Tommy’s Real Estate is celebrating 20 years in business but its founders are quick to praise the Wellington public for its part to play in achieving that milestone. “Wellingtonians have been unbelievable, they have embraced us from the get-go, their support has just been phenomenal,” says Tommy Heptinstall.
He and colleague David Platt made the brave move of leaving their real estate jobs to establish an agency with a difference two decades ago. They started out with no clients nor houses to sell and no office space, working out of a boardroom at a friend’s workplace.
“It was very overwhelming, we started from zilch, but our advantage was that we had both been in the market in Wellington for 10 years selling real estate,” says Tommy.
“We had both created a bit of a following, but we didn’t know how that following was going to go when we went out on our own.
“Thankfully, Wellingtonians supported us right from the very first morning that we opened, and they’ve been supporting us ever since.”
Today, Tommy’s is a household name in Wellington real estate, with head office in Wellington city and seven franchised offices in Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt, Eastbourne, Mana, Kapiti, Tawa and Whitby. The number of salespeople in the city office has grown from three initially, including David and Tommy, to more than 43 today.
In that time Tommy’s salespeople have sold about 16,500 homes between Khandallah and Seatoun, representing about a third of all homes within the Wellington city head office area alone.
“I’ve got a saying that if you jump, the net will always save you, and in our case we jumped and Wellingtonians threw the net out and saved us,” says a grateful Tommy.
He recalls moving into their very first rented office space, on Kent Terrace, when he, David and their first employee took up three of the 25 desks on their floor. “I remember looking around at these empty desks and thinking ‘what the hell have we got ourselves into.”
Two years later, they bought the building head office currently occupies in Wellington city, on the corner of Victoria and Vivian streets. “We were in the business of selling property and telling people that property was a great investment, yet we were tenants – you can’t be in the industry without walking the talk and we needed more space anyway
“Our attitude has always been ‘let’s get on with it’ and we’ve done it, 20 years later we’re still here and competitive in the industry!”
Technology has changed markedly over that time, from the telegrams of acceptance that were sent to successful home buyers 20 years ago, to the introduction of fax machines and now internet and social media. “Technology is a good thing, it has made it easier for buyers to view houses and get information, there’s no question about that.”
Compliance is a big part of real estate these days too, but as Tommy says, it’s just a matter of adapting. He believes the real recipe for success is building strong foundations, a strong culture and leading by example.
He and David wanted to create a team that delivered a service based on good old-fashioned ethics, integrity and fair play and they set about building that culture by walking the talk.
“Culture is caught, not taught, we made rules – in life there has to be rules, that’s society – and everyone who came here, most of whom had no previous real estate experience, knew what to expect.
“Because we were on the ground, we had everything covered, every day we knew everything that was going on, we knew when an agent needed a boost, we knew all the stock, all the owners.”
Staff retention is a testament of that culture he labels “the Tommy’s way”.
“Our personal assistants who started with us at Tommy’s now runs the whole back office, and 90 percent of the people who have come to us are still here today, it’s staggering.”
Tommy is a firm believer in building a business slowly on solid, concrete foundations first, before adding more floors on top.
It’s a lesson he learnt the hard way – not as a businessman, but as a football coach. “I coached a team in Miramar and I made an absolute dog’s breakfast of it, simply because I tried to do everything and do it all too fast.”
Tommy’s coaching gig was, in his words, a disaster and he got the sack. “They got rid of me, but honestly, that was the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my life, it taught me to lay solid foundations first and then build.” He put that valuable lesson to good use in Tommy’s, building the company slowly, but building its market share quickly.
“Initially we wondered if we’d ever get five deals in a month, then we did five in our first month, we wondered if we’d get 10-15 deals in the second month, which we did, so we just kept setting the bar higher.” Tommy puts that down to creating not only a culture in-house, but a brand that backs its clientele.
“You have an owner who is about to sell a property, the owner is paying the commission, not the buyer, so you work for the owner and do everything in your power for them, while naturally paying the same due respect to the purchaser.
“That purchaser will one day become an owner, and if they know you did a great job for that owner then they will… six months, five years, 10 years later… come back when they sell.
“That is all the business is built on – you can’t build a business unless you get the support from people that bought off you, and if the people who bought off you come back when they’re selling it means they enjoyed dealing with you when they bought.”
That simple but hugely successful formula is one Tommy learned as a child.
“As a kid, my old man would pat me on the head at night when he put me to bed, and he used to say to me ‘if you look after people, they will look after you’.
“Now, I was never well-educated, I was useless at school in fact, and I left at a very young age, but I’ve always taken my old man’s advice and that has become the culture of Tommy’s Real Estate.”
As well as enjoying financial success, Tommy’s and its sales team have become a potent sales force as a result, and they have taken out numerous accolades over the years, including the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand award for selling more properties from a single office than any other agency in New Zealand.
The community-minded nature of Tommy’s has seen it back numerous charities and non-profit organisations along the way, this year’s major beneficiary being Wellington Free Ambulance.
Tommy has retired and lives in Melbourne and David is semi-retired, still living in Wellington and still active in the business.
Both were part of the 210 – strong gathering in Wellington last weekend to mark Tommy’s 20th anniversary.
While Tommy is proud of their achievements, he says he’s never really had the time to reflect till now.
“Every day I’d walk in here and get to work, you don’t think of anything but work, but now I’ve retired and gone away and come back, I think it’s amazing what we’ve done. “Tommy’s was never planned, it was so far off the radar we still pinch ourselves.
“It came about through circumstances, all we had was the name ‘Tommy’s’ which a recruitment company guy had suggested 10 years earlier before I even thought of real estate. “He said ‘if you ever one day start a real estate company you’ve got to call it Tommy’s because it’s friendly, and you’re friendly.”
Tommy’s distinctive green colours have stood the test of time, even though they were the second choice, the first option a no-go due to the opposition rebranding in their original colour choice. But as Tommy says, it isn’t the colours nor the signs that have earned Tommy’s its position as a market leader, it is the staff, the culture and supportive Wellingtonians.
“We’ve had sadness in here, happiness in here, we’ve seen staff get married and have children, we’ve got kids who came in here as babies coming up to 21st birthdays… Tommy’s has become a family that has expanded beyond belief.
“We have a wonderful following – as a company we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the thousands of clients who have listed their home for sale with Tommy’s and to the equal number of home buyers who have taken a step into home ownership or property investment through us.
“We really are the perfect example of a cliché, we’ve created a big family, and Wellingtonians have become an offshoot of our family.”
Published by The Dominion Post