To most people, real estate, cycling, ballroom dancing and the army wouldn’t appear to have much in common.
But if you wander around the traps of the Western Australia real estate market, you’ll soon hear a whisper about an industry stalwart named Thomas Massam.
As down to earth and humble as they come, Thomas has been in the real estate business since 1968.
He was also a gunner in the Australian Army, an Australian Road Championship cyclist and a Pan Pacific ballroom dancing winner.
It’s a unique combination of talents, but it’s his work in real estate that earned the Harcourts Alliance associate director a Medal of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in June.
“I think the Queen was overly generous,” Thomas muses, emphasising his ‘no fuss’ attitude to life.
“But then again, I think it’s good for the industry as real estate agents aren’t recognised by the public too often.
“They all think we’re just bloody car salesmen. Of course we’re not, so maybe this might help show that.”
A traditional start
Born and bred at Bruce Rock in WA’s Central Wheatbelt, Thomas didn’t initially join the workforce as a real estate agent but as a builder after completing a five-year trade (apprenticeship) certificate.
“When I was a kid, half the kids left school at 14 and I did that as well,” Thomas recalls.
“I couldn’t get away from school fast enough as I was just wasting my time there, going nowhere.
“So I got a trade, and I built houses and made furniture.”
It was while completing his apprenticeship that Thomas got involved in cycling, completing a rigorous weekly training program that led him to represent the state in two 125-mile Australian Road Championships, and saw him win a gold medal in the team championship.
“In my final year of riding, my training schedule would be a race on Saturday that would be 50 or maybe 100 miles,” Thomas says.
“Sunday was training, and you’d try and get at least 100 miles under your belt before a massage on Monday night.
“Tuesday was a hard training ride where I’d do what was called The Fremantle Block three times, which was about 75 miles.
“Wednesday night I’d do a lot of gym work, Thursday I’d do 75 miles again at a slower pace, and then Friday night was a massage before I raced again on Saturday.”
A dream dashed
Thomas says he had goals of riding in the Empire Games and the Olympics, but with a berth in either set to cost at least 400 pounds, he decided to retire when he was just 20 years old.
“I thought, ‘bugger that, I’m not going to go anywhere in life if I just keep on spending that sort of money’,” he recalls.
“A good bike in those days also cost about the same as a small car, and while I had the very best bike, I couldn’t keep spending.
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to buy a house, take the girls out or buy a car as other people did.
“I just couldn’t afford the money or the time, so I retired.”
After cycling, Thomas turned to ballroom dancing and became so good he ran a dance class and competed in and won state championships along with a Pan Pacific competition.
“I decided to do the ballroom dancing because I wanted to meet some girls,” Thomas chuckles.
“But I enjoyed dancing and there’s a lot of work that goes into it. There’s a lot of hours, a lot of training, and you’ve got to learn all of the different styles – from Latin to modern and New Vogue.
“They kept bringing in new types of dance in New Vogue and that was a bit of a nuisance.
“But I turned professional, and I was running a dancing class for a while.”
A job on the railways
Post dancing, Thomas worked for the Midland Railway Company as a construction manager laying, re-laying and re-sleepering railroads and marshalling yards across Western Australia.
“We started off living in boxcars, and I made the bunks for the workers to sleep in,” Thomas says.
“The boxcars were in the sidings and our water supply was brought on a tanker on the railway tracks at night when they were shunting stuff in and out of the siding.
“So they’d be moving you around, which was a damn nuisance because it wakes you up.”
While re-laying the Midland line, the workers started off living in tents in the siding before Thomas got crafty and bought himself a caravan.
“After that, I bought more caravans, about six of them, and I rented them out to the workers,” he says.
“It was a good little business.”
After his railway career, Thomas bought and sold farms with great success, starting with a 3750-acre property in the Dandaragan area, followed by 4000 acres at Nyabing and finally two farms at Kudardup, near Augusta, where he ran 2000 merino sheep.
A true calling
Having realised his dream of being a farmer, Thomas decided to sell up and move to Perth with his wife to access good schools for their children.
“I’d made money out of buying and selling farms, so I thought I might as well stay in the same sort of business,” he says.
“I joined Colin Reynolds Proprietary Limited, which, at that time, was the biggest real estate agency in Perth.
“In the first week I listed three properties and sold one.
“From there on, every month, I was their top salesman. After only three months I was made manager of one of the offices at Tuart Hill.”
It didn’t take long before Thomas was head-hunted by Kevin Sullivan, an industry legend, with the Kevin Sullivan Memorial Award still given out by the Real Estate Institute Award of Western Australia.
“With Kevin, I was selling ticky-tacky boxes in ticky-tacky streets,” Thomas says.
“He trained me to be an auctioneer, and we were also doing commercial sales, managing commercial properties, building commercial shopping centres, high-rise units and also managing, listing and selling those.
“With Kevin I went from knowing nothing about real estate to being a highly qualified professional.
“Every Saturday, Kevin and I would be doing auctions, and we’d have a whole page in The West Australian filled with our auction properties.
“They were very heady years, wonderful years.”
Going out on his own
Thomas decided to start his own agency in 1981 after he and Kevin disagreed about the hiring of a particular sales manager.
Thomas Massam Real Estate opened at the Karrinyup Shopping Centre and later added branches at Kingsley, Heathridge and Doubleview.
Career highlights at his own agency included developing ’Mullaloo Waters’, a 20-unit townhouse development, ’Sevenoaks’, a 41-unit development of retirement villas and ‘Heathridge City’, a 12-shop retail centre.
Thomas sold his agency in 1995 and joined Roy Weston, which Harcourts later bought.
He says there have been numerous big changes in the real estate industry over the years, but the most notable is the technology involved.
Thomas says when he first started in real estate, he’d spend every night down at the post office payphone as it took him nine months to get a phone line put in at the rental he was living in.
“I was down there every damn night putting sixpences in the meter to make work calls,” he says.
Now and then
An early adopter of technology, Thomas was one of the first in Perth to put computers in his offices, but he laments the fact that while this tech promised to do away with paperwork, contracts are now thicker than they’ve ever been.
“In the old days, we had one bit of paper, that was the offer of acceptance, and you put some stuff on one side of the paper and on the other side you’d put a bit more stuff,” he says.
“Then you’d take that bit of paper and it was all settled in-house by the company and it cost nobody anything.
“Now, I’ve just sold a property at Joondalup, and there must have been a quarter of an inch of paper. It’s astonishing.”
Thomas says there are three key factors people need to make it as a real estate agent.
“I think you have to be born to sell, and most people aren’t born that way,” he says.
“Then you’ve got to be honest and, number three, you’ve got to be hard-working.
“You’ve got to put other people’s needs ahead of your own in a lot of cases which is a bummer because when you’re bringing up kids, it’s not the best.”
Some sage advice
Thomas also urges new agents to come into the industry with 12 months of income behind them.
“They really need 12 months of income behind them to live off while they’re training,” he explains.
“To really know what you’re doing, you need to be in real estate at least five years.”
Thomas says it’s been a privilege to work as a real estate agent for so long, and he’s not about to give up the craft just yet.
“You’re helping people to increase their wealth or to find a place for them to live and a place for their kids to play.
“That rewards my soul.
“I’m still getting people on a daily basis wanting me to sell stuff for them and to buy stuff from me.
“While I can drive and see and walk and my brain still works, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”