MICHAEL CLARKE AND Cherie Humel-Clarke own the boutique agency Clarke & Humel Property in Manly, NSW. Working in a franchise office for several years before starting their own business from scratch, together they have sold more than $1 billion dollars’ worth of real estate. With Michael’s strength his sales expertise and Cherie’s architectural qualifications and local knowledge, they have proven to be a force to be reckoned with in this super-competitive area. Interview by Samantha McLean.
Manly is a beautiful suburb on any given day, with the iconic beach, shops and laid-back lifestyle. And the sun is definitely shining at Clarke & Humel Property, where I meet Michael Clarke and Cherie Humel-Clarke for the first time. As a married couple and co-principals of this boutique agency, they have a unique combination of skills: Cherie’s original background is as an architect/project manager for Lend Lease, and Michael’s is in advertising. And their energy together is both positive and infectious.
I start by asking them how they met. “We met, of all places, at a salsa dance class; they put us together as trainee instructors. We got through that together, and the rest was kind
of history!” says Michael with a big smile. “I grew up in Orange and moved to Manly. Cherie was the only person I knew here.”
“When I met Michael,” says Cherie, “He was selling encyclopedias. With the way technology was going with CD-Roms and digital, I thought if he could sell traditional encyclopaedias then he could sell anything.” Michael says, “I’d never considered selling real estate at that time; it wasn’t in my family. In Cherie’s, yes, but not mine. But I read this book that Cherie gave me and knew immediately that was what I wanted to do.”
How did you begin to sell real estate together? “We didn’t actually start together,” says Cherie, “I still had my career in architecture. And for Michael it was where everyone starts, making call after call on the phones.” “When I started, it was from scratch” says Michael. “I didn’t know the area and really I didn’t have the first idea about property in general. I knew I could sell things, but I had no idea. But, with Cherie’s local knowledge, being born and bred in Manly, plus her architectural background; I was learning what the local buildings were created from, what materials were used and how to talk about these aspects of the property to owners.”
After Michael had gained some traction, Cherie jumped in one day to help when Michael’s PA didn’t show up. Cherie recalls, “I stood in on the first open home and thought, this can be done so much better. It really did evolve from there. I guess also with my project management experience I was able to analyse the business and what Michael was doing with a view to optimising it. Every night we would workshop all the elements in the business; what things made a difference and what didn’t. And we would brainstorm together how we could improve things.”
“As things evolved,” continues Cherie, “I started to move more into representing the owner on the open home, adding in that bit of architectural expertise, helping the owners with the styling, through to actually renovating the home, dealing with the business and the council codes. People eventually started asking me, ‘What do you think I should do with my house before I sell it?’”
So it was really about leveraging your individual strengths? Michael continues, “Yes, Cherie had never ‘sold’ anything, but property and business were in her blood. I had sold everything from lollies to encyclopedias but found Cherie’s property knowledge and business acumen invaluable. And that’s no doubt why it worked. We worked together in another franchise for a long time, but it was a very natural progression for us to say, ‘OK, well, what next?’. At that time there wasn’t the opportunity to take the next step in that franchise, so it was a choice of open another franchise or start on our own. So we started on our own.”
Did you have a clear vision, at the time, of what you wanted your own business to look like? “Yes, we definitely wanted to be premium boutique,” says Michael, “but we talked about what we wanted to do for a long time.” Cherie adds, “Although the feeling is premium boutique, we are happy to sell everything from one bedroom apartments through to multimillion-dollar homes. And it doesn’t matter what the property is; we operate on the basis that every client’s experience is the same. Their own home, their own apartment – it means the world to them. They put all their eggs in your basket and really it’s a big leap of faith in you. So we thought hard about how we could make sure that every facet of the business and every interaction with every client was top notch, and not just a grab for all the high-end clients.”
How do you generally approach a campaign? Michael responds, “Rather than just taking the cookie-cutter approach, where everything is an auction or everything is a private treaty, we look at every campaign and try to isolate what it is about that particular property that is unique, whether it lends itself more to a particular type of sale. Within that we look at the marketing. What are the stand-out features?” Cherie continues, “It’s about the person as well. What do they want? Do they want a fast transaction? Do they want to attract international buyers? We really look at the person as well as the property and design something that’s tailored to their needs.”
Michael agrees with her, and adds, “Rather than just looking at how we can sell the property, it really is a case of how can we maximise the result for them. For 90 per cent of people, the most important thing is the highest sale price possible. For some people it’s just as important that they get a quick sell or a discreet sell.”
Now, Michael leads the charge in a sales team of 15 out of 22 staff, while Cherie looks after the business side of things, including the finance and HR side of the business,
as well as the property management department. And she still goes to most listing presentations with Michael. “I am at most of open homes, and do follow-ups as well. Some of the buyers relate to me more (because women make eighty per cent of decisions), so at times they contact me; some obviously relate to Michael better. Often when we are going over the day we sort through and work out who is the better person to lead.” Michael adds, “We don’t mind who they deal with, of course; irrespective of the customer’s communication style or preference, we’re able to tailor an approach with great authenticity.”
I point out that half the world are now renovators and that must make Cherie very popular. She laughs, “Yes, I get all the questions, like what can I build? Can I build to the boundary? Can I build out sideways? All that sort of thing they’re really keen to know. Sometimes a buyer will walk into the property and love it, but they can’t articulate why it’s so nice. Is it the light? Is it the ventilation? Is it the way the materials have come together? With my architectural knowledge I can help them articulate what these things are.”
Michael says “It’s not plain selling; it’s being able to realise the full potential of the home. That’s why the asking price is what it is. That’s why this property is worth more. There are, of course, the objective things; and yes, people do make emotional decisions about property. But getting that best price is a combination of things, because while people make emotional decisions, they still like to base it on facts and objective reasons. I think Cherie really helps people to come to an understanding about why they like a particular property; what it is about that home that makes it better, unique, or worth a certain amount of money.”
It’s worth noting that Manly is a highly competitive part of the Northern Beaches as far as real estate is concerned. I ask what are some of the other secrets to their success. Says Cherie, “I think there’s one really important thing to mention, and that’s that our staff are really crucial in this, as is their happiness. Your energy in real estate, in any business, is critical. Everybody has to have really good strong energy; we’re all here as team members to support one another. I think you can’t do all this just by yourself. It’s the team around you; and you have to care for the team and the training of the team, and have the desire to see them grow.” Michael adds, “Actually, yes; the thing that we are probably most satisfied with right now is the growth of our team. We’ve had a couple of success stories in the past 12 months and it’s something we are really proud of.”
What would their advice be to anyone else who wanted to get out on their own and start their own real estate business from scratch? Cherie says, “You have to be prepared to work really, really hard!” Michael’s answer is clear too. “Planning. We planned for years before we went out on our own. They say overnight success is ten years in the making, and it’s not far off! I think for whatever success that we’ve had recently, it can be heavily attributed to the fact that we meticulously planned it long before we employed it.” And then there is the serious side of the business: Money.
“You have to have enough behind you,” says Michael. “You have to have saved enough to be able to make sure that you don’t open the doors and have to make a sale within the first six months. That is critical.” Any plans for the future? “Consolidation,” says Michael. “Our focus is very much on growing the people that we have and helping them realise their goals. That and keeping our level of service consistently high through every aspect of the business.”