Pieter Potgieter is in the real estate game and he’s good at it. Not an impossible thing to be good at in today’s market, you might point out, and you’d be right. But Potgieter was making a success of his property agency, News Property Brokers, long before the current property market boom. His business survived the mid-1990s, when interest rates soared to 24%. And when he started in 1992 after losing his job, it took him four months before he made his first sale.
The point is that Potgieter is no stranger to adversity, and while he now enjoys the tremendous success of News Property Brokers, he remembers a time when things weren’t as easy – and his advice for people looking to break into the property market is well worth heeding. Potgieter founded News Property Brokers with ex-partner Nico Louw and started off by selling flats in Florida out of a one-bedroomed flat. He remembers the early days, when it was a challenge to have a telephone conversation if both partners were busy on a call. Now, the company has five show centres, employs 46 agents and sells an average of 840 properties a year. When asked what he did right, Potgieter’s answer is simple: “I worked hard.” That’s his first piece of advice to aspirant real estate agents. “People think you have to be an excellent salesperson, but in a lot of ways, a house sells itself. People won’t buy a house they don’t like. What you do have to be is hardworking and get the right client to the right house. You have to be willing to put in the time, after hours and on weekends. If you’re unwilling to do that, you won’t succeed in this game.”
His second piece of advice is about customer service. Property agents have a bad reputation for being pushy and dishonest, and in a lot of instances, it’s a cap that fits. When Potgieter started News Property Brokers, he wanted to do things differently. “You have to give people professional service,” he says, “and part of that is being honest. If you are dishonest with people, it will always come back to you. You can’t hide the fact that a wall has a crack in it, for example, by putting a cupboard in front of it. When the buyer moves into the house, they will see it. If you are dishonest with people, you will never build a good reputation.” Potgieter has a way of looking at problems in a positive light. When asked the best way to sell a house that is less than spectacular, without covering up its flaws, he is quick to answer: “Sell the potential in the house.” Building a reputation is something that News Property Brokers has done exceptionally well. It has carved out a niche for itself on the West Rand in Gauteng, as an independent agent, without the backing of a franchise. Its reach covers Bromhof, Fairlands, Witpoortjie and Randfontein, and it is one of the biggest single-owned real estate agents in the area.
In establishing its presence, the agency has been innovative. When municipalities started restricting the number of On Show boards that agents could erect to advertise a show house, Potgieter and his team opened show centres. Here, clients can view photographs of houses and then make an appointment to be shown the house by the agent. It’s a concept that has really taken off and is now used extensively in the industry. Not only is it convenient, it also protects the seller from potential threats like theft, something that is regrettably on the increase in the show house market, Potgieter points out. Selling property is one thing, but running a property business is another, and Potgieter is cognisant of the difference between the two. “You need to accept that you can’t do everything yourself. Use people who are better than you to do certain things.” Constantly looking to improve and grow, Potgieter enlisted the services of a management consultant during 2000 and 2001. They changed the image of the company. “Our colours at the time were pink and blue and we felt that didn’t reflect the image we wanted, so we used a graphic designer to create a more enriched corporate look in black and gold.”
As the company has grown, Potgieter has faced challenges common to many entrepreneurs. One of the biggest was deciding to buy out his long-time partner. “It meant that all of a sudden I was on my own, which was very different. I no longer had a partner I could use as a sounding board. But it was a good decision in the end.” Recruitment presented its own challenges. “We wanted to employ people who had integrity and would be honest and professional,” Potgieter says. To make sure his agents give the best possible service, he personally trains each one of them. “I no longer sell property,” he says, “because I’m busy running the business and I don’t want to be competing with my agents. I want them to run their own small and successful businesses within News Properties.”
He believes part of the company’s success can be traced to happy staff. “A lot of our new recruits are introduced to us by our current agents, and I take that as a sign that people are happy working in the company and believe other people will be happy here too,” he says. He’s nothing if not open to new ways of seeing things. “You can’t be blinkered,” Potgieter says. “You constantly have to be looking at new options.” This approach is what saved the company when it was nearly crippled by the 1996-97 interest rate hike. News Property Brokers looked outside its comfort zone and did a holiday development in Hibberdene on the South Coast. “That’s what got us through that difficult time,” Potgieter remembers. Potgieter points out the benefits of being an independent agent versus those of being a franchisee. “As an independent, you can spend your money on starting your own business rather than on paying a franchise fee, and you are in control of your own destiny.” But, he adds, it’s a good idea to work for an established company first, before going it alone. “For someone with little or no experience in the property industry, it’s beneficial to join an already established business since it has brand recognition and the necessary infrastructure and training in place. This gives you the experience you need to learn about the industry,” he says. “In an overtraded market like this one, you need to be aware of the dangers of going it alone, so do the necessary research.“Above all, you’ve got to love this industry! If you don’t love it, you can’t sell it,” is his parting shot.