The sky is the limit: What if Virgin did real estate?

In 2015, real estate veteran Peter Brewer pondered an interesting question in a fictional press release: what would it look like if Virgin were to make a foray into the real estate sector? As part of the most recent Transform, Elite Agent tackled this question head-on, bringing in former Virgin Australia General Manager of People and Culture, Emma Mehaffey, to offer her thoughts on how Virgin would approach real estate.

Emma Mehaffey spent 15 years working at Virgin Australia in a role that brought her joy on a daily basis.

She explains her passion for the brand comes down to its culture and involves a formula that Virgin consistently gets right, with a focus on its people, challenging the norm and positioning the customer at the heart of all they do. 

“The word ‘culture’ kind of throws people, but it’s how you react with people every day, and it’s the experience they get,” she says.

“Every interaction is the chance to create culture.”

Changing business for good

The Virgin Group employs more than 70,000 people in 35 countries, with about 60 businesses in operation.

Those businesses range from airlines to cruise companies, telecommunications providers, and even space travel, but uniting them all is something known as the ‘red thread’.

This thread centres around a philosophy of ‘changing business for good’ and an expected standard for how staff live and breathe the brand.

Behind the scenes, each business was created to challenge the status quo in its sector and continues to do so.

For example, one of Virgin Atlantic’s values is ‘make it wow’.

“Every time you went to a meeting with Virgin Atlantic, and they were coming up with something to do with the customer, they had to get a reaction of ‘wow’,” Emma says.

“That was the test to see if an idea went through.”

She notes this service-first culture extends across the brand, in the belief every customer deserves the best, the experience should be seamless, and each encounter should involve joy, fun and energy.

“If Virgin founder Richard Branson did real estate, I would say he would do exactly the same thing,” Emma states.

“There’s no way he would come in and implement exactly the same model. I imagine it would have something quite unique and different about it.”

Know your purpose

In addition to being crystal-clear on the customer experience they offer, Emma says Virgin also carefully defines the purpose of each of their businesses, and the reason for that goes far beyond just making a profit.

She explains a business’ purpose is the element that connects with the emotional side of the brain, the reason an organisation exists and the difference it can make in the world.

“If you ask yourself why your business exists and the answer is ‘to make money’, that’s not a purpose, it’s a result,” Emma notes.

It’s not enough for the business to know its purpose, it’s also critical every team member understands it.

At Virgin, each purpose and value takes months to define and involves input from all staff members.

“It has to talk to your people,” Emma says.

“When you have the purpose statement right, everyone in the business can use it to make every single decision.”

Purpose then acts as a differentiator that can create preference in both customers and employees, answering the question, ‘why would a customer choose your products or services over another business, and why would an employee want to work with you?’

Look after your staff

Before coronavirus, Virgin Australia received about 52,000 job applications each year, hiring only 2000 people on average.

Emma notes it’s no mistake the company never needs to advertise for staff. Due to its purpose and reputation, working at Virgin elicits a sense of pride.

Meanwhile, the group values its people.

“There is a number one thing that all Virgin brands stick with,” she says.

“If you look after your staff, they will look after your customers.”

Emma notes many companies talk about putting their people first.

“But often it’s a throwaway comment,” she says.

At Virgin Australia, actions are intended to speak louder than words.

Although aviation is a tough industry to work in, there is a focus on having fun, and leaders are empowered to do what they need to for their staff, in the knowledge the company will back their decision.

Meanwhile, senior staff, including Branson, regularly undertake the roles of junior team members, such as checking customers in, handling baggage or even serving food and beverages on board a flight.

“There’s power in that, particularly if you’re in a more senior role and it’s been a while,” Emma says.

“Your staff love you for it, and you’ll have an eye-opener to some issues that you just didn’t know were there.”

The perfect hire

When it comes to who they hire, right from the beginning, Virgin Australia recruited for attitude then trained for experience.

The people they employ are key to the customer experience, and a staff member’s journey with the company is equally as important as the client’s.

Emma notes the first 90 days are critical to any employee’s experience in a business.

“Knowing every single part of that journey is really important,” she says.

It’s also imperative to seek feedback from staff to understand what’s working and what’s not.

“How do you know whether your employees love you?” she asks.

“If you ask your staff how they’re going, what they’re feeling, you’ll be surprised how happy it makes them.”

It’s not what you say, it’s what you do

Emma notes all these actions speak to the trust that Virgin seeks to build with staff and clientele.

She further explains trust increases when it shifts from what is said by a brand to what is said about a brand, and then the experience people have dealing with that organisation.

“When you’re telling your staff how to do something, or when you’re telling your customers something, the trust levels are actually really low because it’s just about words,” she says.

“When your peers are repeating the things that you say, because they believe it, the trust level goes up.

“At the top, if they start to experience it themselves – what you say and what others say – and they actually start to feel it, that’s when the trust levels are at the top.”

She notes if a leader wants their team to do something or their customer to believe something, they should first ask themselves what that person is experiencing. 

No fear of failure

While the Virgin brand is known worldwide, not all of Branson’s enterprises have been a roaring success.

Emma explains Branson has started about 500 companies, but those that failed are part of the group’s journey and its DNA.

“There’s nothing wrong with failure,” she says.

“The idea is to keep having new ideas and go for broke. If it doesn’t work out, that’s okay, you let it go.”

Be the leader you want to work for

Emma saw her leadership role at Virgin as a privilege, and she argues that’s the way any leader should view their position.

“If you don’t see it that way, you should consider if it’s right for you,” she states.

Emma explains true leadership involves treating everyone as an equal, being the leader you want to work for, and consistently communicating with your team.

“If people feel they’re just sitting in silence and you’re not telling them stuff, it’s very hard to have a great culture,” she says.

“That regular connection makes them feel valued.”

Virgin Real Estate

Emma says all of the factors mentioned previously would form the basis of any foray into real estate for the Virgin brand.

If Virgin were to enter real estate, the company would:

  • Focus on employees, creating a culture so good staff would never want to leave.
  • Know why the business existed…The people would know, the leaders would know and the customers would know.
  • Be all about the human connection, wow moments, and epic experiences.
  • Challenge everything.
  • Bring about good for others.
  • Offer a fun place to work.

Emma urges real estate leaders to ask themselves: If you could change one thing about the way real estate currently operates, what would it be?

“What’s stopping you making that change?” she asks.

To create joy in your workplace, connect with Emma at emjoy.com.au

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Cassandra Charlesworth

Cassandra Charlesworth is a features writer for Elite Agent Magazine with over 15 years’ journalism experience in metropolitan and regional newsrooms. She has a specialist interest in real estate, tech disruption and a good old-fashioned “yarn”.