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How an agency principal found his own path in the family firm

By Juliet Helmke
23 May 2024 | 12 minute read
james dunn richardson wrench double bay reb hezrik

Becoming a co-principal in the agency his father started in 1983 has offered one real estate professional the opportunity to reflect on navigating a career in a family business.

But despite growing up and seeing his father’s success in real estate, James Dunn never intended to go into the industry himself. And as he tells it, his father was by no means exerting pressure on his choices, so the fact that Dunn has just made co-principal of Richardson & Wrench Double Bay alongside his father, Michael Dunn, rounding out a leadership team that includes CEO and director Robynne Arnouts, was not the product of patriarchal design.

And it’s perhaps this lack of pressure that allowed the younger Dunn to find his feet in a business to which he was really quite suited.

Studying property economics at university, he initially saw himself going into development or property finance. Of course, he helped out at the agency when needed. But real estate was at first something of a means to an end after he finished university and had travel in his sights.

“An opportunity opened up in the office as a property officer, which is someone who runs around and gets keys and things like that. And I thought, well I may as well do that. I want to go overseas and travel through Europe.”

While saving, he moved into leasing, an experience he really enjoyed, and which ended up serving him well once he was able to put his plans to travel in action.

There was no pressure from Michael to stay and contribute to the business. In fact, Dunn’s plans closely mirrored the career trajectory of his father, who spent time working in the UK and the US before setting up shop in Sydney.

“He was very much for us getting out there and being independent and finding our own feet really,” Dunn said.

So when he was offered a leasing job in London working in some of the competitive markets of South Kensington and Chelsea, he decided to stay for a while.

In the end it was the lifestyle that lured him back to Sydney a few years later. Dunn is a keen surfer, now chasing waves most mornings of the week, but his decision to return to Australia could not have been timed better.

A sales associate role had opened up working under a business partner in his father’s firm. Dunn went through a formal interview process, landed the role, and decided to once again make Sydney his home. He’s been with the Double Bay agency ever since.

Dunn was quick to name his father as a mentor, but as the agent described it, Michael Dunn led more by showing than telling.

“When I was first in the business, I’d go to the auctions and see how he performed, and I helped him at open homes. His mannerism is very different from others. He’s not a pushy type of salesperson, and people seem to warm to that,” Dunn explained.

“When I came back, I was often working on properties with him and I would look at how he dealt with people, how he dealt with the auction process. It was never directly, ‘this is what you should do,’ he led by example.”

And while Michael Dunn was certainly a constant presence to model off of, James Dunn also said that his father was careful to set up a certain amount of distance, and give him other direct managers to learn from. In fact, it’s what he credits with crafting a healthy and successful workplace for the two.

“When I worked in property management I had my boss in that department. Michael was never overseeing that, and I think that’s played such a big role.”

Similarly, he worked under a partner of the business that he was accountable to when he returned from the UK.

“I think that’s really important. It’s an emotional business, and if you’re there being seen with your parents telling you what to do, that might not work so well.”

For others hoping to pave a way for family members in their businesses, or for kids considering joining the family firm, he recommends that a certain level of distance is key.

The fact that the Double Bay office had so many qualified people to learn from allowed Dunn to find other managers, mentors and teachers, and it’s a part of the structure that the co-principal credits not only for his success, but the business’s as well. He pointed out that he and his father now lead the business alongside Robynne Arnouts, who started as a PA at the outfit in the early ’90s and worked her way up the ranks.

“That’s what our business is about, that you can become a director from a salesperson,” he explained.

As he grows into the co-principal role, Dunn explained that not too much will change day-to-day, though he will be looking to foster that new talent, while always continuing to learn from his dad and the esteemed professionals around him.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Juliet Helmke

Based in Sydney, Juliet Helmke has a broad range of reporting and editorial experience across the areas of business, technology, entertainment and the arts. She was formerly Senior Editor at The New York Observer.

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