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Martin Millard: From humble beginnings

From a bankrupt vineyard resort owner to induction into the Harcourts Hall of Fame in 2016, Martin Millard has seen both ends of the business spectrum. This rare combination of life experiences has shaped a unique approach to real estate, business and life itself. Martin tells Elite Agent’s Kylie Dulhunty what makes him tick.

Martin Millard has been through the wringer and come out the other side.

He’s still a little crinkled, definitely more enlightened, and has a dry, but earnest, sense of humour.

Unorthodox is the only way to describe the Harcourts Solutions Managing Director’s journey in real estate.

It’s a career that started 19 years ago with Martin wearing a borrowed suit and busted shoes, pounding the pavement for PRD Paddington in Brisbane’s inner suburbs, desperately trying to make ends meet for his wife, Sally, and their four children, Emily, Felicity, Olivia and Patrick.

“The world as I saw it was coming to an end,” he recalls.

It was a far cry from his days as a high school PE teacher and later the owner-operator of Queensland’s first vineyard retreat, ironically named Happy Valley, at Stanthorpe.

Never afraid of hard work, Martin toiled tirelessly at Happy Valley Vineyard Retreat.

He was the gardener, the chef and he worked around the clock to build it into a 300-seat restaurant and 30-cottage resort.

“Things came unstuck in 1999,” Martin recalls.

“I confused work ethic with business nous – I was a hard worker, but I wasn’t very smart.

“It was a case of the classic saying ‘if you don’t know who the dumbest person in the room is, it’s probably you’.”

Martin says the quality of lease documentation he signed and the quality of his trusted advisers turned out to be severely lacking.

He ended up bankrupt and the decision was made to move the family from the country to the city to try and turn things around.

“It was pretty ugly,” Martin says.

“We had four kids under five, I was bankrupt, I didn’t own a car, I didn’t own a suit and the only proper shoes I had were a pair of RM Williams with a big hole in them.

“There was no further down I could go.

“I had to borrow money from my stepmother and one other person lent me $30,000, but I had to pay that back very quickly.”

In a new city where he knew no one, Martin worked hard, door knocking, gathering listings and sales.

He’s the first to admit real estate hadn’t been on his radar until now.

Until he had to get things right and support those he loved, and yet felt he had let down, the most.

Martin says his first foray into real estate taught him two things – how to work hard and perform well, and what kind of leader he did and didn’t want to be.

His climb back to the top continued and in 2006 Martin bought Harcourts Solutions.

Then he immediately sacked all the staff.

“I didn’t want anyone in the business that I wouldn’t let babysit my kids or sell my house,” Martin says.

“It took me all of 30 minutes to work out there was no one there that I’d let do either, so I sacked them.”

Since then, Martin has rebuilt the business from the ground up and now has a team of 85 staff.

He also took the unusual step of being a non-selling principal.

He hasn’t sold a property in more than a decade.

Not selling allows Martin to focus on running the business and putting his colleagues, the people he says he works for, first.

Martin says Harcourts Solutions is a reflection of who he is and the core values of safety, worthiness, having fun and being courageous.

“The greatest achievement is having people come through the business and setting themselves up for life and retirement,” he says.

“I want people to like coming to work, to generate enough revenue to feel compensated for effort and to have a balanced, mindful life.”

It should come as no surprise then that Martin’s business plan is a little different to what most business people would create.

“My first business plan said ‘I want to be the world’s best dad and the world’s best husband’,” he says.

“Every business plan I’ve done since 2004 has started with those two lines.

“I don’t think I’ve always achieved them but that has always been my aspiration.

“To be a great dad you have to walk your talk. Kids don’t listen to what you say; they look at what you do.

“The first thing I put in my diary is my kids sporting events, and I never had meetings before 9am because I took my kids to school every day.”

With that in mind, Martin set up Harcourts Solutions with a mantra of working smarter and getting the most out of every hour, but not necessarily working more hours.

“Working 24/7 is not wrong, it’s just not what I wanted to do,” he says.

“What I hated when I started was the concept that you had to drive yourself into the ground to be successful.

“Success isn’t just about money. I think there can be a big disconnect between being effective and working hard.”

Martin says his business philosophy and how he treats colleagues at Harcourt Solutions revolve around the concepts of safety and security.

“In a business world, your staff are who you work for and they care what you say and watch what you do,” he says.

“They care how you treat them and I wanted to create a plethora of good relationships. “As a husband, you want to make sure your wife always feels safe and secure, that you’re reliable and that you’re trustworthy.

“These are all standard behaviours when you love someone, and it also relates perfectly to being a good business owner.”

With business flourishing again and the troubled times fading into the distance, life decided to throw another curveball Martin’s way.

Two years ago, while enjoying a postcycling coffee at a cafe, Martin wasn’t feeling quite right.

Just minutes later he was in the back of an ambulance in full cardiac arrest.

“One minute I was having a coffee with mates and the next I was asking them ‘what does a heart attack feel like’?” he says.

Initially, Martin told his riding buddies to call him a taxi home, but they called an ambulance instead.

“I’m about as lucky as you can get,” Martin says.

“Had I had the heart attack outside the ambulance, the likelihood of me living was about 1 per cent.

“The guys I ride with are beautiful, really intelligent men and they made a strong decision.

“That decision saved my life.”

Martin says the quality of one’s life is reflected in the quality of their relationships with others and he credits his wife Sally with being a “next level human being” who encourages an attitude of gratitude in their family.

“I was told marriages don’t last in real estate, but we’ve been married for 26 years,” he says.

Martin’s fellow Harcourts Solutions partners, Etienne Labuschagne, Kathy Brown and Brendan Whipps, are also like family.

“All three are dramatically more intelligent than me,” Martin muses.

“They all approached me to come into the business, and each of them has their own level of authenticity.

“I think a lot of businesses today focus on short-term gains and are purely about dollars.

“I think they saw in me a business that allows people to feel safe, worthy and powerful.”

Martin retired for the first time three years ago but credited Brendan with enticing him to come back, and now there are no plans to hang up his keys a second time.

Instead, he will work on Harcourts Solutions’ next five-year plan, which involves upskilling and building greater outcomes for staff, establishing better systems and processes, and improving key business metrics.

If Martin were to advise young agents starting in real estate, he’d encourage them to have a strong belief system and to continually strive to improve themselves.

“You can always be a better person today than you were yesterday,” he says.

“Also, ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing and make sure your behaviour aligns with that ‘why’.

“Then bring everything back to a simple model and make sure you have the highest skill offering or knowledge in the area you want to achieve in, or link up with people who do.

“Be really grateful and humble about every opportunity.”

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