Five years ago, Barfoot & Thompson celebrated its 90th anniversary. A nine-decade milestone would be a big event for anyone, but for Auckland’s number one real estate agency, ‘big’ is something of an understatement. “In its 90th year, Barfoot & Thompson decided to do something to mark the occasion, so the company had a sit-down dinner for more than 3,500 people,” says Chris Dobbie, the company’s CEO. “For the community, the company also gave NZ$1 million to Auckland Council to help them, and NZ$500,000 to Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell to help with its building project.”

The event featured a four-course dinner as well as a 280-metre, 360-degree projection of the company’s history on the walls. Live musicians played, and Barfoot & Thompson capped off the evening with projections of a huge fireworks display. “I can’t imagine what the company’s going to do for its centenary,” says Chris.

Back then, Chris was still in the CFO chair at Barfoot &Thompson – a role he held for 17 years. He stepped into the CEO position only earlier this year. But he’s seen 24 years of the company’s history unfold since joining the business in 1994 as an assistant accountant.

New role, new challenges

Despite his many years with the company, his recent step up to CEO introduced Chris to a whole new world of executive duties. “The biggest challenge of my career would have been putting my name in for CEO and having the confidence in my ability to do the job,” he says. “That’s because I’d been doing the CFO role for so long.

Chris Dobbie CEO of Barfoot & Thompson

I was already an influencer within the company, but the CEO role involves leading the company. To me, that’s a whole different purpose.” In his new position, Chris now finds communication the central theme of his managerial style. “As CFO, you spend a lot of time behind a desk, in your own little niche,” he says. “As CEO, you need to be talking to your people at the coalface – salespeople, managers, internal staff – and getting them all going in one direction. The interaction is a whole lot different as CEO.”

“As CEO, you need to be talking to your people at the coalface – salespeople, managers, internal staff – and getting them all going in one direction.”

On his journey from assistant accountant to CEO, Chris has watched tremendous development within Barfoot & Thompson. When he started, the real estate company had 32 branches and around 300 salespeople; since then, its branches have more than doubled, now boasting 76, and there are an impressive 1,700 salespeople (2,500 staff total) working for the team.

Meanwhile, the company’s portfolio has blossomed from 5,500 properties to more than 16,000. Barfoot & Thompson’s property managers have gone from being independent contractors to fully integrated team members, and the company has expanded its investment in commercial sales and property management. It’s also looking after units in bodies corporate, with a view to expand this venture further. It’s therefore no surprise that Barfoot & Thompson now holds 40% of the market share.

Looking to the future

Chris now must ideate the kind of changes he witnessed during his time in the financial division. And though the change in responsibilities has been considerable, it was nevertheless a natural transition for him. For now, focusing the company’s strategic plan is the task at hand.

“As a CFO, you know what’s happening in the business,” Chris says. “As CEO, you still need to have that ability to read the figures – to know what they’re doing – but then be able to take that next step and ask, ‘Well, what does the future look like for us?’ You need to have those meetings to really listen to your people and set a pathway forward.”

So, what does that pathway ahead look like for Barfoot & Thompson? For one, it’s heading towards investment in new digital technologies. In partnership with DIAKRIT, a software company servicing the real estate industry, Barfoot & Thompson is adding the capacity to offer 3D, interactive digital floor plans of available homes. Potential buyers will be able to use virtual reality not only to inspect homes, but also to virtually arrange furniture and renovate. This experience goes well beyond the typical inspection process – evidence of Barfoot & Thompson’s keen awareness of the industry’s evolution.

Chris Dobbie CEO of Barfoot & Thompson

Chris acknowledges that it may be difficult for employees to adjust to this high-tech transformation. “Change is not always easy to handle for our people,” he says. “They’re independent contractors; they don’t always accept change as easily. But sometimes you must make business decisions based on a gut feeling. The world is changing at a record rate, and technology is playing a big part in that. We need to take people on the journey with us. We haven’t always done that, but that’s going to change.”

But for all this emphasis on digital technology, Chris is confident that the personal element of the buying process is still a powerful advantage for Barfoot & Thompson. Some recent start-ups have sprung up in the online real estate business – for example, local Arizto and British-based Purplebricks are both making their mark in New Zealand. Such companies offer lower fees for home purchases and sales but provide slightly less personal services than companies such as Barfoot & Thompson.

“You have the new innovators, the disrupters who are always looking to do it cheaper, but you don’t get that face-to-face meeting that you do have with a real estate salesperson,” says Chris. “Trust is a huge part of the selling process. Clients must trust that the person they’re talking to will provide the best service, get them the best price for their home and make it easy to sell their house.”

Chris doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the disrupters, though with its market share, Barfoot & Thompson is inevitably a target for such companies. Instead, Chris keeps up with their movements, but he focuses on what his company is doing and how it can do better. “We’re always mindful of what’s out there in the marketplace, but we very much believe in what we’re doing,” he says. “We believe we have the best salespeople and property-management people on our team, and we just need to provide them with the tools to do their job.”

This support of the Barfoot & Thompson team takes precedence over all other strategic business decisions; even investment in new technology is secondary to the company’s focus on its people.

“We always have to be looking at innovation,” Chris says. “But we have to make sure we’re supporting our people from a head office point of view – we’re making their job easy; we’re providing them with the resources they need. Our head office now has more than 100 people in IT, marketing and projects teams.”

Chris spends a good deal of time thinking about the future of the company and its strategic direction. “Barfoot & Thompson has been around for 95 years,” Chris says. “We’ve done very well to get to this point, but to go from being good to being great, we need to have a clear direction. We need to have clarity about what we want to achieve.

“Real estate is all about being in front of people – face-to-face communication. Those salespeople who use technology the best will become the best salespeople. The asset that we’re selling, in terms of sales figures, is the biggest asset anybody will ever own.”

The wheat from the chaff

Barfoot & Thompson must therefore make sure it selects only the best employees for its team – those who perfectly fit into the company’s culture. According to Chris, drive and determination are among the necessary qualities, but he also stresses the need to acknowledge problem team members Although it’s a last resort, the company has had to part ways with some salespeople who have acted in conflict with the Barfoot & Thompson culture.

Fortunately, Chris has every confidence in his company’s managers. “Our managers have a great deal of experience,” he says. “They do fairly well at selecting salespeople. Salespeople must be self-driven. One of our most successful salespeople is a former New Zealand hockey rep. He’s used to driving himself to achieve, and that’s what you need to be a successful salesperson.”

Chris Dobbie CEO of Barfoot & Thompson

Chris compares the company’s approach to employment to welcoming someone into one’s family. This seems only appropriate, given that Barfoot & Thompson remains a family business, with members of both the Barfoot and Thompson families serving as company directors. It’s a crucial aspect of the company’s selection process; both a manager and a Barfoot or Thompson family member interview every prospective salesperson before they can join the company.

In addition to ensuring that new arrivals are well-suited to the team and warmly welcomed at the start, Barfoot & Thompson also provides ongoing support in their roles. The company’s in-house training program and training team provide staff members of all levels with free and comprehensive real estate training. The program capitalises on decades of industry experience, both from within and outside Barfoot & Thompson.

It includes intensive induction training and provides long-term workers with assistance in their continuing career progression. Property managers must also undergo regular advanced-skills workshops to stay up to date with changes around law, technology, and operational methods.As well as this general level of employee support, Barfoot & Thompson offers training to make sure the team conforms to the compulsory Real Estate Authority (REA) requirements.

The REA is the governmental regulatory body for New Zealand’s real estate industry, and it defines a Code of Professional Conduct and Client Care. The code outlines the high standards agents and property managers must meet, and Barfoot & Thompson is committed to ensuring its team achieves these standards. It’s a form of mutual support – if management encourages employees to perform at their best, then those employees, in turn, enable Barfoot & Thompson to excel within the industry.

The company also runs several community events to demonstrate the extent to which family values are inherent in Barfoot & Thompson. One such event is a trip to the Auckland Zoo for staff and their extended families; the last zoo outing hosted 5,000 people for after-hours festivities of food, drinks and zoo experiences.

But it’s more than just trips to the zoo that define Chris’s relationship with his team. He prefers a collaborative rapport with Barfoot & Thompson employees that embraces the talents and abilities of the entire team. “It’s about listening to our people,” he says. “The best ideas are always achieved by a group of collective minds. It’s not one person coming up with all the ideas.”

To get at these ideas, Chris gathers the managers from Barfoot & Thompson’s 76 offices at a neutral location and splits them into groups of 15. Here, they’re encouraged to open up and engage in two-way communication in a space in which they have the freedom to be honest. For Chris, it’s a powerful exercise in working cooperatively and one that prioritises listening over talking – ideals that characterise his tenure as CEO.

“That hasn’t been done previously,” Chris says. “Barfoot & Thompson has been very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and have done it very well. We have assets of NZ$150 million that we’ve accumulated over the years by owning more than 70 per cent of our branches. We’ve been multi-award-winning in terms of international property awards. Last year, we were voted the best real estate agency in Asia–Pacific at the International Property Awards. But we haven’t always listened to our people.”

“Last year, we were voted the best real estate agency in Asia–Pacific.”

The previous CEO’s resignation gave Chris the opportunity to re-examine the business and consider how it could change. He decided that it should be managed more consultatively, and this decision is partially what encouraged him to put himself forward for the role. Fortunately, the company’s directors have allowed Chris to operate as he’s seen fit. He describes his approach to leadership as providing the team with ‘an open book’ – letting them convey how they’d want to do things.

“To me, the most important thing, if you’re going to move forward, is taking the team with you,” Chris explains. “I needed to know where we were and where we wanted to go. The management team had some watershed meetings, but I also asked them to nominate salespeople that could come to sessions. I listened to the sales teams, property-management teams and administration teams to find out how they thought we could move forward.

That was a big part of the early process for me – enabling them and providing a forum for them to talk and me to listen.” In addition to collaboration and communication, empowering his employees is a vital element of Chris’s leadership style. “My secret weapon is trying not to do everything myself,” he says. “Get the right team around you and have faith in the people you’ve selected. You have to empower them. Communication deals with many problems; you need to communicate with the people that work for you.”

 

Val Barfoot founded V Barfoot Land Agent in 1923. After his brother joined him a year later, the company became Barfoot Bros. Six years after Maurice Thompson came into the fold in 1934, the company changed its name to Barfoot & Thompson. Today, it remains a family business; Maurice’s grandson, Peter Thompson, serves as Managing Director, and Val’s granddaughter, Kiri Barfoot, is a Director.

Stronger together

This communication strategy is equally essential to the success of Barfoot & Thompson’s supplier relationships. Chris is proud of these partnerships, some of which go back more than 25 years. He stresses that the company “doesn’t do this all by itself”. These partners have been part of Barfoot & Thompson’s evolution, and Chris expects their contribution to continue as the company strives for its next level of success.

“We’ve got our centenary coming up in five years, and it will be just as important to have our partners at that celebration as it will be for our own people to be there,” Chris says. “It’s the joint effort between our people and our suppliers that drives this company to win international awards.”

“It’s the joint effort between our people and our suppliers that drives this company to win international awards.”

Said international awards are also a source of pride. In 2015, the International Property Awards named Barfoot & Thompson New Zealand’s best real estate agency, best lettings agency and best real estate marketer. The company topped this feat in 2017 when it won world’s best property-management division at the same event.

Chris credits this international recognition to Barfoot & Thompson’s partnerships with other real estate agencies across the world. For example, the company is now part of the Leading Real Estate Companies of the World (LeadingRE) network – an exclusive, invitation-only industry group that incorporates only the world’s best residential brokerages. Barfoot & Thompson joined the group roughly four years ago, and Chris believes these connections are invaluable, even though Barfoot & Thompson is strictly New Zealand-based.

Chris Dobbie CEO of Barfoot & Thompson

“Participation in the group gives us an international profile,” he explains. “LeadingRE is growing all the time. We’ve just had a webinar with the Asia-Pacific group, and nine more companies have joined from countries including Indonesia and India. It gives us an association. Even though we’re not an internationally based company, we certainly have an international link that enables us to gain connections coming into New Zealand. We can also help New Zealanders moving overseas, because we can refer them to those companies.”

Similarly, Barfoot & Thompson is part of the New Zealand Realtors Network, which operates across the country. Given that Barfoot & Thompson is based only in Auckland and Northland, the partnership made sense. The real estate company hosts regular conferences with others in both LeadingRE and New Zealand Realtors networks, which has been beneficial to Barfoot & Thompson’s business relationships.

“We felt that we were missing out on referrals from other areas, and on referring people who were leaving Auckland to other companies,” says Chris. “Part of that process was setting up a group of independent, family-owned companies throughout New Zealand, but we’ve also invested in the New Zealand Realtors Network. We now have somebody in most large centres in New Zealand that we can refer business to, and they can refer business to us. It works extremely well as an association of like-minded agencies.”

But it’s not just business partnerships that showcase the company’s zest for cooperation. Barfoot & Thompson is also a champion of its local community, supporting numerous organisations. One of the most notable programs the company backs is the Starship Foundation, a group that raises funds for Starship Children’s Health, New Zealand’s first exclusive hospital for kids. Since 2003, Barfoot & Thompson has donated NZ$2.5 million to support the foundation, which helps the hospital accommodate thousands of patients every year.

As part of its efforts for Starship, one initiative Barfoot & Thompson runs is the Young Authors Challenge, which celebrated its 10th year in 2017. The challenge calls for submissions from young authors across Auckland and Northland; last year, children submitted 2,400 stories. The company publishes the winners in a short, illustrated book, proceeds of which go to book donations for Starship. To date, children at Starship Children’s Health and the children’s ward at Whangarei Hospital have benefited from the donation of 166,000 books.

Barfoot & Thompson also sponsors several local sports teams and events, including rugby, netball, and the B&T half marathon as part of the ASB Auckland Marathon. Most recently, the company extended its support of the marathon to include the Kids Marathon, rewarding schools that choose to sign up teams of runners.

The company also lends its name to the Barfoot & Thompson Auckland Cup, an annual, week-long horseracing event. With such a robust network of collaborators, Barfoot & Thompson is in a strong position to weather continual change and development in the real estate sector. In New Zealand, the property market looks set to transform drastically. After nine years of a government led by the conservative National Party, New Zealand elected Jacinda Ardern of the Labour Party, whose platform included housing affordability and limiting foreign property buyers.

“Our government is looking to change who can purchase property in New Zealand,” Chris says. “That’s seen the market slow down markedly in the past six to eight months – just by saying that they’re going to do it. Nothing has been implemented yet, but when governments talk about what they’ll do, people tend to react to that.”

Though the market has continued to grow, it appears to be moving a little more slowly. In June, the national average house price rose by 6.9%, a slight dip from the 7.3% of the previous month. Nationwide, government support and central bank lending restrictions are fuelling demand. Despite unpredictability, the market is not in dire straits. Some caution exists, but house prices are nevertheless growing, giving Chris good reason to be optimistic about Barfoot & Thompson’s future.

Another reason he’s feeling positive relates back to the spirit that Barfoot & Thompson exemplifies. “It comes back to the Barfoot and Thompson families,” he says. “They own Barfoot & Thompson – it’s not a franchised entity. And they’ve made a lot of decisions – very good ones.”