and nobody worked Saturdays. So when I started and was doing all of this customer service, returning phone calls and selling all of these properties, that’s when people started to stand up and go, ‘Holy cow, hold on’!”

In 2011, with plenty of local knowledge under her belt, Cathy made the switch to PRD Hunter Valley, and it’s safe to say she hasn’t looked back.

She’s known for her straightforward, honest approach as well as her big heart and fine attention to detail.

“Even when I had the horse stud and was selling horses, I had people buy them sight unseen, and they’d come back to me every year,” Cathy says.

“Once they bought one or two off me, they realised that I told it like it was.

“I just applied that to real estate. Being upfront, being straight with people, but being tough with them.

“One of the things that bugs me about some real estate agents is they don’t care about the owner. They only care about the listing, getting it sold and moving on to the next one.

“I’ve always believed if you do the right thing by others, they will come back and do the right thing by you.”

A career highlight

Cathy’s business at PRD Hunter Valley has soared year by year, and last year she wrote $2.76 million in GCI with an average sale price of $770,000.

She lists speaking at AREC 2022 as one of her career highlights, and it was there she shared one of her surprisingly simple but effective strategies for securing listings.

“Sellers don’t want to know how good you are,” she told the 4000-strong crowd.

“They want to know how you can help them.”

The key to helping a vendor isn’t rocket science; it just comes down to asking a few key questions, which Cathy says most agents don’t stop to ask.

  • Why are they selling?
  • What is their plan and where are they moving to?
  • What costs have they allowed themselves to sell and move?
  • What would they like assistance with?

“This helps build rapport and earn their trust,” Cathy explains.

Funnily enough, Cathy says since AREC, two things have happened.

Her phone has been ringing hot with brands asking to start her own office under their banner, and her competitors have used her key questions in their marketing collateral. 

Cathy’s not miffed, she follows the adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but she has no plans to go out on her own.

“I’ve got no intention of wanting to go back to owning and running a business again,” she says.

“I like just being able to do my own thing.”

A considered approach

One of the things Cathy is known for is her handling of divorce and separation sales. 

She told AREC that 30 to 40 per cent of her listings come from vendors who are separating or divorcing. 

Cathy and her team handle such sales with care and one strict rule above all else.

“Don’t take sides with either owner,” she says.

“If you’ve got two people that are separated and not talking to each other, common sense tells you that you need to communicate with both of them.

“You make two phone calls and you send two emails.”

But Cathy does admit that sometimes handling a divorce sale can put agents in the firing line if their vendors are stressed, which is often the case.

She says she doesn’t take things personally and will do everything she can to not just get a great sales result, but help her clients move to the next stage of their life.

Speaking about one tricky client, Cathy says she not only helped sell her home, she also assisted her in buying another, even though she could be a little difficult to deal with.

“This industry is about helping people and that’s what a lot of people forget,” she says.

The real estate industry has also helped Cathy. It’s helped her get out of debt and build an enviable lifestyle that she doesn’t take for granted for a second.

Time to give back

A big believer in karma, Cathy likes to give back to the community when and where she can, even going so far as to help a local mother, who was down on her luck, catch up with her rent.

“I just thought, ‘let’s get her up-to-date’ because she didn’t ask to be in that bad situation,” she says.

“There’s a lot of people I help behind the scenes. If I happen to hear or be told of something that’s what I do. The kids that are disadvantaged at the schools, I try and help them out. 

“It’s not the kids’ fault, it’s just that stuff happens.”

Cathy’s rules for success in real estate are steadfast – be consistent, work hard, have a set of principles, systems and processes and stick to them.

For those just starting in the industry, at whatever age they are, she has this advice:

“If you really put your heart into it and you don’t let arrogance overtake you, you can do anything,” she says.

“I’m so grateful for this industry, because it’s given me so many opportunities.”

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Kylie Dulhunty

Kylie Dulhunty is the Editor at Elite Agent.