Building from the ground up

13 April 2022


Chris Henry, Managing Director of River Realty, was always destined for a successful career in real estate. Here he talks about his journey, shares some setbacks and reveals the lessons he’s learnt along the way.

Chris Henry’s drive to run his own business and lead a team was first sparked when he was still at school. Afternoons spent at work with his stepfather, who ran his own property and investment business, left a lasting impression and instilled a strong work ethic that still guides him today as Managing Director of River Realty and in his role as Sales Director.

“My stepfather was self-employed,” Chris explained. “He spoke about the business a lot and shared his experience with me. He would pick me up from school and I’d spend afternoons with him at work. I saw the flexibility he had because he ran his own business.

“Importantly, I saw how engaged my stepfather was with his customers and as a leader. I was attracted to that leadership aspect, but I also learnt the hands-on, customer service side of real estate.

“I saw how engaged my stepfather was with his customers and as a leader. I was attracted to that leadership aspect, but I also learnt the hands-on, customer service side of real estate.”

“At the end of each day, we’d go home and I’d do my homework – and then we’d do it all again the next day.

“Both my mum and my stepfather showed me that rewards come from hard work. You need to work hard to achieve your goals.”

After high school, Chris completed a business studies qualification at TAFE, while also working as a commercial and domestic plasterer for his brother-in-law’s business.

“After I finished at TAFE, I was working 14-hour days, six days a week,” he said. “I really enjoyed the hands-on creative aspect of the work. I had the opportunity to work with architects and designers on big-budget projects like shopping centres and waterfront properties, as well as smaller patches and repairs. There were huge contrasts in both the type of work and the type of clients, which made it very interesting.

“My brother-in-law had a great work ethic and we both worked really hard to grow the business. Working with him fostered a new way of thinking and operating for me. I could see his drive and passion. Owning my own business was always something I wanted to do – so, after four years, I decided to open my own commercial and domestic plastering firm. I loved the start-up phase, including winning jobs and building the business.”

Joining the family business

After four years running his own business, Chris’ stepfather was diagnosed with cancer, which prompted his decision to join the family real estate business – then known as Hunter River Realty.

“Mum had a good small business with several employees and, at the time I made the decision, she needed some help because of my stepfather’s diagnosis,” he explained. “I was still in my early 20s, but I already realised the physical toll that working in the construction industry was having on my body. My stepfather had conversations with me about planning for my future and it was the right time to make the move to real estate.”

Working alongside his mum and one of the experienced agents in her team, Chris soon found his feet in the business.

“In some ways, it was a big shift coming from the construction industry,” he explained. “The culture, language, dress code and how you engage with customers is quite different. But I quickly discovered that I enjoyed helping customers achieve their goals and I was passionate about property.”

“In my early days of work, I was very focused on how I could please others. But now, I really understand the importance of being true to who you are and holding on to your integrity. Being successful is not all about financial wins.”

Bump in the road

A few years after establishing himself in real estate, Chris aligned with a large building and development firm in what seemed to be a great opportunity to step back into the construction industry. While too good to resist, it did, however, lead down an extremely bumpy road.

“I still get goosebumps just thinking about that time,” Chris said. “Working in construction sales and development is good financially – and I was doing well – but I was very naïve about where I was going and what was happening within the company that I’d invested in. Unfortunately, the company went bankrupt after a few years. I had invested family money and quickly learned the harsh reality of corporate insolvency.”

Chris had a young family at the time and, because of the situation, they had to leave their dream family home and start fresh again.

“At the time, it felt like my whole world had crashed,” he recalled. “It was incredibly stressful, but I feel that the experience has made my wife and I the people who we are today.

“They were hard times, but it has served us well. We came through it all and are stronger as a couple because of it. We know business can be challenging and, importantly, we know we can work together as a couple to do what needs to be done.

“Ultimately, it was a great lesson about why you need to look beneath the surface. It’s given me a strong sense for recognising business dealings that aren’t quite what they appear or seem too good to be true. Back then, I was very naïve to the corporate world and I took so much on face value.

“I’m glad it happened back then, because it taught me a lot about assessing opportunities that come to me. Day-to-day activities for work need to align with your values and who you are as a person.

“In my early days of work, I was very focused on how I could please others. But now, I really understand the importance of being true to who you are and holding on to your integrity. Being successful is not all about financial wins.”

Fortunately, Chris was able to return to his mother’s real estate business where he worked 16-hour days to recover financially.

“Real estate gave me the opportunity to get us back on our feet,” he said.

“If you’re working on something you’re interested in and passionate about, you’ll always be able to find new and better ways to do things.”

Back on track

Today Chris is the Managing Director of River Realty, a rebranded and innovative business built from his mother’s agency. And, two years ago, he launched his own coaching business aimed at agents and business owners who want to achieve more.

“The coaching side is in addition to the real estate business, but it’s something that blends my experience and passion with a deeper purpose,” he explained. “I want to help people achieve their goals and share with them the things I have learnt, so they can take that into their own business.”

As a leader and coach, Chris’ biggest piece of advice to anyone looking to improve how they operate is to work on something you’re passionate about and be disciplined about how you apply yourself.

“There’s an opportunity to reflect on what you do and reinvent your approach every year,” he said. “This year, I’m working on driving innovation and I want to focus on implementing Property Improvement Planning – a blend of construction and property management – where we can work with our clients to forecast and plan what will need to be upgraded or replaced in their investment properties.

“If you’re working on something you’re interested in and passionate about, you’ll always be able to find new and better ways to do things.”

Why I love real estate

“I’m one of those people who is genuinely passionate about working with people and property,” Chris said. “I developed an interest in property from a young age, because my family was involved with it and everything I’ve done has been built on that foundation. My experience working in the construction industry felt like a natural fit and a blending of the skills I had from real estate.”

Today, what Chris loves most is working with his staff in the business.

“My team are a pleasure to work with and I have great relationships with them, which is important to me,” he said. “I also enjoy working with our customers to achieve the results they want and deserve. Real estate is an exciting industry. There are always problems to solve and new ways to develop and improve, which keeps things interesting.”

Chris’ best piece of advice to anyone who is starting out in the industry is “to find what you love and do that as much as you can”.

“If you can work on something you’re passionate about, you’ll find ways to innovate and deliver the best outcomes,” he said.

“From day one, working with customers face-to-face has always lit me up, so that’s where I have put my focus and energy.”

Career tips

1. Play the long game

Success takes time. There’s no fast road to creating a great career – and, if anyone offers you a fast track, you should tread carefully. Building a successful career and achieving any of your goals is about creating a strategy, working consistently and having the discipline to stay on track. Align yourself with people who will support you to get where you want to be.

2. Keep learning

Look for a great coach who will be able to help you accelerate your learning, make you accountable and provide you with access to the people and information you need to keep developing professionally. It doesn’t need to be someone who is in the real estate industry. In fact, someone outside the industry may serve you better.

3. Be disciplined

Have a system or routine in place and stick with it so you can stay focused. There are so many distractions that come across your desk every day that seem important. In reality, they’re pulling you in the wrong direction and away from your plan. You need to have the discipline to make sure everything you do aligns with your values and goals.

Leadership insights

“To be a great leader, you need to remain a student,” Chris said. “I work with both an international coach and a local coach, which gives me valuable insights. And I seek out coaches from outside the real estate industry, so I can keep broadening my perspective.

“Leadership is also about looking for the right education to offer to your team, so they can continue to grow and develop professionally. A leader needs to understand that everyone’s journey is different – and the best thing you can do for your team is to tailor your approach to the individual, while encouraging and nurturing them to walk their own path.”

Chris explained that ‘leading from the front’ is one of his key philosophies, but this has meant that he’s needed to make the strategic decision to hand operations of the business to other people. 

“There was a point where I needed to decide what role I wanted to have in the business,” he explained. “I knew I couldn’t take on more of the operations, as it required a higher skill set, and I wanted to remain on-the-ground as a selling agent.

“Our clients need that experience in the lounge room. I really enjoy working with our agents to help them develop and gain experience, so I decided to recruit a CEO to run the operations side of the business. I know my skill set is of better use to the team and the business if I am on-the-ground and with customers and our agents.

“We have a really great team and I love being able to share my experience with them – and I know our customers benefit from that too.”

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