The chairman of one of South Africa’s leading residential property groups has a career in property that spans almost five decades. Eskel Jawitz effortlessly combines his strong family value past with an intuitive business sense for the future.

In the late 1960s, a Johannesburg medical rep in his early thirties was looking to buy his first house. He told two “top” agents at the time his maximum budget was R20,000. They showed him a house for R24,000. Why, he asked the agents, when he said his ceiling was R20,000? “Mr Jawitz, is that all you want to spend or is that all you can afford?” came their reply. A young Eskel Jawitz was appalled at the lack of respect the agents showed him. And he was inspired. If those two can make money while treating people like that, he thought, imagine what I could do! So a year later, when a friend asked Jawitz to join him in a small property business, he did.

It’s a story Jawitz, now 80, has told a few times during his 46-year career, but it bears repeating because it encapsulates so perfectly so much of what led to the Jawitz success story. Eskel Jawitz saw a gap, and believed he could fill it. But he didn’t just get into the property game to win; he carefully considered how he would play to win. And therein lies the difference.

“For many people, a home is the biggest single personal investment of their lives. As such, it’s part and parcel of their lives; it signifies various chapters of their lives. They’re emotionally involved. They’ve cried in that home, they’ve laughed in that home, they’ve had tragedies, they’ve celebrated …. And we’ve got to understand that,” says Jawitz.

 

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IT’S ABOUT PEOPLE

Jawitz Property management still do show house visits – not to check up on their agents, but to find out what’s going on in their buyers’ minds. “I still do it!” says Jawitz. “Our business – I know, I know, it’s a cliché – is not about property, it’s really about people. We have to recognise that we, as estate agents, are facilitators providing a service that brings people together. We have to listen to what our clients – be they sellers or buyers – tell us. To understand their fears, needs and hopes, and to keep them fully informed during the entire selling or buying process. We have to make them feel as if they are the most important people in our lives.”

Another pivotal time in Jawitz’s career, where he saw a gap (this time one that needed bridging rather than filling) was when his sons – Herschel, chief executive, and Damon, franchise director – joined the company. Eskel Jawitz Real Estate was ready for a change. “No business should be dependent on one person,” says Jawitz. The market was shifting and customers were becoming more sophisticated. The Jawitz brand knew it had to meet the customers’ changing needs and expand into new areas of operation, but – and Jawitz stresses the “but” – without losing the focus on client service and the integrity on which the business was founded.

 

NEW BLOOD

Is there a battle between the old and the new? Jawitz says no. Damon later left the business and moved overseas, but Jawitz sees the time when Hershel was CEO as a convergence of the past and future. “Any business has to look at itself every now and then. It needs to look at where it has come from and decide on future plans,” he says. The Jawitz family knew that if they were going to claim to be a truly national company, Jawitz Properties had to be located in as many major and smaller centres as possible. So they decided to go the franchise route in addition to owning their own offices in major metropolitan areas.

As a company, they’ve accommodated all the technological, political, financial and demographic changes that have taken place, and married those with old-fashioned values that should never be lost – hard work, respect for clients and colleagues, face-to-face communication and integrity.

“With regards to BEE, the first thing we’ve got to accept is that transformation is needed and that everybody agrees with the principle of it. It’s difficult. Not because the industry doesn’t want to change – the industry accepts that there has to be change. The problem is how do you do it so that everybody can cope and benefit from it? We’re all still working this one out.”

 

LOOKING AHEAD

Jawitz recognises that businesses have to continually adapt to changing circumstances, and that we live in a society where the advance of technology is almost outstripping the capacity of the bulk of the population to understand it. “We have to understand and accept that we cannot merely do today what we did yesterday and succeed. It’s a highly competitive world and our survival in the economic sense is determined by how hungry we are for new and better information, and how skilled we’ve become in utilising and exploiting it,” he says.

“If I think back to client meetings I had in 1970, buyers and sellers, as well as consultants/agents, raised issues about up-and-coming areas, getting value or being ripped off, interest rates rising, bonds being approved … These same issues were raised in meetings in 1980, 1990, 2000 and so on. Today, clients and agents may be more aware of their rights and better educated about the market because they’ve done some research online, but the principles around property are the same.”

“We speak to recorded voices on the phone; we don’t ask other people to take pictures of us – we take selfies; we no longer know the bank manager. Ultimately, people must be more important than the technology they use because a society that values technology above people will, with the passage of time, lose its moral compass and values.” Jawitz believes estate agents won’t become obsolete as long as this idea is entrenched now. “That’s how we make sure we have a future.”

 

JAWITZ THEN AND NOW

1969

1: office in Parkview, Johannesburg

4 to 6: total agents working

Fewer than 5: average houses sold in a month (5 sold was cause for celebration)

 

2015

1: office in Mauritius

48: offices in South Africa

Nearly 400: company-owned and franchised office sales consultants

R330m: approximate monthly property sales

R2.3bn: approximate total sales this year

 

ESKEL JAWITZ:
What makes an estate agent excellent?

The ability to ask questions and understand the needs, wants, aspirations and fears of a client

Never pushing clients into a corner, even if you’re feeling frustrated

Not taking things personally. Any bad behaviour from others is a reflection of themselves, not you

Knowing what your purpose is, knowing your “why”: what you believe, what you have to offer, what you can deliver

 

Words: Catherine Davis