The sky was the limit.
And in Australia’s sparsely populated Top End, the sky is a deep, panoramic expanse that invites big dreams.
That was the outlook for young gun agent May Dunlop, a multi-award winning professional who was the first Territorian to win a Real Estate Institute of Australia (REIA) award (for residential sales), when she decided to set up a Darwin-based agency with her then partner.
They were two people with complementary skills – it seemed like an ideal match.
What transpired in the years after the business opened in 2008, however, was an example of how tough it can be to go from top selling agent to principal – and what can happen when you mix business and personal life.
It’s a story Ms Dunlop was happy to share with Real Estate Business, with a view to helping other budding principals avoid the travail she encountered along the way.
Ms Dunlop, who started in real estate at the age of just 20, began her career with PRDnationwide Darwin, owned by John Lenz. It wasn’t long before she was reeling in the sales. In her first month alone she sold seven properties, and by her second year she had 100 sales under her belt.
When the business was sold to Raine & Horne three years later, Ms Dunlop was appointed as the franchise company’s sales manager.
Her age didn’t inhibit her desire to take on the new management role, she tells Real Estate Business. “I’m always aspiring to go higher and become better.
“I always set my goals and say, ‘That’s where I want to be and aspire to’. Being a sales manager was one of those goals. I was absolutely thrilled when Raine & Horne appointed me in that role. It made me work a lot harder and smarter.
“I really enjoyed training new people – to see them get excited and into it,” she adds.
Not that Ms Dunlop found it easy to manage a team of sales agents, and her youth could have been an issue.
“It’s very challenging,” she says. “You definitely have got to have the right skills when managing salespeople as they usually have very strong personalities.”
Down to business
It was the confidence Ms Dunlop gleaned from running a sales team while still managing to deliver solid selling numbers that partly inspired the move to start up her own agency.
“We had extremely high vision for the company and we thought we were well equipped to make it a success,” she recalls.
“I was in charge of sales and the ‘face’ of the company while my ex-partner…was in control of the company’s administration and financial management, including the programs for property management and accounting, due to her previous work background.
“We had it structured that way so I could focus on generating income for the company. We had also employed my youngest sister, Melissa Dunlop, to assist us in an administrative capacity.”
The company did very well in its first 12 months, Ms Dunlop says. “We started with three staff and built it up to 12 within 18 months. Our 2008/2009 audit report was unqualified for our first year of operation.
“However, various problems came up along the way, mainly relating to the general running of the business, which I did not anticipate.”
Ms Dunlop admits in hindsight that she could have done things differently. She accepts that much of the failure of the company stemmed from the lack of safeguards to ensure sufficient administration staff were trained so that in the event of staff absences, accounting and administrative records would be kept up to date.
“Looking back now, I think that the business expanded too quickly and we were not quick enough to make changes and adjustments to its structure, including meeting the demands and pressures that go with running a business.”
Keeping a closer eye on how the business is run is paramount to an agency’s ultimate success, she says. This includes understanding the numbers, and knowing what’s occurring in the administrative side of the business.
“My business plan will be drafted in such a way so as to cover similar eventualities and risks,” she says. “For example, I will definitely get a third party to do the books and will have a backup for specific roles and tasks. That way, even if relationships break down, the business will not be as badly affected.
“I will also have a tighter control and hands on knowledge of every ‘nut and bolt’ in the business, especially the software packages used.”
These shortcomings led to Ms Dunlop’s appearing before the NT Agents Licensing Board regarding discrepancies in the business’ trust records. This resulted in a six month suspension of her company licence (but not her licence to practise in the real estate industry) in late 2011.
Due to the breakdown of the business’ administration and accounting records systems, the principals were unable to lodge their 2009/2010 audit report within the time required.
But while Ms Dunlop is quick to acknowledge her own failings, she remains unhappy with how her appearance before the NT Agents Licensing Board was reported in the media.
“The opening line of the news article regarding the outcome of the Agents Licensing Board hearing gave the impression that I knowingly took commission three times on sale of the same properties, reinforced by the use of the words ‘triple dipping’.
“The fact was that while I should have known about the overpayments, I didn’t find out about them until months later when we were reconciling the bank statements as most of my commissions at the time went straight to the company to keep it running.
“All our bank reconciliations were at least six months behind and the commission overpayments, along with overpayments to some of our clients and contractors, were due to posting errors on our system.
“For the reasons that I have already mentioned, the errors were not detected at the time that they occurred. The errors were fixed as soon as they were detected.
“The news article was written in a way sensationalising the issue and sadly, some industry members have used selective content to cast doubts on my integrity as a real estate agent.
“I have paid a heavy price and learned big lessons from this business experience but at the same time, I am grateful that it happened while I was still young and able to rebuild what I have lost.”
Since the sale of the business, Ms Dunlop has joined local Darwin-based agency One Real Estate. And she’s a lot happier, not having the concerns of running an agency to worry about.
“I sold the rent roll of the company in June last year, with a three-month retention,” she says.
“I received some extremely good offers to buy out the rent roll, along with offers of employment, but I decided to work for Karl Secondis of One Real Estate because of their values, sharp clear marketing, embracing of technology, strong client focus and family-orientated team environment.”
“I’m earning about the same money as before, but with less responsibility and no headaches,” she adds.
When asked about what she likes about Mr Secondis’ management style, she points to “his energy, ethics, enthusiasm and go-getter attitude”.
“When I came into the industry nine years ago, Karl was one of the speakers at a course at the Real Estate Institute of the Northern Territory (REINT),” Ms Dunlop says. “I was inspired by him. I wanted to get my name up on the awards list like he did.”
“He has an exceptionally good team – like Belinda Jane Di Toro, the office manager. She is always on top of things and very attentive to detail. Karl’s business partner Joely Sullivan, who is in charge of the growing property management department, is very experienced,” she says.
Ms Dunlop admits she would have to think “long and hard” about whether she would run her own agency again.
“For this year, it’s just focusing on making more sales to pay off the remaining company debts and rebuilding what I have lost,” she says. “I am moving on and taking a very positive outlook towards my future.”
She also has some advice for sales agents who might, in particular, be considering the jump into the principal’s hot seat. “Follow your business plan,” she stresses.
“Employ the right people and when you do, look after them as they are your best investment.
“Be involved and knowledgeable in all aspects of the business. Don’t rely on one person for a particular role or task – have a back-up person.
“Some young principals like myself may think we know it all, but you can never beat maturity and experience. Have a mentor who has had a successful business for a number of years.”