THE LIGHTS out at the front of Chris Peake Real Estate always burn bright. Like a beacon of assurance that everything is OK, they signal that business continues as usual in Berwick, Victoria.
The night in 2009 that Chris Peake lost her battle with cancer, her good friends and colleagues, Kristen Turner and Marisa Adams, decided they would switch the lights off. Their tribute and goodbye to their boss.
But as they prepared to drive away from the office they noticed one light was still on. A sign that sat just above Chris’s office was shining brightly. Certain that the light had been turned off, the women considered it a sign from their dear friend.
“It was her way of saying how dare you turn off my lights?” Ms Adams laughs.
“We have never turned them off since,” Ms Turner adds.
The months that followed Ms Peake’s passing were a difficult time for the close-knit community, and flowers and cards expressing sympathy flooded the office as a tribute to a woman who was well respected and much loved.
Ms Turner and Ms Adams closed down the office until after the funeral. But just as life continues, so too did the running of a successful real estate business. It was a legacy they were destined to inherit.
“She always said she wanted to see her business continue with myself and Kristen running it,” Ms Adams recalls. “That was the next step and we decided we were going to do that.”
GROWING A BUSINESS
Chris Peake first opened her doors as an independent real estate agent in September 2003, and in November 2004 she moved into the current office in Berwick. Ms Peake had a background in the fashion industry, in which customer service and attention to detail are paramount.
She and Ms Adams started out together in a small one-room office. Ms Adams was the office manager and looked after the property management department.
Ms Turner joined the team in 2006 as a sales consultant, moving into the sales manager position when Ms Peake was diagnosed with lung cancer in August 2008.
A year later she succumbed to the disease.
The relationship the women had with their boss is something they say they will always cherish. They remember Ms Peake as a one-of-a-kind person, a strong woman who was a hard task master, one who was tough but very fair.
“Our business relationship with Chris was a lot of hard work but it was also a lot of fun as well,” Ms Turner says. “She was such a good boss. She had the most dynamic personality. People were drawn to her.”
The business now has more than 13 staff and a growing rent roll; the early days when it was just the two of them were much simpler, Ms Adams recalls.
“I shared an office with Chris and we would sometimes look over to each other and say, ‘I wish we could go back to that little office with just the two of us’.
“It seemed to be a lot easier. Chris always wanted to make a difference in the industry; there were so many agents that were just the same. And I think that is the public perception that we are all the same.
“We are following her example though. We don’t want to be like other agents, we don’t care what they are doing. We are just Chris Peake Real Estate and this is how we do it.”
Ms Peake’s husband inherited the business after her death, but Ms Turner and Ms Adams continued working, dealing with day-to-day operations. Of the staff they have today, only a handful worked under Ms Peake directly.
“When Chris passed away, it was a matter of sink or swim,” Ms Adams says. “Some of the workers couldn’t take the change – it was too hard for them – but we had to just keep going.”
In May 2011, the two women officially purchased the business as directors. “There was talk around the town of other agents buying the business, but we were never going to allow that to happen – never,” Ms Adams says.
“I think Chris, her husband, Kristen and I would have rather seen the doors closed than have someone else run it.”
The purchase was therefore more than just a business decision: “It was very personal to us, we were all very close,” Ms Turner says. “She wasn’t just our boss, she was our dear, dear friend.”
It was Ms Peake’s attention to detail that elevated her above the rest of the competition and it is that quality that Ms Adams and Ms Turner have adopted in the running of Chris Peake Real Estate.
“In terms of business ethics, there was never a contract in our office that left here without every ‘I’ dotted and ‘T’ crossed,” Ms Turner says. “It was a business that she created from day one, where business ethics and six-star customer service were a prime focus and we have continued to practise this.”
Nevertheless, when it comes to running the business the women still regularly stop and wonder if Ms Peake would approve.
“It is definitely something we consider,” Ms Adams says. “Just recently, for example, we worked with a marketing team to change the logo slightly.
“Every time we think about making a change we stop and think, ‘I wonder if Chris would have liked it?’ And we think she would. But it is something you just have to do. The only way you can grow is to change.”
Even though the two women have 36 years of real estate experience between them, they realised they needed extra support. Eighteen months ago they decided to join Real Estate Results Network (RERN), a network of independent agencies across Australia and New Zealand.
“We were running the day-to-day side of the business really well. But we felt, without Chris, we needed that driving force behind us to get us to the next level and keep us on track and accountable,” Ms Turner says.
“For us to have people to swing ideas past rather than just within these four walls, we needed some other influence. That is one thing about an independent agency – you don’t get support from a head office.
“That’s where Michael Sheargold and his [RERN] team and the rest of the network members have been so supportive of our situation, and our story as well, knowing that we didn’t choose to purchase the business – they supported us all the way.”
Since joining the network, the team at Chris Peake Real Estate has gone from strength to strength and was awarded the Community Achievement Award and Rising Star Agency of the Year title at this year’s Australasian Real Estate Results Awards (ARERA).
The women say they remember Ms Peake everyday in the office, but the way they truly keep her legacy alive is by sponsoring the annual Cancer Council Relay For Life event.
This year, Chris Peake Real Estate helped raise over $345,000 for cancer research.
“It is a personal thing we try to do to remember her and thank the community for their support of us and for Chris,” Ms Adams says.