We chat to the National General Manager of Urban Commercial Group, Rob Idol, to find out how he resisted the urge to grow too fast.
Can you please tell the TBS audience a little about your background? How did you come to head up Urban Group?
RI: The short answer is deception, beer and nepotism!
Around six years ago, I was looking to leave the property industry and find a new opportunity. I’d spent years in a variety of admin and management roles across agencies and valuation companies and it just wasn’t exciting me anymore. Around the same time, a mate from high school that I hadn’t seen for the better part of a decade contacted me and suggested we catch up for a beer. It was around Christmas and over 40 degrees in Adelaide so I didn’t need my arm twisted. I turned up to the pub to meet him and found him and his business partner sitting there waiting for me.
Andrew and Nic, the founders of Urban, had been operating as commercial sales and leasing agents at other firms in Adelaide, but around eighteen months prior, they had put their heads together and started a new company to offer something different to the marketplace. They both recognised at the time that they needed to bring someone in who had specific experience in commercial property management, and also someone with a systems/admin mind, to help build a foundation for growth. This brief lined up strongly with my experience in the industry, hence the approach.
What struck me immediately is that they were the first people I had come across who not only shared my frustrations but were driven to do something about it. They, like I, wanted to create a service that shifted us from traditional to a professional focus. I jumped on board immediately.
Five years on, we have added a residential arm to the company, a finance broker, have launched an office in Melbourne providing property management and retail site acquisition, and we now have twelve staff across South Australia and Victoria which has helped ensure that the same service that Andrew, Nic and I were offering to our small client base five years ago is being surpassed.
We never set out to be the biggest or richest; we set out to be the best.
What is the one thing you wish clients would understand about Urban Group the first time they may connect with you?
Do I have to pick one thing?
I think the main thing is that we are not a real estate agency. We may facilitate property transactions, manage the property and acquire it, but we are not an agency. We are, for want of a better term, a wealth advisor with a focus on property.
Our primary business unit from day one was property management. This was a deliberate choice because we weren’t looking to create another agency in the marketplace that was simply chasing the next fee or measuring our success on the number of commissions we earned. From the very beginning, the entire concept has been about long-term relationship building. Most people have an accountant that they use to manage their finances for a long period of time. If you are a serious investor in the share market, you usually have a long-term relationship with a broker or advisor. If you look to diversify your money, you probably have a financial planner who you have a long term relationship with. Why shouldn’t those that look to invest in property have the same type of trusted advisor who isn’t just looking to help them find their next acquisition, but is also thinking five, ten or twenty years down the track?
Since we’ve moved beyond property management, the model has remained the same. Our finance broker can provide in-house advice on acquiring finance for your investment or portfolio as a whole. Our residential team, whilst still providing traditional agency services like selling a home, do it with a completely different approach and mindset. They don’t want to just sell your home and get a commission; they want to help you sell this one and be the person you call for the next thirty years if you want to buy, sell or invest. On the commercial side, we still manage property for small and large investors alike, but we also help develop long term investment, portfolio and acquisitions strategies.
What has been the toughest obstacle for Urban Commercial to battle since you launched?
The toughest obstacle has been resisting the urge to grow too fast. Adelaide is a town where word of mouth can be the difference between success and failure. For the first four years or so, we did almost no marketing; our clients came in almost exclusively through direct word of mouth referrals. Obviously, this was fantastic as it not only meant we didn’t have to chase work to continue to grow, but it was also very congruent with our long term relationship model.
However, when you aren’t having to fight to achieve steady growth and keep your doors open in your first couple of years of operation, it can get very tempting to go hell for leather. As most people who have built a business from the ground up will tell you, it’s usually quite a few years before you really start to reap the benefits – and those years can be one hell of a struggle.
We fought very hard against that temptation because we knew that while we might have more money in our pockets, we would inevitably veer off course from our primary mission – strong service. Andrew and I as leaders of this organisation operate very much in a ying and yang fashion. I make sure that our risks are calculated, and he makes sure that we aren’t being too risk averse.
How do you manage your own schedule? do you have any daily rituals you could share with us?
This is definitely a work in progress. Historically I’ve been able to operate efficiently with a simple combination of my inbox and a calendar. However, as Urban expands, my role expands and I now find myself in a situation where it isn’t sufficient. Currently, I’m trying to utilise the Pomodoro method, particularly when a task requires strong focus. It’s a time management method from the ’80s where you use a timer to break work into 25 minute (or something similar) intervals which then require a five minute break. After four “Pomodoros” you allow yourself a longer break. It’s simple but it works if you stick to it – but make sure you remove all other distractions like phone calls and interruptions. It’s very rare that any emergency comes up during the day that can’t wait 25 minutes. (That, and you could set your watch by my coffees over the course of the day!)
What would be your main piece of advice for aspiring CEO’s/entrepreneurs?
If I had to give only one piece of advice, it would be to surround yourself with good people. Clients come and go, products and services come and go, but the people around you needs to be your constant. They shouldn’t be your employees or subordinates, they should be your allies and trusted confidants, they are the people that you want by your side when you have to dig in and fight and the ones that you want by your side when you get to celebrate victory.
Workplace culture and values, for me, are the most important part of an organisation as they are the framework that absolutely everything is built on. The problem is that many organisations don’t really understand what that means. It’s not as simple as brainstorming values, issuing them to your team and expecting them to live up to it. People have their own value system which is near on impossible to change. For that reason, it’s far more important to bring in people who organically align with your own values, and those of the organisation you are trying to create in the first place. People can be taught almost anything but they can’t be forced to believe in you or your organisation. You can’t forge authentic culture; its genesis lies in the beliefs and behaviours of you and the people you surround yourself with.