At 4.40am on May 22, 2017, Leah Jay looked out at the curvature of the earth from the top of Mt Everest.
It marked the achievement of a major personal milestone, drawing on “30 per cent physical ability and 70 per cent mental strength”.
Leah describes summiting the world’s tallest peak as much the same as building a business.
It is an accomplishment that requires the strength of a team, implicit trust, and absolute respect.
Over the past 25 years, Leah has applied these principles to build one of the most successful agencies in the business.
It’s one that is focussed solely on property management, not sales.
She readily admits it was a challenge she didn’t quite appreciate the scale of when she first embarked on creating her own brand.
But looking back, it’s an accomplishment she is proud of, achieved with a team she has great respect for, built on relationships of trust with the customers and staff involved.
A PURE LOVE OF PROPERTY MANAGEMENT
When Leah entered the real estate industry 32 years ago, she felt an instant affinity for property management.
Rather than a role focussed on quick results and single transactions, it was a service driven by interaction with the customer and the establishment of long-term relationships.
“I loved it,” she reflects.
“I loved the houses, I loved the property, and I loved the company I worked for.
“But really what I most enjoyed was meeting the people involved.”
Leah started in administration, but soon progressed to running the property management division of a traditional residential agency where the PM department was the business on the side.
Seven years later, she felt it was time to spread her wings, embrace her expertise and open an agency with a difference.
“I believed there was no reason property management had to exist alongside sales,” Leah explains.
“I came to a point where I thought I could do this myself.”
THE START OF LEAH JAY
Leah purchased a small rent-roll of 90 properties and set about handling every facet of the business.
“I took a chance,” she says.
“I could see that if you could provide first class customer service, if you cared about people and you had systems in place, there was no doubt it would work.
“But I was so naïve. I had no idea what was involved.
“I had one desk operating out of another real estate agency in Hamilton and I used to do everything – end of month, trust accounting, inspections and leases.
“At that stage, I had two young children. Looking back now, I wonder how I did it.”
Still, her belief in service and systems paid off. The agency began growing organically through word of mouth.
“As we got bigger, we also acquired more rent rolls, which helped with cash flow and the bottom line,” Leah says.
“That empowered us to bring people on.”
THE RESPONSIBILITY OF A BRAND
Today Leah Jay might be a household name, but in the beginning, she notes the weight of responsibility for others was unexpected.
“I was fully responsible to the people I employed, property owners and tradies,” she says.
“People entrusted us with their biggest asset, and I took these things to heart.
“The buck stopped with me; there was no one else to ask or turn to. Every decision about the business was mine to make.”
Leah notes she did all the things she now tells others not to, such as failing to exercise, not taking time out, and never switching off.
But gradually that changed as Leah and the business found their feet.
“Now I see the responsibility as a positive and look at the opportunities I can give people,” she says.
PEOPLE, TECHNOLOGY AND CARE
Many of Leah’s 60 or so staff members have been with the brand for years, if not decades.
They range in age from early 20s to mid-60s and are selected for their attributes of life skills, common sense, and customer focus.
Leah states these are the consistent traits she seeks in her staff, while the day-to-day job skills you can teach.
“We’ve tried to create a great environment where people feel supported, confident, and empowered,” she says.
“Part of working with a team is to develop each team member personally. I like to promote from within, so if we see potential, we’re keen to nurture it.
“Over the years this has worked. We have a core group of people I’m really proud of.”
Leah also believes her role as a leader is to be her authentic self, taking a genuine interest in the people she works with while offering a workplace that feels like home.
“When the business was smaller that was easier,” she recalls.
“You know everyone and their highs and lows. But I’ve always been aware that it was important to be real and authentic and your staff will see it.
“Not every day’s perfect, but they see the real me and they’ve seen me lead by example.”
In addition to leading by example, Leah has always had a focus on employing technology that simplifies tasks for staff and offers them greater flexibility in servicing their customer.
That focus on innovation and embracing change continues as the Leah Jay brand looks to stay ahead of the curve.
“The property manager of the future will no longer need to organise reports and maintenance,” Leah predicts.
“Rather, their role will be about having conversations and communicating with their clients.”
COMMUNICATION IS THE KEY
This communication revolves around building relationships with landlords and tenants.
“Although we work for the owners who pay our fees, without the tenant we wouldn’t have a business, and the owner wouldn’t have income,” Leah points out.
“That means we treat our tenants with great respect and care, in exactly the same way as we want to be treated.”
Leah stresses one of the most important factors is to remember that, for the tenant, a rental property is their home.
“We must offer them exactly the same service as we do to the owners,” she says.
“It’s a level playing field. We nurture, look after them and provide excellent service, and many of our tenants are now our owners, which is a great testament to the service we provide.”
In a job that’s often about playing the middle-man and treading the line between two varying interests, Leah says the key is good communication.
“I stress to all my property managers, pick up the phone and have that difficult conversation.
“Don’t hide behind email, but tell it as it is. “More importantly, pick up the phone to just say hi, it doesn’t have to be bad news, it’s about building a relationship.”
As Leah Jay celebrates 25 years, its founder is quietly stepping back from the business.
The move away from running the agency day-to-day is prompted partly by a personal drive to do other things and partly by the new future that fresh leadership will bring.
Leah explains she has always had a fascination for mountaineering, and when she lost her son to motor neurone disease a few years ago, she saw it as a challenge she could embrace.
“I made a promise to my son that I would keep going, that I would get out of bed each morning,” she says.
“I wasn’t fit at the time, but it started with walking, that became running,then trekking, which resulted in me doing the Kokoda Trail.
“I kept pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and that’s what led to me reaching the top of the world at Everest.
“It was hugely emotional because I had done it for my children, but it gives you an idea of what you can do when you put your mind to it.”
Leah says she knew she wouldn’t be the same person when she returned from that climb and began to steadily transfer more of the day-to-day responsibilities to long-term staff member Cassandra Lantry.
“I was ready to see what someone else could do with the business,” Leah reflects.
“For the business to continue to grow, it needed someone with more energy, and I was really excited and confident about the hands it was in.
“Not all businesses are as fortunate as we are to have someone like that, but Cassie has been with us for 13 or 14 years and she is part of our vision and our growth.”
For Leah, her future involves more time with family, while maintaining an interest in the business, and conquering new heights.
At present, she has her sights set on some technically challenging mountains and is looking to add the last of the seven summits to her resume.
So far Leah has achieved all but Denali in Alaska. She has attempted it three times only for bad weather to push her back.
Leah quietly notes she’ll conquer that one in the end, and it’s more than likely she will.
Like building a business, and like climbing Mt Everest, Leah Jay will master the challenge with unassuming confidence built on trust and respect.