Seeff Properties chairman Samuel Seeff says you can’t dictate to a market – if buyers and sellers move in a different direction, you can’t hold them back. Instead, innovate and be smart enough to move with them

Samuel Seeff has officially been in the business for 32 years, although that excludes the time he spent as a kid assisting his estate agent parents with office duties and distributing drops over weekends, and sitting at Sunday show days. That means he’s actually been in real estate for closer to 40 years. And 40 years is a long time to get to know what’s working and what’s not, how to get to the top (or as near as) and stay there.

His secret? Be the first at something. Ideally lots of things … A company can’t stick to the same formula just because it has worked in the past. It needs to be open to innovation.

Seeff sees that innovation success comes down to trying new things, not being complacent and being prepared to change.  A culture of performance also needs to prevail in the company. He’s always asking: can we do it differently? Can we do it better? Can we innovate? And he’s not shy to say that Seeff Properties has been “one of the biggest innovators, if not the biggest, in the industry over the last 30 years”.

Seeff’s approach to success derives from the perspective of “a business in the real estate environment”, not as an estate agent trying to run a business.

During his graduate studies at UCT, Seeff’s father passed away. Together with his older brother Lawrence, he took over the reins of the family business. Lawrence relocated to North America in the mid-2000s, but remains a director of the company.

The latter-day story of Seeff Properties is very much that of Seeff. First as MD from 1992 and subsequently as chairman since 1997, he continues to drive the growth and success of the brand.

CLAIMING INNOVATIONS

“As one of the oldest estate agencies, Seeff Properties has grown with the country’s property sector and has been at the forefront of many industry innovations,” says Seeff. In addition to pioneering the first show houses in the Cape, Seeff spearheaded activities such as mortgage originating in his role of founding shareholder of ooba (initially Mortgage SA, born out of Seeff Home Loans) and at Multi Listing Services (MLS).

Seeff Properties was the first (and only) estate agency to list on the main board of the JSE in 1995 (it was delisted in 1996 and the family bought back all shares in 1999). The company was also first to commit to the “pledge” with the Estate Agency Affairs Board (EAAB) in the Transformation Charter. Recently, as founding member, Seeff led the drive to establish Real Estate Business Organisations of South Africa (REBOSA), the first real estate employer body in the country. Seeff was also a pioneer of web-based marketing and the first to roll out a Google platform nationally allowing agents real-time access to its network nationwide.

Seeff’s entrepreneurial spirit has meant the brand has more than doubled in size since the late 1990s – and, in recent years, grown its turnover at more than 20% annually, despite the prolonged economic downturn.

The company has also set the bar high, achieving some of the highest prices in residential real estate, including selling the first of three One&Only Cape Town penthouses for a record-setting R110m  at the end of 2009.

Property-Professional-magazines-Samuel-Seeff-1

TOUGH AT THE TOP

Unlike most estate agent brands, Seeff Properties runs a licence, not a franchise operation. Another innovation, perhaps? Maybe not intentionally…

Seeff concedes that the licence operation came about because Seeff franchisees at the time wanted more autonomy in a tough economic climate. “They wanted to fall under the banner of a brand but also be able to operate more independently compared with a normal franchise situation,” he explains. “It wasn’t an easy time and there were some hard-fought, and at times even acrimonious, negotiations.” But he quickly spins it around. “However, as a business we heard the franchisees and we agreed to change the structure.” He believes it’s part of the group’s success story, in fact. “We took a tough situation and made it into something that has worked really well,” says Seeff.

“It’s not a top-down approach: the licensor and licensee recognise each other’s strength to go forward. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s frustrating … You see one direction you want to go in and you have to convince, rather than tell them, to come with you. Sometimes, there’s disagreement and the licensees have been right – it wouldn’t have been a good idea to take a certain route. It’s a partnership-style business and it becomes more their brand.” Seeff believes this approach has been a drawcard for agents choosing to join Seeff Properties as a company.

Property-Professional-magazines-Samuel-Seeff-2

TECH OF THE FUTURE

If there’s one area in business – especially this business – where innovation is everything, and thinking ahead is vital, it’s technology. “We’re in for interesting times. The first 20 of my 32 years in the industry remained relatively unchanged. We’ve had more change in the past 10 years than the previous 20.

“Nobody can look as far as 10 years down the line these days – it’s changing too quickly. In a few years, your current competitors may not be your competitors. And people who are not your current competitors – they may not even be in the industry – they could be ones to watch. The skill to survival is to be able to predict that, and to be agile and adept enough to adapt to the market.”

As for technology replacing estate agents altogether? “We ask ourselves that daily. We don’t take our position for granted. As good as we are, we could be better – we have to keep ourselves relevant.”

Says Seeff: “I do think there will always be a need for a middleman. The nub of it is, when it comes to valuations, you could have two homes in the same complex, but they will be worth substantially different prices depending on position, fittings, condition, the view … yet the man in the street won’t know that. People need the advice and the negotiation process to be managed because we are dealing with people’s personalities, their fears, their egos…”

What he’s saying is that there isn’t an app for that. “Our definition as estate agents may be different but we’ll be needed.”

Words Catherine Davis