Make it personal

January/February 2017 edition

Providing a personalised service and working closely with clients to achieve the best results are at the heart of everything Robert Pignataro does. He shares how this approach has stood him in good stead throughout his career.

By Tina Liptai

A chance encounter with the man who would become his mentor and an opportunity too good to turn down. That’s what convinced Robert Pignataro to leave his burgeoning law career behind and dive head first into real estate – and he’s never looked back.

“I’d just left the law firm I’d been working at,” Robert explained. “My father had investment properties that were managed by a local real estate agent that he knew. What started as a simple chat with the agent ended with me helping them to draft a tender submission to manage a portfolio of properties for the Roads and Traffic Authority. The agency won the tender for 1600 properties – including land, residential homes, and commercial and industrial buildings across Sydney. I was offered the opportunity to manage the portfolio and never looked back.”

There’s no doubt in Robert’s mind that his legal background helped put him on the path to becoming a well-rounded, skilled and professional real estate agent, particularly early in his career.
“Having those broader skills really helped me in those early days when it came to things like dealing with contracts, leases and commercial deals. But what I really loved about real estate when I started out was that it gave me the opportunity to develop skills I didn’t know I had,” he said. “I improved my communication skills, I learnt how to make sound decisions and I developed the ability to build long-term relationships. Many of my first employees and clients are still with me today, which is a testament to this.”
Robert credits his career “taking off” to the owner of that real estate agency, Frank Mees, who became his mentor and father figure.

“Frank trained me the ‘old fashioned way’ and that’s still the foundation of how I work today,” he said. “When Frank started out as an agent, there was no such thing as an open house. People came to the office and you drove them over to the property and showed them around. There was no internet and marketing brochures were black and white, so the connection you made with clients and the personalised service you provided was critical to success in business.”

Now in his 90s, Frank still sees Robert twice a week and they speak every day on the phone.

Fork in the road

Following Frank’s retirement in 1996, the agency where Robert had worked for seven years was sold. When it became clear that the new owners had a very different philosophy about client service and how to operate a real estate business, Robert decided it was time for a change and took a break from the industry for a few months while he considered his next move.

Though he’d never given any serious thought to running his own real estate agency, when a former client handed him the keys to what would become his very own office space in Strathfield, he seized the opportunity and opened the doors to Strathfield Partners in 1997.

Starting with a team of three, and that one client with the office space, Strathfield Partners specialised in all aspects of property consulting, development, sales and management.

In just three years, the agency built a portfolio of 1600 properties. Today, the agency’s property management team has a portfolio of 4000 properties and the sales team sold 461 properties in the past financial year worth almost $570 million. Strathfield Partners offers a broad range of services including both residential and commercial sales and property management, as well as property valuation and development site acquisition and sales.

“Day to day, between meeting with clients and developers, I work closely with every member of my team. My job is to harness and direct the talents and energies of my diverse team, ensuring in each case that their job is done and done well.

“No two days are ever the same, which I love. And every day I aim to make a difference in someone’s life.”

Like most successful agents, Robert is quick to explain that building a thriving business comes down to hard work and persistence.

“Climbing the mountain is hard, but staying at the top is even harder. Strathfield is a very competitive area for real estate,” he said. “Building a profile was challenging and in the early days I was really working for free, because I put any commission I made back into the business and on marketing.

“But it has paid off, the Strathfield Partners logo is now recognised across Sydney and I work throughout NSW.”

Focusing on relationships
After more than 20 years as an agent, Robert has seen a lot of change in the industry but his motivation and the core business values behind his success have remained the same.

“These are very exciting times,” he said. “The industry is a totally different industry to what it was in the 90s when I started.”

And while the industry is buzzing with a fresh focus on personalised service for clients, Robert sees this as more of a return to the tried and tested values taught to him by his mentor Frank.
“I’ve never lost my focus on the importance of client service and the value of face-to-face time with clients. If someone comes into my office asking about a particular property for sale and it’s vacant, I take them to see it straight away. I don’t wait for a scheduled open for inspection,” he said. “I take every opportunity to deal with clients one on one and build strong relationships. Today they are a buyer, but down the track they may be a vendor and one day an investor – so if you build that relationship, you’ll continue to do business with them.”
Like many agents, Robert believes another big challenge for the industry in coming years is improving education and training requirements for agents.

“Everyone thinks it’s really easy to be a real estate agent, but education and training are important to differentiate ourselves in the market,” he said. “There needs to be more of a focus on education and improving qualifications across the industry.”

Robert welcomes Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Victor Dominello’s recent announcement of training reforms for the real estate industry. “With the growth of the industry, the reforms will ensure the integrity and standards of the industry are upheld, and will protect the interests of clients – who are the lifeblood of what we do.” 

Motivation, not money
Robert credits his longevity in the industry to not being afraid of hard work and not using money as a motivator.

“It’s a very competitive industry and the office is a very competitive environment. But you have to be driven by success, not money, if you want to have longevity in this industry,” he said.
“If you’re only motivated by making money, you won’t last – and if you do last, you won’t be a good agent. You need to be driven by achieving success for your clients and working with your team. You need to be driven by achieving your best, building a reputation and profile.”
And having a profile that sets you apart doesn’t mean having ‘the right’ car and clothes.

“I see a lot of younger agents using their first pay to go out and buy a flash car and clothes,” Robert explained. “Of course presentation is important, but you shouldn’t be spending all your money on it or trying to be something you’re not.

“Stay level headed and understand that it’s a long road, but if you put in the hard work in the early years to learn the industry and build your profile, it will pay off. You need to put in a lot of hard work and be dedicated – and with a good reputation and the motivation to succeed, you’ll find that the money will come naturally.”
Despite his busy schedule, Robert always prioritises communication and never leaves the office until he is satisfied that all his clients are happy.

“I put everything in my diary, reply to emails any time of the day and always return missed calls, or at least text the person to say I’ll follow up tomorrow. I’m usually in the office by 6.30am to meet with builders and developers, as this gives me more time during the day to spend with staff and other clients.

“I’m a team player – I don’t think of myself as the boss. I sit with everyone else in our open plan office and I’m always available to talk to anyone – staff or clients – who walks up to my desk or into the office.”

His strong relationship with staff has put Robert in a good position to start implementing his succession plan for his business. While he plans to continue to work at Strathfield Partners, Robert is looking to have key members of his team take over the business over the next five to 10 years, so he can focus more on spending time with his family.

“I’m fortunate to have a great team, some who have become ‘son like’ to me. I look forward to providing the opportunity for them to take over,” he said.