Crystal clear vision

May/June 2017 edition

From the earliest stages of his career, David Highland had a vision to create a different kind of real estate agency. Here’s how he brought his vision to life.

By Tina Liptai

For David Highland, there was never any doubt he would work in real estate. It’s in his blood. But from the moment he took his first job at 18, this third-generation real estate agent knew he not only wanted to run his own business, he wanted to create something new.

And that’s exactly what he did.

David honed his skills at boutique agencies in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and Cronulla, working in property management and residential sales. Then, at the age of 27, Highland Property Agents was born.

From a team of six when the doors opened in 2007, David has used an innovative, collaborative approach to grow the business to a team of 90, including an in-house design and creative department, across two locations.

And he’s far from done.

Starting from scratch

Though he grew up in Cronulla, David only had two years’ experience working in that market before he decided to open his own agency. Throw the start of the Global Financial Crisis into the mix and most people would be tempted to put their plans on hold. But for David, the challenges were part of the allure of building the business from the ground up.

“I always had a passion for property and I was always going to be in real estate,” he explained. “I had a hunger to create something new and a vision for how to make it happen. The GFC hit the same year we opened Highland Property Agents, but in many ways the financial crisis was our friend. We had to be very focused with all our business decisions and have a flexible approach to the market.”With laser-focus and no ‘Plan B’, David set out to build a business with enough scale to affordably offer a comprehensive ‘one stop shop’, providing exceptional service for clients without losing the heart and soul of a family-run agency.


One of the things David believes sets his business apart is his willingness to embrace change and keep his business agile enough to evolve as necessary.

“The industry is going through dramatic change at the moment and you need to be very forward thinking about how you run your business if you want to succeed,” he said. “Our market is saturated with agents who are closed off to a lot of new ideas about how to do things, like vendor paid marketing, digital and social media. We embrace new technologies and are energised about new ways to work in our industry.”This approach and a belief in the power of diversity in business has led to the creation of a full in-house creative team and a project marketing department.

“I love seeing an opportunity, creating an idea, rolling it out and then watching it become an industry-leading standard,” David said. “Our project marketing department began this way and after just 18 months we now have a specialist team of agents managing 25 individual projects consisting of over 500 off-the-plan opportunities. This is on top of 140 residential listings on our stock sheet. None of this is possible without good systems and good people running them.”

By having an in-house creative department – a team of six specialists, including two graphic designers, a marketing associate, videographer, photographer and brand manager – David knew he was giving his business a competitive edge.

“Our creative team give us a much stronger, faster and better offering for clients. We can list and get a property to market quicker than anyone else. Because we have more control over every aspect of the listing, marketing and sale we can offer a much higher level of service and quality control for our clients. We also have complete control over all campaigns, and it’s much easier to keep the look and feel of our brand relevant with a creative team that understands what we need as a business because they’re part of it.”

Why I love real estate
“Real estate is in my blood, so there are many things I love about the industry. But for me, the best thing is that the skills are so transferable and it’s an industry where you can truly create the career you want.

“As a selling agent, I’ve always fought like I was number two in my core market – even when I may have been the leading agent.

“These days, I’m passionate about the business and strategic side of our company. I love seeing an opportunity and working out how we can leverage it or what we can create to meet a challenge.

“But so much of what I learnt in my early days as an agent still helps me in my role today. I have always tried to stay grounded and humble. I’ve always been determined, resilient and adaptable when the market changed. I don’t fear constructive criticism and I’m quick to learn from my mistakes, whether it be sales or business related. I’m totally focused on my goals. I know my destination and the steps I need to take to get there.” 

And while it may seem like an extravagance, David can’t imagine his business without diversity.

“Scale is what allows us to do this. Having it all in-house is ultimately cheaper for us and our clients, but it’s only cost effective because of our size,” he said.

“The reality is the costs of running a real estate business are going up, and a lot of the expenses are the same for small agencies as they are for large agencies. You need to control costs if you want to have a future in the industry and one way to do this is by scale. For larger businesses, it makes sense to have it all under one roof – but only if it’s managed well.

“We are innovative, but we’re not pretending to be something we’re not. None of what we have done is possible without good systems and good people running them. Developing the creative team and project marketing department, along with the incredible people we have attracted across the business in recent years, has been my biggest career achievement so far.

“I love our team and I love what we are able to achieve together.”

Company culture

Most real estate agencies understand creating a company culture that allows employees to thrive is key to not only business success but client satisfaction. From day one, David always had a clear vision for the company culture of Highland Property Agents.

“I wanted to create something unique in the market and I chose to be independent because my personal vision wasn’t aligned to a franchise model,” he explained. “We’re large, but we aren’t a ‘cookie cutter’ business and I’m proud to say our company DNA and culture is different to most large agencies. We have a belief that our clients should never be left in the dark and we’re totally transparent and straightforward in all of our dealings with clients and colleagues.“All our staff have aligned values. We’re family orientated and this culture means our 90 staff are working collaboratively, not in competition with each other. We also have a lot of processes and policies around quality control and accountability that not only help to keep our service exceptional, but contribute to excellent morale across the business.”

With staff retention high, some who have been with the business since it opened 10 years ago, David believes having a culture that ensures employees feel supported is key. And a good company culture can then extend to excellent customer service.

“We encourage transparency across all areas of the business, our company values are discussed openly and often, and I’m proud of the way all our teams work together.”


Like many real estate agents and business leaders, David believes giving back to the local community is essential.

“I have always believed that our business is sustainable and successful because the community supports us,” he said. “We have a strong focus on giving back to the community, which is a value that is shared by everyone across the business.”In less than three years, Highland Property Agents have raised a total of $750,000 for the Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick. 

“One of the biggest fundraisers for the Children’s Hospital is our annual ‘Blue Lunch’, which last year alone raised $345,000. I love that we can use the scale of our business to make a real difference to our community and support causes that we believe in.”

The future
While David is excited by the strength of the business he has created, it’s the future of the company that he’s really looking forward to.

“My role in the business is constantly changing. I enjoy exploring how we can take advantage of new technology in the marketplace and embrace opportunities to move forward as our industry changes,” he said.

“Over the next few years, I’m focused on controlled growth and making sure we have the right systems and processes in place to ensure the business runs smoothly as we move into our next phase. I want to secure greater market share in patches we’re not as strong in and look at the potential for us to move into other sectors of the industry.

“I also want to make sure we have the absolute best leadership for our company, and make sure the brand remains relevant in the marketplace and all our staff continue to thrive.”

David’s top tips for real estate success
Embrace evolution
Make sure you’re constantly evolving, stretching and moving out of your comfort zone. If you’re standing still, you’re going backwards.

Have integrity
Always do the right thing by your clients, your team and yourself. Maintain your integrity, even when you see others who don’t. And never criticise your competition.

No Plan B
If you want to excel, get rid of your Plan B. It will just be a distraction. You don’t need it.

Laser focus.
You need a laser focus if you want to succeed. Identify what you want and do what it takes to get there.

Have no fear
Be fearless and be prepared to invest in yourself and your business.