A message from our CEO & Founder, Joseph Chou
This month marks the 13th anniversary of Ironfish and it’s been an exciting journey to get to where we are today.
In 2006, the Sydney and Melbourne markets were in a downturn, people were losing faith in property and many people were getting out of the industry. Within that landscape, we started Ironfish with 12 people, and we had the big vision to become a global company one day.
Firstly, we wanted to help more people not only to build a portfolio of four or more properties, but also to help them hold those properties long-term until such time they would double in value and they could retire on those properties.
Secondly, we wanted to create a platform for like-minded people to build a career with us and give talented people unlimited opportunity to grow.
Ironfish’s 12 founding members – 2006
In the same year, with this vision, we opened two more branches. In August, we opened our first Melbourne branch in Box Hill – which has now become our Melbourne head office – in partnership with Ellen Bian. In September we opened our Adelaide branch, with successful entrepreneur Damon Nagel at the helm.
All of a sudden, our sales went from $20 million to $148 million in just 12 months – and Ironfish was on its way.
After 13 years, of those 12 founding members, only five of us are still here: myself and my two Co-Founders, Susanne Anderson, Ironfish Chief Operating Officer along with Grant Ryan, Director of Property & Research. Also, Lanny Xu, now the CEO of Ironfish China, as well as Linda Lu, Ironfish Burwood Managing Director.
Together, and with the help of our growing number of staff, we have achieved many great milestones for the Ironfish business and our customers.
Ironfish leadership team – 2019
Ironfish is one of the very few companies – and there are many that come and go in this industry – that has built to a national scale – not just in Australia but also in China.
We have expanded our property investment services to property management, mortgage broking and property development to provide more integrated services for our investor customers.
We have attracted and retained many talented people – many who have come from very successful prior backgrounds and have been inspired by our compelling vision of democratising property wealth, our strong corporate culture of being people-focussed, customer-centric and giving staff unlimited room to grow. It doesn’t matter which branch you go to, it will always feel like Ironfish; I’ve been complimented so many times about the calibre of our people.
While the real estate industry is known for being very transactional, we are known for being different. We are a relationship-building company; every time we get in front of a customer, we’re talking about a lifelong relationship, not a single transaction.
Ironfish operates under a real estate license, so technically speaking, our client is the vendor – the developer. A lot of real estate agents would act purely for the vendor – to achieve the highest price for them. But from day one, we decided that our customers would be number one in the Ironfish value chain.
Accordingly, we are highly selective about which developers we work with. Our experience tells us that if our customers are happy with the service they receive and the property they purchase from us, then they’re going to continue to build their portfolio with us. They’re also going to refer their family and friends to us. If our customers are happy and continue to purchase, then our vendors will be happy too. If our customers and vendors are happy, then we can build a strong business, which provides a good career path for our staff and our business can continue to grow.
We have made a huge impact on the property industry because of our fanaticism about quality. Not only do we pride ourselves on working only with leading developers, we’ve also helped many developers change their floorplans or designs to enhance the end product, thus customer experience – and we’re very proud of this. We haven’t just marketed many billions of dollars-worth of properties, we have contributed to making the industry better.
We have been able to have this impact because we have developed a reputation as a company that’s very professional, that’s pro-active, that cares about the location, quality, finishes and always delivers on our promises.
When and if challenges arise, with lending changes for example, unlike some other companies which have shut up shop – we have invested further resources to help our customers settle.
We have also produced the strongest leadership team in Australia. Even though we’re very ambitious, we never lose sight of doing the right thing by our people all of the time. Our partnerships are formed based on shared values – and that can last a lifetime.
This is how we have managed to build trust with our many customers who have chosen to invest with us over the years.
Weathering the challenges
Building a business so rapidly over the course of 13 years has not come about without many challenges to overcome along the way.
Creating customers for life
Putting our customers first, and therefore balancing the needs of both our customers and our vendors isn’t an easy task.
It means having to say no to a lot of developers; negotiating on price with developers, to ensure the property represents value for money for our customers.
Customers, naturally, want the best development at the lowest price. Developers think their developments are the best and therefore want the best price.
We also always want to keep improving the calibre of properties we can offer our customers. So as time went on, and we found even better development projects, we chose to walk away from long-standing relationships with some developers. It’s tough, as you build friendships along the way, and severing a business relationship can affect that.
Continually wearing these two hats has been a challenge for us – but one we’ve been able to face and will continue to work on so that we can deliver value to both our investor customers and our developer partners.
Property has a very low entry barrier. There are new companies coming out every day, many of which come and go. These may just be a one person or husband and wife team with little experience, few quality properties, and no assurance to customers of long-term support.
But with a nice social media ad, it’s hard for an industry outsider to know the difference – educating our customers about this is an ongoing task.
Lending and policy changes
In property, our customers are always at the mercy of a government’s policies or bank policies, which can fluctuate from time to time.
When lending policy tightened, some of our buyers who used to be highly qualified, became less qualified. Some even became unqualified. We had to help these customers change their strategy and slow down in the way they build their portfolio. We also had to look for new customers, who met the higher qualification requirements, in new markets and territories – always a challenge for any business.
When Australian banks decided to pull out of lending to FIRB buyers, even though most of our customers were local buyers, we had about $1.6 billion worth of FIRB property purchases which needed to settle in the next two to three years. All of a sudden, they could no longer borrow, so we had to put in a lot of resources to help our buyers find alternative solutions and help them settle, serve them better.
When that policy changed, it affected our China business considerably, but Ironfish China is still there and not only did we elevate our service levels for customers, we have also found a sustainable credit solution for many of those buyers as well.
Varying market cycles
Ironfish is now a national company, with offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. The market cycles of each city vary, and banks can give different valuations of developments in different cities due to perceived risks. If there is a valuation shortfall, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth less than the buyer paid for it, it might just be that the bank is more conservative in that area or unwilling to lend quite as much money. The bank valuation isn’t necessarily the market value – the real value is what the market is willing to pay for it when you put it up for sale in the future.
But bank valuations play an important role in both maintaining a buyer’s confidence and ensuring they have enough funds or equity to settle the property. It’s our role to support our buyer’s confidence, and this is also why we encourage buyers, prior to purchase, to have enough buffer in place to cater for a possible valuation shortfall.
It’s also our ongoing challenge to remind our customers that property investment is a long-term pursuit.
Short term market fluctuations can put a dent in an investor’s confidence. But we know from experience that the five major capital cities have different growth cycles, with Sydney and Melbourne paralleling in one cycle, Brisbane and the Gold Coast one step behind while Perth and Adelaide’s cycles are just the opposite. Just because a property hasn’t performed for a while, doesn’t mean you should sell it. You have paid the price of waiting, you should hang in there to reap the benefits. Once a market does start growing, it’s going to grow very quickly. The only way you can benefit is if you are in the game. No one is going to tell you before the market grows – they only tell you after it happens.
For example, when Sydney went through almost 10 years of no growth from 2003 to 2013, many working in the industry at the time couldn’t see a time when the market would grow again. For investors who bought at the peak of the last cycle, many gave up one or two years too early before the market started moving up again.
We don’t want that to happen to our buyers.
Ongoing education, information, service and inspiration is the only way we can help our investors overcome this challenge.
Attracting and retaining talent – growing business partners
Property is known for being a high-turn-over industry, newcomers can come and go – feeling like the grass is greener elsewhere. While we have managed to retain a lot more talent than others, we have our share of the challenge of retaining more talented people. We need to constantly improve the way we run our business so that our talent can continue to thrive in the environment we have created for them, and they can take genuine pride in the value we bring to our customers.
We believe strongly in looking for ‘partners’ rather than employees, and over time we have built a strong leadership team in our Ironfish Managing Directors. The additional challenge here is that all of our leadership team started out running a small business. We’re now a larger business and need to continue to grow our skills alongside the business’s growth. While we’re all aligned in values, we have different styles and personalities. Now, with so many branches, leaders, entities, all our leaders including myself need to grow my management skills to help guide our people and our business to greater heights.
Today’s business – tomorrow’s vision
From day one we had a huge vision of building a global company to provide property investment services all over the world. So, we are constantly balancing between running today’s business with our future business.
If a business only looks to the future, and forgets to run today’s business, then they can’t stay in business for very long. But we also don’t want to bury ourselves in today’s business and lose sight of our future vision.
The nature of the property industry is constantly dealing or preparing for drought or famine. We have hundreds of people employed to deliver for our customers and suppliers, we need to keep investing in the business, up-skilling people, technology and infrastructure. All this takes very sound financial management and discipline. Certainly, for an entrepreneur it’s a challenge to keep a balance on the entrepreneurial flair of expanding the business and cash to keep the business going. It is something we keep working on.
Many lessons learned
Through these challenges, we have learned many lessons along the way and have adapted our approach to serve our customers, suppliers and staff better.
For example, there are some rare occasions where we’ve grown too fast or grown the wrong people and it didn’t work out.
In terms of markets, we put a lot of our Sydney customers in Sydney developments before and during the boom. But in hindsight we could have put more of our interstate buyers into Sydney as well, despite the higher price point. This would have also given them a share of the Sydney boom as well as a chance to grow more equity in their portfolios.
Over the last 13 years, our property and research team has identified a lot of great developments for our buyers, including many in urban renewal areas. Urban renewal, as we know, has huge long-term growth potential, but in the short term, often means a lot of supply coming in to the area at the same time, so typically it takes longer for those property values to grow.
Looking back, we realise urban renewal may not be the ideal starting place for some first-time investors. Because when people invest for the first time, their ability to grow equity in their first purchase and experience can add to confidence in continuing the journey. Now we have adjusted our approach to put some first timers in lower density or lower supply areas, in house and land or a townhouse, so they can experience some early growth. Then while they’re building their portfolio, we can put them in strategic urban renewal areas as well.
Ironfish has been lucky to work with some of the best developers in Australia, but we know now we should have started our development business much earlier. Our own developments help us fill the gap in certain cities or locations where developers weren’t delivering the quality or property type we were looking for. Or not developing in areas we were interested in based on our own research.
It took us a while, but we started eight years ago in South Australia, under the leadership of Damon Nagel. Since then we have established development arms in other cities as well and we also have a number of joint-venture developments.
Opportunities for the future
Sometimes challenges also offer opportunities. With lending changes, settlement was a big challenge for our industry – but one we embraced fully.
As we look to the future, technology will pose a challenge and opportunity for many industries, including property. We’re very conscious that technology like AI and blockchain will fundamentally change the nature of our industry. We are gearing up for this so Ironfish can be at the forefront of these changes.
Perhaps most importantly, Ironfish is in the midst of changing into a property service company. We are very excited about the prospect of becoming a formidable force in delivering that service to our customers and all people related to our business.
Our aim is to use our leadership in the industry to consolidate our position to make a bigger impact. The property industry is often known for being greedy and we want to help to change this opinion to have a kinder, friendlier association.
We want to help 100,000 Australian families to use property to help them achieve financial wellbeing – a core mission which underlines our day to day business.
We see the last 13 years as our learning years – we were born, we survived, we grew a little. Now we’re in our ‘teenage’ years, as we grow into maturity as a sustainable, successful company that will continue to deliver a valuable service to our community, for many generations to come.
Joseph Chou is the CEO & Founder of Ironfish.
He travels around Australia regularly, presenting on investing, personal and career development. Book your seat at his next speaking engagement in your city via our Events page.