By Tina Liptai
Neil Webster, the winner of the John Greig OAM Community Service category at the 2020 REINSW Awards for Excellence, reveals how community service can set you up for a thriving career, build trust with clients and also help make the world a better place.
For as long as Neil Webster, Sales Executive at Stone Real Estate – Illawarra, can remember, service to the community has been an important part of his life.
“My parents were always generous with their time and very engaged with the community,” he said. “It was the way I was brought up – and it became even more important to me when I had my own children. I want to make this world a better place for them.”
This commitment to charity means that Neil has always had a profile in the community – even long before he decided to join the real estate industry. He’s coordinated many charity events over the past 30 years, including being the Founder, Chairman and organiser of SantaFest. A 22-venue, annual community Christmas pub crawl, SantaFest has been running for 26 years and raises more than $200,000 annually for local charities.
While the event is known for spreading festive cheer in the community, the motivation for SantaFest grew from a very traumatic experience Neil had one Christmas Eve.
“One of the main drivers behind SantaFest is about changing the way people behave with alcohol and how they socialise at Christmas,” Neil said. “On Christmas Eve in 1997, I was attacked by five men on the street after leaving a pub. My jaw was broken in two places, I had three cracked ribs and suffered a concussion.
“Since that day, I’ve wanted to bring back a sense of festive cheer and also help change people’s attitude towards alcohol, especially at Christmas.”
Each year, SantaFest attracts more than 10,000 people to raise funds for The Salvation Army in the Illawarra, as well as The Disability Trust and the Disabled Surfers Association. It also generates a number of flow-on effects for the local economy across retail, accommodation and hospitality businesses and is a boost for tourism, as the event attracts interstate and international visitors.
“I’ve wanted to bring back a sense of festive cheer and also help change people’s attitude towards alcohol, especially at Christmas. I’m really proud of the community spirit, enjoyment and friendships that have resulted from SantaFest.”
In 2018, for the first time, SantaFest evolved to be three community events over one weekend – the original SantaFest pub crawl, as well as the SantaFest Carols and the SantaFest Outdoor Cinema. The money raised from these events went to support a range of community programs run by The Salvation Army, including drug and alcohol support, breakfast programs for schools and emergency funding for displaced and homeless youth.
“Being able to donate large amounts of money to support young people and know that you’re really making a difference in their lives is very humbling,” Neil explained. “I don’t do it for the recognition and for the first 20 years of running the event I refused to have my name attached to it. But, I can’t be as anonymous as I used to be these days and I still can’t quite get used to the photo ops,” he laughed.
“I’m really proud of the community spirit, enjoyment and friendships that have resulted from SantaFest.”
Moving into real estate
Like many agents who came to real estate later in their career, Neil feels like he fell into the industry, but has thrived because of the transferable skills and life experience he brings to his role.
“I was looking for a change and some friends who worked in real estate suggested that I give it a go,” he recalled. “I already had a profile in the community based on trust and I like helping people, which are all great qualities of a real estate agent. One Friday night they talked me into it and, the next thing I knew, I was working at McGrath Estate Agents.
“One of the things that I was most interested in when I entered the industry was the opportunity to create a great lifestyle to suit my family and that it utilised a lot of the skills I already had.”
Neil had spent the previous 15 years working at the University of Wollongong, as Strategic Projects Manager for the Vice-Chancellors Unit. This was a diverse role that gave him the opportunity to develop skills in managing teams, coordinating projects, negotiating, communicating, marketing and finance.
“I’m always looking to keep things interesting, so I look for ways to tailor my approach every time. Every home is different and the people you are working with are individuals. Every sale is unique and it’s that variety that really appeals to me.”
Moving into real estate proved to be a welcome change of pace and an exciting challenge for Neil, who is now a Sales Executive at Stone Real Estate – Illawarra.
“I see every home as a different project and I have a bespoke approach to every client,” he said. “I’m always looking to keep things interesting, so I look for ways to tailor my approach every time. Every home is different and the people you are working with are individuals. Every sale is unique and it’s that variety that really appeals to me.
“I always try to better myself and there’s always something new to learn, which keeps things interesting. I love sharing my knowledge with other agents in the office and, because of my background, even though I haven’t been in the industry as long as some people, I bring a fresh perspective to issues and processes that other agents can benefit from.”
Integrity and service
Neil says one of the things he enjoys most about his role is the opportunity to build rapport, trust and connection with his clients and colleagues.
“Agents who work on building a reputation based on trust, empathy, and integrity will stand out and, with more agents focused on this, we can change the face of the real estate industry for the better,” he said.
“For me, one of the best parts of what I do is that I have the opportunity to help people achieve something they want, whether that’s realising their dream of owning a home, moving on to a new place or something else. Whatever it is, being an integral part of that process is rewarding.
“Also, I truly believe in the importance of doing what’s right for the client. As real estate agents we’re trusted to give information and advice, which is a huge responsibility. Doing what’s right for the client and what’s right for you as an agent doesn’t always align, but we must always put the client’s needs first.
“It’s much more important to me to have a reputation as a trusted agent, who puts the needs of clients first. This industry is all about playing a long game, having things in the pipeline and sticking to those ideals.”
“The other day, I had a new client come to me wanting to sell his home. However, when I spoke to him about why he was selling and asked about his personal situation, it became clear that the best thing for him would be to rent his home, with the aim of moving back in once his financial situation improved. He couldn’t believe that I’d talked him out of selling, but since then he has referred other people to me, which has resulted in other sales.
“Building trust and giving the best advice has paid off for me, time and again – so much more than if I’d just jumped on the sale every time. It’s much more important to me to have a reputation as a trusted agent, who puts the needs of clients first. This industry is all about playing a long game, having things in the pipeline and sticking to those ideals.
“My number one tip for anyone who’s new to the industry is to always do the right thing for your client and give the best advice at that point in time. If you do this, business will always flow.
“My business is 90 per cent referrals and that all comes from building a reputation as someone who can be trusted and relied upon.”
Jumping into community service
As the founder of SantaFest, which has been an important community event in the Illawarra for the past 26 years, and winner of the John Greig OAM Community Service category at the 2020 REINSW Awards for Excellence, Neil has a long history of commitment to community service.
“People often ask me where I find the time, but I honestly don’t know,” he said. “I’ve always been involved in some sort of community work, so it’s not something that I have to think about making time for. It’s just always been part of my life.
“I know that it sounds a bit clichéd, but I’ve always loved helping others and I think if it’s something that you’re motivated to do, you’ll find the time.”
Neil emphasised that you don’t need to suddenly start devoting hours and hours each and every week.
"Start small,” he recommended. “And, if you can be part of a team or committee that’s working together on a project, that’s a good way to get involved.
“If you can find something that you’re passionate about or have a genuine interest in, that’s also a great way to get started. If you have kids, their school is an easy way in or, if you don’t have kids, then perhaps find a sporting club or an event that you can help with.
“Remember, you’re always going to be more motivated if you’re working on something that matters to you or your family.”
Neil gave the example of coordinating an outdoor cinema fundraising program for local schools last year in conjunction with the Stone Real Estate – Illawarra team.
“The idea came about when I discovered that our office had an inflatable screen that would work to show movies,” he said.
“Our office managed everything from engaging the local schools, social media advertising, selling tickets and running the event, including making fresh popcorn to sell. It was a great community event that contributed to the schools’ fundraising activity – and it was also a wonderful way to build our brand and give our agents the opportunity to volunteer their time.
“Personally, it was very rewarding for me to see the impact the event had at my son’s school. I have a strong personal motivation to make this world a better place for both of my children. I want to show them how to be kind and contribute to the community, so I’m very proud of this event and what we achieved.
“It doesn’t have to be an elaborate idea or take up a lot of your time to make a real impact for others.”
Neil shares his tips about how to build a strong and thriving career as a real estate agent.
1. Engage with the community
Having a strong connection with your community is key to building a thriving career. Giving people a positive experience with you and your agency in instances other than when you’re helping them buy, sell or rent, will lay the foundations for many years of return business and word-of-mouth business. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that helping your community is a very rewarding experience in itself.
2. Client service
Being of service should always be your priority. Whether you’re working on a large project with multiple stakeholders or you’ve been contacted about selling a small property, always reply to your emails, texts and phone calls as soon as you can. I know there are very busy days, but don’t put it off and don’t leave anything unanswered.
3. Always be ready to help
When I answer the phone I always say, “how can I help?” This attitude is always front of mind for me in everything that I do. If you always remember that you’re here to help your clients, you are on your way to being a great agent.
Why I love real estate
“I love the opportunity I have to genuinely help people,” Neil said. “I’ve always been driven to help create solutions for people and that’s a big part of what I enjoy about real estate.
“I get to listen to my client’s story, understand their situation and then find a way to deliver the best result possible. It’s an incredible responsibility, but it’s very rewarding when you get it right.
Neil added that he’s always looking for ways to improve, both personally and professionally.
“Working in the real estate industry gives me so many opportunities to learn and push myself to be better.
“It also allows me to connect with the community and make a positive difference in the lives of so many people.”