Fresh eye from the corporate guy: Nigel O’Neil

When Nigel O'Neil received an offer to hitch his star to a real estate franchise he thought it would 'scratch an itch' his career in the corporate arena couldn't. Here, the Barry Plant Chief Executive Officer explains why franchisors pushed back at the changes he wanted to make and how he overcame that hurdle.

Successful real estate agents are a very unique species. 

They are emotional (and emotionally intelligent), highly personable, persuasive, persistent, driven and tend to have very resilient egos. 

Yes I’m generalising, but I think everyone would agree that it takes most of these attributes to make it long-term in real estate.

But it’s these characteristics that almost brought me unstuck when I moved from the corporate world into a career in the real estate sector.

After university I embarked on a corporate career, working within a number of international professional services firms, specialising in turning around large businesses across a variety of sectors. 

It was a role that hit my sweet spot, using my ability to understand business drivers quickly, converting numbers into action and leveraging my love of process and belief that inclusive leadership would bring victory to those that stayed the course.

It was challenging, it was working at the top end of town and it was immensely demanding and satisfying.

However, I always felt like something was missing, that part of my unique skill set was not being utilised.

It was like an itch that the corporate world wouldn’t let me scratch.

Then came an offer to hitch my star to a real estate franchise. 

Franchising is a unique business model and it took me a while to get my head around how it operated, but I could see the benefits it delivered to all parties – and its immense potential. 

So, tick to taking on a franchise leadership role.

And of course the people who were pitching the role to me were the aforementioned, personable, persuasive real estate types. 

I really had no hope of saying no.

Therefore, at the age of 40, with no experience whatsoever in the real estate industry, other than as a customer, I took over the CEO role of a real estate franchise and for the first time got up close and personal with the unique species that is the real estate agent business owner.  

It was immediately evident to me how I could make changes that would improve the client experience and the profitability of the offices (and the franchisor), so I prepared an ambitious business plan looking five years into the future.

I started with the more obvious changes; more structure, process, measurement and benchmarking. 

Bringing corporate initiatives into the SME (small-to-medium enterprise) world.

It was an ambitious agenda and I got to work rolling it out.

What I didn’t take into account was the background of so many of the business owners. 

A large number of them had begun as sales agents at a time when newbie agents were given a desk, a phone and a phone directory and were left to sink or swim. 

These agents were forged in unforgiving work environments, tempered into strong agents but often lacking in flexibility when it came to changing how things were done.

It was therefore (in hindsight) not surprising that when I announced proposed changes many pushed back with loud opinions and emotional outcries often underpinned by a sense of scepticism as to my intentions.

I was genuinely shocked and questioned whether I would ever fit into this world which, at the time, I thought was just another industry I could help ‘get better’.

Perhaps I had made a mistake in taking on the role? 

I hadn’t. 

What I had done was made a mistake in how I approached the change – not taking into account the uniqueness of real estate versus every other industry I had ever come across.

I had my corporate big business mindset still in place, I hadn’t truly understood what the critical backbone of a real estate franchise was.

These were business owners that had the overdrafts and mortgages and were highly protective of the status quo. 

They deserved more respect for what they bought to the business, they deserved to have a more measured rate of change, with much more engagement, lots of two-way communication and inviting their involvement in a stepped process where benefits of that change could be identified and understood.

Once I realised that, I had one of those moments where I knew that I could provide a different perspective to the industry and realised I may be able to add real value if I could just use a different skill set (that was really the ‘itch’ mentioned earlier).

I needed a deeper understanding of the impact on the franchisees of that change and to make sure my intentions around that change were transparent. 

Since then, I have learned to embrace the emotion and really listen to the variety of views. 

I have made the consultation process inclusive and fun.

I have listened more and learnt. I have measured any change and used logical reasoning (not opinion) to bring the business owners along for the ride.

Along the way I have fallen deeply in love with real estate. It gets into your blood in a way that is hard to explain to an outsider. 

I am hooked and I can’t envisage ever working in any other sector.

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Nigel O'Neil

Nigel O’Neil is the Head of Growth at Barry Plant. For more information go to