Etienne Labuschagne isn’t afraid to take chances. Once the top Harcourts business owner in South Africa, Etienne is now one of the driving forces behind Brisbane’s successful Harcourts Solutions.
Here, Etienne tells Kylie Dulhunty about the move to Australia, what inspires him and why there’s more than one way to succeed in real estate.
Four years ago, Etienne Labuschagne made a brave move.
The South African-born real estate principal packed up his wife and three children and moved to Australia.
He said goodbye to family and friends, and he bid farewell to holding the title of number one real estate business owner for Harcourts in his home country.
“We decided to take a leap of faith and we sold my business,” Etienne recalls.
“It was really tough to say goodbye to those guys (his agents) as we had a deep, meaningful relationship.
“It was tough to leave our family, our friends, and everyone behind, but we just thought it was the right thing to do at the time.”
The decision to move to Brisbane and join Australia’s number two Harcourts office, Harcourts Solutions, happened in an unexpected whirlwind.
ETIENNE THE ENTREPRENEUR
From the time Etienne completed a university business degree in 1997, the self-proclaimed entrepreneur was on a path to build successful businesses based on what he could give to others.
In 1998, that took the shape of a golf and safari business, which he owned until 2016.
Etienne also held roles in the private sector looking after brokers for a commercial property fund, as well as in the banking arena.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in business and in the private sector in either general manager, sales director or managing director positions,” he recalls.
In 2008, with the Global Financial Crisis snapping at his heels, Etienne started a new development sales business – Cape Coastal Homes.
“Everyone said ‘you’re completely crazy’,” he says.
“But it was the best time for it. One of my university mates had bought into my golf business, and he was looking after it full-time, so I could afford to take on a new venture.
“I just said, ‘if you can start an agency in the GFC you should be ok when all is said and done’.”
CAPE COASTAL HOMES
Etienne set about building Cape Coastal Homes with a unique business model where his agents worked from home.
He was a non-selling principal who focused his efforts on supporting his agents, driving their futures and giving them the support they needed to succeed.
Etienne cherry-picked agents with solid experience who owned, or had previously owned, their own business.
“Most of the guys had lost their businesses,” he remembers.
“Some of them even lost their livelihoods, and I gave them a platform to plug in, and helped them to rebuild their confidence and their futures.
“I’ve always been a non-selling principal, and I’d get up in the morning to be there to help my guys realise their dreams, their potential and what they wanted to do.”
A BIG BRAND
Cape Coastal Homes transformed into Harcourts Select in Cape Town in 2013, after the international franchise became the first “big brand” to roll out a property management system that Etienne and an ex-systems engineer had developed.
“I had never wanted to join the big brands,” Etienne admits.
“I had always been an entrepreneur and I like to be the master of my own destiny.
“But Harcourts gave me free rein to run the business the way I wanted.”
Etienne says the move to Harcourts is the best decision he has made, and over the next few years he built the business up to include a second franchise and 28 agents on staff.
“In 2015 I was the number one business owner in Harcourts South Africa out of more than 150 businesses,” he says.
Etienne says the decision to join Harcourts Solutions in Brisbane was unexpected and sudden.
He was on his way to a Harcourts conference in Auckland in May 2016 but decided to have a pitstop in Brisbane to visit some old university friends.
While he was there, he popped in to say hello to Harcourts Solutions Managing Director, Martin Millard.
“We compared notes and he loved the way I thought about business and said ‘come and join me’,” Etienne says.
“We drove around, he showed me all the offices and we went to the Harcourts International head office in Brisbane and introduced me to the Queensland CEO Brendan Whipps, who subsequently became our business partner.
“I was pretty gobsmacked, and that evening I phoned my wife and said, ‘Guess what happened today?’”
THE SUDDEN MOVE
Just six months later, Etienne, his wife Rachel and their three children, Chris, Emma and Jean, were on Australian soil.
At Harcourts Solutions, Etienne is the Chief Operations Officer, which he says means he’s in charge of people and performance.
He’s still a non-selling principal, as are Managing Director Martin Millard and Group Director Brendan Whipps.
“The business is built on three pillars – skillset, mindset, and structure,” Etienne explains.
“The three directors cover all three bases. I look after people and performance, Martin is more focused on headspace, training and mindset, and Brendan is probably the best in the country with regards to mergers, acquisitions and recruitment.
“We all have different skillsets and responsibilities.”
PEOPLE AND PERFORMANCE
Etienne says as the leader looking after people and performance, his role is to tailor the help, support and structure available to agents according to their personality type and picture of success.
“Structure is my strength and helping people to really analyse, when they join the industry, what type of personality profile they are, because there’s no one solution to fit all,” Etienne says.
“The three things that really drive me every day when I wake up are to make the agents in our business feel safe, worthy and powerful.
“There are many, many business owners out there that really just push people in a one-sided manner, saying ‘you have to make 100 calls per day’.
“But there’s not one single way to be successful in real estate, and you need to ask ‘What is success’?
“To some people it’s to write $1 million in fees, and to other people, it’s to write $200,000.
“I’m happy either way as long as the people enjoy it and they serve our community in the right way.”
Being a non-selling principal allows Etienne to dedicate the time his agents need and deserve to their, and subsequently the business’s, success.
Some agents need a weekly briefing while others prefer a largely hands-off approach.
Etienne is happy to accommodate all styles.
“It’s important for us to help them develop and grow,” he says.
SOUTH AFRICA VERSUS AUSTRALIA
For Etienne, the move to Australia also saw him notice some significant differences in real estate operations compared to South Africa.
In South Africa, auction isn’t the popular method of sale it is here, and it’s often associated with bank repossession.
But Etienne says Harcourts in South Africa is actively changing that perception by offering auctions as a successful sale method and educating the community.
Advertising is also quite different in South Africa, with no vendor-paid advertising.
Etienne says the property portals are more cost-effective in South Africa, but with the agents required to pay for the advertising, professional photographers aren’t hired, and presentation is not up to the standard you see in Australia.
THE NEXT STAGE
Going forward, Harcourts Solutions has an eight-year growth plan which was implemented at the start of 2019; to reach 8000 properties under management and 200 real estate agents.
That plan is being approached with the same dedication to mindset, skillset and structure as everything at Harcourts Solutions is tackled.
Etienne will be there to guide the new agents and says it is his goal to instill the belief that “whatever you want to achieve, you can”.
“You have to take that leap of faith,” he says.
“You have to believe in yourself and your abilities, and make sure that structure, mindset and skillset are there to get you where you want to go.
“You might have the best structure, and you can have the best skillset, but if you don’t have the mindset, you’re going to lose the game.”