STARTING A REAL ESTATE business and growing it to $10 million in five years is an amazing feat in anyone’s language. For Alex Ouwens and Nathan Casserly their out of the box thinking in terms of business structure, culture, marketing, technology and the future is what sets them apart in an ultra competitive marketplace. Story by Samantha McLean.
ALEX OUWENS and Nathan Casserly, above anything else, are the best of mates. They have shared similar paths; the two met briefly in their 20s and then reconnected when they commenced their real estate careers at the same company in 2006. After four years they went on to start their own business, Ouwens Casserly Real Estate (OC). Turning over $8 million in sales and $2 million in the PM department with 1,200 properties under management, they now have over 70 employees.
And they both say they complement each other. Ouwens says he is more about the strategic and creative side of the business, the ‘ideas man’, while Casserly is the more structured of the two and spends more time on the operation of the business, people and culture. “Yes, we get along really well,” says Ouwens. “We’ve got different skillsets, but very much on the same wavelength.”
OC has its headquarters in the CBD in Adelaide, right on the fringe of the eastern parklands, and an office in the exclusive suburb of Henley Beach – the highest-priced coastal real estate in SA. “This office [Henley Beach] is a very local community-based office,” says Ouwens, “We have six or seven real estate agents working from there. Then from the city office there is a bigger spread of agents selling right across the eastern suburbs into the Adelaide hills and the city itself. Most of the property managers are located in HQ with, of course, touch points to Henley Beach.”
Both in their mid-30s, Ouwens is also the youngest president of REISA thanks to his ambition to make more of an impact on the industry in South Australia. “Real estate is going through a big transition in the way that we conduct the relationship between vendors, agents and consumers, as well as landlords and property managers. We’re in an age of digital disruption; there has never been a period in real estate where there has been a greater change, and probably more to come over the next five to six years. So I feel that someone of my generation is able to embrace the change quite readily, which is something that I bring to the REISA board.”
And Ouwens says he enjoys his position as it helps the next generation along. “Speaking with Government to ensure that the real estate profession is looked after as best as possible is something that I feel is really critical, particularly in getting the right message out to the next generation of real estate agents. It’s probably a bit easier to connect with someone of a similar generation. REISA does have a great balance of ages and different parts within the industry; a good composition.”
While the two are very clearly grounded in real estate sales and still are ‘selling principals’, they prefer now to help their teams grow and prosper by supporting them in campaign management, troubleshooting and negotiation. Says Casserly, “We still say we are actively in the scene and selling, but we’ve definitely transitioned away from doing a lot of the day-to-day tasks and involvement in each listing.” Ouwens agrees. “The business tends to suffer if we spend too much time in the field, so we’re trying to spend more time with our consultants and growing their individual businesses. We’re also very careful not to compete against our agents.
“Our role is probably more lead generation and introducing the right agent or the buyer’s agent, or the specialist for the property or the area, and letting them run with the campaign. Achieving our goals means spending more time on the business and less time in the business.”
OC has a reasonably flat management structure with a limited number of middle managers for a business of its size. Says Casserly, “It’s about getting good people on board who are good self-managers. Good people will look after themselves and there doesn’t have to be too much management, if that makes sense. We do recruit to a set of core values with a vision that the team created and we follow that fairly strictly.”
The core values they speak of are what drives every decision in the business. Says Casserly, “Our values were created on day one back in 2011, where we had a look at how we perceive ourselves, then how we want to be perceived. That’s where the four words came out: authenticity, optimism, passion, precision.
“Authenticity is about being real, who you are. We all make mistakes. People make mistakes. That’s how we learn. No one’s perfect.
“Optimism. I’ve never found someone or read a book where the key to success was being a negative whingeing moaner! I think a vendor or buyer will always appreciate someone who is upbeat and optimistic about life.
“Being passionate: no one’s holding us to this job. We can do whatever we want in any field. So just be passionate about what you do. If you don’t [feel that way], then that’s OK; find something else to do.
“The last one is precision. We need to execute our skills to world class standards. It’s one thing to be real, lovely, honest, charming, optimistic and passionate, but at the end of the day you still have a role to fulfil. That goes whether you are an auctioneer, a sales agent, a receptionist or a settlement clerk. Whatever your role, you have to execute it to world class standards.”
Those values lead to a clear vision for the whole company to be ‘recommended more’. Says Casserly, “Having the business get recommended more than any other business in our marketplace, we feel that’s pretty successful in real estate. And by being recommended more it’s not just the sales team; it’s everyone.”
To drive the right behaviour, OC use the popular Net Promoter Score (NPS) to ensure that the real culture of the business reflects the vision and values. Staff also receive rewards and recognition based on this, and not just GCI.
Casserly explains, “If an agent is consistently selling a lot of properties but not getting good reviews from their clients, they are not really doing their best for the company’s vision. We like to focus differently, sell fewer properties, so that every single seller gives a nine or ten out of ten [NPS] recommendation score. We have a really high regard for those agents [who achieve this] – probably higher than someone who might write more in GCI but receives a lot of complaints. We would rather take a long-term view.”
They are both pragmatic about this long-term view and even raise the topic of disruption, acknowledging that some form will happen in the coming years. Says Ouwens, “We think it’s really obvious what it’s going to be. It will be some type of digital interface that will try to jump in between the transaction.”
But he adds that the difference between agents who will survive and those who don’t will be based on their negotiating ability, plus a focus on customer service, demonstrating true value.
“A seller doesn’t want to see that they can get the same price by going straight to an internet platform. If I can’t demonstrate that I can add value by getting a higher price than they could have achieved on their own, then I don’t have a place in the industry. And it’s demonstrating that in the lounge rooms, using the skills in the field to get a buyer up from $1 million to $1.1, so there’s value in the real estate agent being involved in the transaction. There’s no room for complacency, but it’s actually a time of great opportunity.”
The other part is customer experience, once again their approach being deeply rooted in their core vision and values. Ouwens continues, “People want to deal with real, authentic people. Everyone’s BS meters are so high these days because there are some old-fashioned 1985-type real estate agents that still exist! When you deal with someone who’s authentic and who really wants to help you it’s different.
“Gone are the days when settlement involved a simple bottle of wine and the keys to your new house. That customer experience is old school. Customer experiences need to give better value in the transaction.”
OC are widely revered for being innovative in their marketing approach, but both Ouwens and Casserly say that being innovative isn’t all about technology. Sometimes it’s about simplifying the existing processes. “The role of the real estate agent hasn’t changed over the years,” says Casserly. “Our ‘innovation’, if you like, is about putting the property as the hero and putting other elements behind it. Your traditional marketing would have the agent’s headshot on signboards, on business cards, email footers – but we simplify the information we provide. An example is very simple icons and text, online and in our newspaper prints.”
On the technology side they have always been at the cutting edge and like to try new things. Says Ouwens, “A couple of years ago we met the head of IT and innovation at realestate.com.au in Melbourne, Nigel Dalton, and had a chat with him about 3D. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time and we were the first agency in Australia to use the 3D Goggles.
“If you’re going to buy a home you’re probably still going to want to view the property in person. But if you were going to rent somewhere for 12 months then a 3D-tour is probably enough.”
They are both of the opinion that technology presents an opportunity. Rather than looking at it negatively, embrace it and look at ways it can enhance your business. “For example,” says Casserly, “we’ve been on board with the Xero accounting software with apps on our phones. Every day, we’ll open it up and look at where the business is at; technology allows us to do that.”
Ouwens adds, “But still it’s a balance of the fundamentals of real estate without getting carried away with all the tricks of the IT and innovation world.” Casserly agrees.
“There’s a lot of noise out there which can be distracting from the key role we have around negotiation, meeting people face to face and getting on the phone.”
If we were to break down the success factors for OC it would be good financial reporting and accountability. Says Ouwens, “From a business owner perspective, my advice would be to ensure that you’ve got some really good financial reporting and accountability structure around your business. If you catch up with a financial adviser or a business coach once a month, bring your financial statements and your to-do list or your success list to keep you on track, and make sure your cashflow reporting is timely.
“From a sales consultant point of view, if I was starting again I would be looking at building my database, recording my listing presentation every month for my first six months and getting feedback while checking my conversion rates.”For Casserly again it comes back to values. “What you stand for and what you believe in will guide you at times when you feel like your back is to the wall. Come back to those guiding principles and not only can you find comfort, it can put you back on the right path.”