“If someone had told me this is what I’d be doing, I would have laughed at them,” she explained. “I never considered real estate as the career for me.”
Bernadette’s career had largely been in the hospitality industry, with a management role at the Opera House and later launching her own catering business in the 90s. Looking at getting back into the workforce after being very involved with school and community activities while raising her four children, Bernadette was considering new opportunities. Real estate was not what she saw in her future, but a brush with underwhelming customer service with two real estate agencies set the wheels in motion.
“I had a property manager looking after my investment property, but felt I could do a better job – so I started managing it myself,” she explained.
Not long after, one of her friends found herself in a similar position and handed the management of her property over to Bernadette.
“My accountant noticed the extra income from managing the two properties and suggested I get a real estate licence. At the time I was considering retraining for a career change, but real estate hadn’t occurred to me,” she said.
After discussing it with her husband, who had worked in senior property roles with corporate and government organisations, she decided to take the plunge.
And so began what Bernadette cheerfully refers to as her “third career”. Not only did she get her real estate licence but, with the support of her husband, Bernadette opened her own independent agency – Harbourline Real Estate.
“You have to make excellence a priority and do things professionally from day one.”
Sink or swim
Joining the real estate industry with years of life and work experience behind her, Bernadette had very clear ideas about how she wanted the next phase of her career to unfold.
“Before I even started the course to get my licence, I knew I didn’t want to work for someone else,” she said. “I’ve always been fiercely independent and I have strong ideas about the way things should be done. So I knew from the start that I was going to work for myself and a big agency wasn’t going to suit me.“I also had the very strong perception that ‘everyone hates real estate agents’, and I knew in my gut that if I was going to work in the industry then I’d need to approach it in my own way from day one.
“As daunting as it was in the beginning, I felt that starting my own agency gave me a fresh approach and I could do things how I believed they should be done. I wanted to be proud of my business and about what I was doing for a living, so I felt I needed to get away from the perceived real estate stereotype.”
While by her own admission she had “no real estate experience” and did not take a “traditional route” into the industry, what Bernadette did have was sound local knowledge from 30 years of living in the area, strong ties to the community and a commitment to providing excellent service.
“I was probably quite naive when I started the business, but with the support and encouragement of my husband I created a two-year plan with a budget and started small just to see how it went,” she said. “Most people probably thought I was a bit mad, but eight years later I’m still here.”
And she has even managed to lure her husband, Ian, away from his government job and recruit him as Director and Head of Property at the agency.
Away from stereotypes
Bernadette knows firsthand the valuable contribution agents with a diverse range of skills from previous careers outside real estate can bring to a business.
“I use all my skills from my other careers and it constantly surprises me,” Bernadette said.Most of her team have held senior positions in professional backgrounds other than real estate, including the banking, finance and marketing sectors.
“What they all have in common is a passion for delivering excellent service,” she explained. “They also all had a strong interest in real estate before they joined the business and they bring very different, but important, transferable skills to their roles which benefits the whole business.”
Bernadette also values the contribution women can make to the workplace. More than half of her team are women with families. “I believe it’s important to create a workplace that supports women with families who are returning to work and want to continue to have a challenging and rewarding career,” she said. “We’re accommodating when it comes to school and sporting commitments. Women have a valuable contribution to make and bring diverse skills, experience and energy to the business.”
“I believe it’s important to create a workplace that supports women with families who are returning to work and want to continue to have a challenging and rewarding career.”
From the moment she opened the doors of Harbourline Real Estate, Bernadette has been passionate about delivering excellent customer service tailored to every client’s needs.
“When I take on a client, my phone is on 24/7. We don’t have an answering machine, someone always picks up the call to help our clients,” Bernadette explains. “I work mainly in sales, but I still have a strong interest in property management and I meet all the new landlords and tenants. I also have good relationships with all the tradespeople we work with.“It’s important for me to still be very hands on. In the recent storms where the SES had a 12 hour delay, we received a phone call at 2am from one of our tenants. My husband and our handyman ended up on the roof themselves to stop a major leak after a tree had fallen onto the house. Our landlord was living overseas and our tenants were paying a lot of money, so it’s important to us to have that level of service for all of our clients.”
That personal touch also extends to each of her staff. “It’s a small office, so it’s important to have good lines of communication,” Bernadette said. “Everyone is across all new clients, whether sales or property management, and we can all help out if needed. Open communication across the business creates great morale because everyone is involved. Everyone is invested in the business – we work through challenges together and celebrate successes together.”
Remember why you started
Like most real estate businesses, one of the biggest challenges Bernadette and her team face is keeping up to date with the fast pace of the industry.
“Real estate is fast moving and you can never be complacent,” she said. “You must be across all legislation changes, software innovations and be focused on what’s happening in all areas of the industry.”Despite the pace, Bernadette says it’s important not to compromise on the values and standards that are important to you and your business.
“Don’t cut corners with things like technology. Do the research and invest in quality systems that will help you to run your business better,” she said. “Make sure you have the best systems for servicing your customers and supporting your staff. It’s also really important your staff are fully trained and given opportunities to keep learning, because it builds confidence which is vital for a thriving workplace.
“One of the biggest things I’d say to anyone running a business is never compromise. Never be tempted to turn your business and how you operate into a production line and expand for the sake of it. Stay true to your values and why you started. Get comfortable with doing less, but doing it better than anyone else.
“We have politely declined to work with landlords when we realise our business values aren’t aligned. It can be hard to walk away, but this business is about quality property and quality tenants and you have to hold the line.”
Plans for the future
Like most business owners, Bernadette has lots of plans for the future – none of which involve slowing down. “I love what I do right now and want to see it grow each year as we continue to offer standout service to our clients.
“My husband might want to retire eventually,” she joked. “But I don’t want to retire. I’d like to keep training and mentoring. That’s something I’m really passionate about.”