Owen Wilson stepped into the top job at realestate.com.au in January – amidst arguably the worst downturn in the property market in the past 10 years.
With an uncertain year ahead and global players such as Facebook making their own plans in real estate, Wilson’s overall philosophy is that it’s time for REA Group and agents to work together for the common good.
“Our customers’ success is our success; my view is that we have a symbiotic relationship with our customers and together we will succeed,” Wilson says.
So, who is Owen Wilson?
Wilson recalls the day, about four years ago, he received a tap on the shoulder inviting him to become the CFO of REA Group, saying, “It was probably the luckiest opportunity I’ve ever had in my life to join this fantastic company.”
While, up until now, many agents may not have heard too much about Wilson, he is a highly accomplished and, by all accounts, authentic leader.
Wilson started his career straight out of school on a scholarship with BHP while completing his degree at Deakin University.
From there, he moved into the ‘big four’ world with KPMG, where he learned the craft of chartered accounting, both here and abroad in places such as London, Russia, Hungary and Poland.
He then honed a specialty in company turnarounds, trading rooms, and mergers and acquisitions with companies such as ANZ and Chandler McLeod.
Although his efforts were a little more behind the scenes, during his tenure as CFO Wilson was instrumental in a number of accomplishments for the REA Group including the move into Asia, which he describes as a “great long-term growth offering,” as well as adjacent products and services (eg financial services), and increasing consumer engagement through a lifestyle offering.
But if you ask him what he is most proud of, he will tell you it’s all about the evolution of the product and the people behind it.
“When I joined, we’d only just moved into apps, and if you look at our app today, and the consumer experience today versus five years ago, it’s remarkable how far that has come in five years,” Wilson says.
Challenge or opportunity?
With various markets coming off around the country by an average of six per cent in the past 12 months, Wilson says he is still optimistic about the next nine months – particularly once the Federal Election has been decided.
“I think when we get to Christmas we will be looking back on better market conditions,” he says.
“The Royal Commission is now behind us; I think we’ve probably got a rate cut coming at some stage this year.
“And I hope our customers will feel like we have supported them through this time.”
The plan to support customers comes by a focus on ‘widening the gap’ on audience numbers, which Wilson says is currently at three times the nearest competition. And it’s also to tweak the current product to support agents through this part of the cycle.
“We keep achieving record visits to our site; and are now at 80 million per month, which I’d like to see keep growing.
“We’re now at three times our competition and I’d love to see that lead even bigger at Christmas.
“In Asia we are getting to a tipping point where consumers are really starting to see that we are the place to go for property in key markets, particularly Malaysia, Indonesia and in Hong Kong.”
As far as product evolution is concerned there have been some tweaks to generate more enquiries for agents on properties, including extending the number of days on Premiere from 45 to 60, and adding the ability for agents on Premiere to cross-sell other listings.
“We’re trying to do as much as we can to stimulate the market – not just for promoting listings, but by bringing as many consumers through the site as we can for both the buy and sell part of the transaction.”
Our customers’ success is our success; my view is that we have a symbiotic relationship with our customers and together we will succeed.
Global vs hyperlocal
Wilson states there are also challenges and opportunities ahead for REA Group to navigate.
He says Facebook is an example of other global players in the space looking at companies like REA Group and what they do for customers.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, in an announcement last month, said, “We’re building a tool so you can search for and view all current housing ads in the US targeted to different places across the country, regardless of whether the ads are shown to you.”
The same announcement also states that anyone who wants to run housing, employment or credit ads will no longer be allowed to target by age, gender or zip (post) code.
Facebook’s past 12 months have been rough and Sandberg’s statement about the new ‘tool’ could mean anything.
But it appears Wilson is one step ahead in his thinking about how to combat that with the industry sticking together and providing better experiences for the consumer.
“It’s always been important for us, that we’re in this together,” he says.
“Our customer’s success is our success, and vice versa.
“We need to play a part in helping build a moat around our industry and helping stimulate that industry in keeping it strong.”
Part of the advantage REA Group has over the global platforms is knowing that what works in one market may not work in another.
“Our view is that we need to go hyperlocal in terms of property data and the experiences we can deliver to a consumer so they choose us as the place to go for property and not somewhere else,” Wilson says.
In April, for the sixth year running, realestate.com.au will host an Industry Leadership Forum in Queenstown, NZ, a forum where ideas can be shared and validated.
“The industry forum is probably one of the most important things we do each year,” Wilson says.
“It’s an opportunity for us to find out from our customers what is going on in their world, and for us to take those learnings into how we provide value to the market.”
The future of real estate
In the future, the biggest changes will occur in the way consumers want to interact and Wilson says the recent launch of ratings and reviews is a great example of leaning into what consumers want.
“We’re so used to rating everything we do now, whether it’s your Uber, or your restaurant or your hotel, agents are the same thing,” he says.
“So the way that consumers want to interact with both agents and property will change going forward as tech allows it to.”
Wilson also says he sees a world down the track where consumers are going to want digital experiences such as augmented reality – and the way that properties are presented to consumers will be very different from today.
But he is also confident that the role of the agent won’t change, given 96 per cent of consumers still choose to use an agent because they value the price tension only an agent can create.
In terms of the value an agent brings, Wilson says, “you can’t digitise that.
“In the future that value that agents bring will be the thing consumers look for – and a lot of the other peripheral things that can be digitised will be (digitised).”
In terms of where the industry is at right now, Wilson says that like all cycles it will turn; and the conversation comes back to the idea of focusing on the customer and working together.
“My message is stay the course; if we work together, I think we’re going to succeed long after this cycle has become history.”