EPMEPM: Profile

Karmen Costigan: Acting On Experience

Karmen Costigan's journey into Ray White Corporate has been an interesting one. Having moved to Los Angeles in the late 1990s to pursue an acting dream, she earned a living as an onsite property manager. Today that is her full-time passion and profession, and sees her travelling all over Queensland, assisting Ray White agency owners and their staff to grow their businesses.

Pursing a Hollywood dream isn’t always as glamorous as it seems. Karmen Costigan explains how, after success as an actor in Melbourne, she and her partner took the opportunity to pursue the Hollywood dream. Roles as an extra in films like Being John Malkovich followed, along with a stint playing Mary Poppins for Disney. But in the late 1990s they “needed somewhere to live and were out of cash”.

They landed a job as onsite managers in a less than desirable location. The first week they had to evict a tenant, deal with hoarders and handle a dog abandoned on the roof.

During a rental inspection, a tenant enthusiastically showed them his gun collection.

For a novice property manager, it was a baptism of fire.

“We did that for a while and graduated from the slums, moving up the property ladder. We looked after everything – leasing, maintenance and the upkeep of the building,” Karmen explains.

Finally, they shifted to Venice Beach, where they handled just under 100 properties for the one landlord. It was a time when the beachside enclave was a less than luxurious place. As a battleground during the LA riots of the early 1990s, there were still bullet holes in some of the properties’ walls.

“You got used to that,” Karmen says. They also got used to the regular sound of gunshots and police helicopters, but the experience offered some valuable lessons.

“We learnt to offer the best customer experience we could. We understood it was incredibly important to build strong relationships by sorting out payment plans for rental arrears and by fixing all those little things, like leaking taps.

“As managers living onsite, we were at the coalface, dealing with some very challenging situations.”

After 9/11, the couple moved back to Australia. Karmen says that Los Angeles had changed in an era of terror, and they were keen to start a family.

It was a period of adjustment. They had loved the tenacity of the US where people were open to big ideas, but back home tall poppy syndrome remained alive and well. “In Australia, people tend not to want to stand out, but that’s exactly what you need to do.”

Karmen took a job part-time in trust accounting. Her role involved working with businesses in receivership and handling their sale. “It was something I hadn’t imagined or considered as I’d failed accounting at uni,” she laughs.

When the family relocated to Brisbane, she moved into trust accounting full-time, working with an agency. “But I realised after three years I’d reached a plateau.”

Then opportunity knocked in the form of an opening at Ray White for a Business Development Executive in Queensland. Karmen has now been in that position for about three years and it draws on all her experience over a varied career.

The position involves working with agency owners to build their business. It extends from face-to-face training for property and sales managers to identifying growth goals, and working with business development managers to gain new clients. Meanwhile, she also handles high-level complaints that can’t be resolved at a local level.

The training element draws on her university degree as a teacher, property management sees her use her time in LA, while business development calls on her experience as an actor, and her role in trust accounting. Together it affords her a host of wisdom to offer the Ray White brand.

“As an actor in LA, every audition drew up to 100 people for a part. It requires you to be your best and stand out. I often challenge BDMs when they talk about tough competition: being up against one or two other offices isn’t that tough. You need to be your best. So how are you going to impress people by being the absolute expert in your field?”

Meanwhile, she notes that ongoing training was a huge part of her US acting career, and she maintains that ethos in her role at Ray White. “In LA actors train all the time. At Ray White we’re also really strong on training and ensuring people’s skills are up to date.

“In property management there are roles that won’t be available in the future. If you’re a property manager working in a team of six today, in five years’ time only two may be required. Will you be a casualty or one of those two people? You need to upskill. You need to be an expert.”

And, she stresses, anything you learn is a positive.

“Every experience is valuable, particularly if it’s negative.”

“I really look at situations and pull them apart, analysing and asking ‘where did I go wrong?’ or ‘did I miss something?’. The truth often lies somewhere in between. If you’re honest, you can grow your skill level.”

It’s a philosophy that serves her particularly well in complaint resolution and property management. “Going to court does not have to be part of being a property manager. It should be the absolute exception.”

Just back from a couple of days in Townsville and preparing to head to the Gold Coast, Karmen says her current role allows her to be creative, while assisting Ray White staff and owners. It’s a job she clearly enjoys and obviously excels at.

In 2017, Karmen was recognised by Ray White for her insight and skill, receiving the Myf Porter Award for Learning and Development. “I love helping people realise their potential,” she explains.

“It’s a really exciting role. It’s about taking people and business to the next level and looking outside the box. Ray White is an amazing company to work for.

“I never expected to be in this role, just never. It proves you have to be open to what comes your way.”

Karmen has also shared some of her most notable LA stories in Season 2 of Every Agent Has a Story – watch her episode here.

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Cassandra Charlesworth

Cassandra Charlesworth is a features writer for Elite Agent Magazine with over 15 years’ journalism experience in metropolitan and regional newsrooms. She has a specialist interest in real estate, tech disruption and a good old-fashioned “yarn”.