After captivating brokers across Australia at The Adviser’s Better Business Summit, real estate guru and McGrath CEO John McGrath reveals what really makes him tick
“One of the greatest quotes I ever heard,” says John McGrath, “is that there are really only two days in your life that are the most important...”
He’s been speaking for a little under one hour now at the Better Business Summit in Brisbane. The man can talk, but brokers are glued.
“One,” he continues, “is the day you were born. And two,” – he pauses – “the day you work out why you were born.”
He might be a man at the helm of a national real estate group that bears his name, but John McGrath did badly at school.
Like many poor students, he became interested in sport but a collapsed lung killed his dream of playing football for Australia.
“Obviously, when I couldn’t play sport anymore I was depressed because that was my dream, but I thought: it is what it is, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, you’ve got to accept some things in life,” he says.
“That was one of the things I had to accept.”
But being a born winner, he was eager to put his energy to some use.
“So I thought: ‘what allowed me to achieve a certain level of success in sport?’ It was preparation. I trained harder than anyone else on the field – mental preparation as well as physical. It was strategy. It was visualisation.
“Before every Saturday game, on the Friday I’d go through the game in my head five, ten times. How was it going to pan out? How was I going to play? What are the opportunities? So even at 15, 16 years of age, I was a strategist.
[It’s about] visualisation, and I say to my team ‘preparation is free’ – it costs you nothing to be prepared.
“Be the best listener, be the best preparer – none of them cost you money – and you’ll be the best on the planet.”
In looking for a place to channel his energy, Mr McGrath visited a careers adviser.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to be behind a desk, I want to do something that’s mobile, I want to do it for the rest of my life. Not just a job; I’m looking for a career, and can you guide me through?’” he explains.
“We sat down and we looked at a whole bunch of jobs and real estate was the one that appealed because I thought it was important and affects everyone – whether you’re renting or buying, you need a roof over your head.
“I started asking people about it and they said ‘real estate agents are not much good’ but that didn’t turn me off; it turned me on even more.”
This all started when Mr McGrath was 17.
“I did a year as a trainee car salesman down at Toyota in Sydney, which was great, but I don’t know about cars, I wasn’t passionate about them, it wasn’t my kind of thing, but it taught me to look after people and taught me some basic sales habits,” he says.
At 18, he began working as a real estate agent, letting out units, and by 19 he had moved into property management.
“I started selling properties when I was 20 and I started what is now McGrath when I was 24,” he says.
Keep it simple
When asked how we identified an opening in the market, how he timed the launch of his own company, McGrath shakes his head – it didn’t happen like that, he says.
“Just the basics which I still see today, like customer service,” he says, “and it’s not just in real estate. I think it’s in mortgage broking, it’s everywhere.
“People don’t understand the pleasure it can be for you – not other people – when you give amazing service. I love it: you get paid for it at the end of the day, somewhere down the line, but I do it because I love it. It’s like a sport for me. It’s looking after people. I love it, I’m passionate about it. So I saw that as an opportunity.”
More recently, McGrath has been drawn towards the burgeoning opportunities that exist in new technology.
“Digital marketing, databases, mobile technology… all this is more recent stuff that’s really jumped out at me as the ‘new’ thing,” he says.
“But even still today, basically just looking after people, telling the truth, being a trusted adviser, not a salesperson, explaining the process, talking through the options, being the best at product knowledge…it’s not that hard to look after vanilla loans or vanilla sales; it’s when something starts getting a bit complex.
“For me the more complex, the more issues involved, the more exciting it was. So people would ring me up and say ‘I apologise but I want you to sell my house but I’m busy on the road, I’m on the Pacific Highway and the house needs a lot of work and it’s got some structural issues…’ – that would actually turn me more on.”
One thing that stands out about John McGrath, other than his utter selflessness, is his ability to secure a competitive edge. He loves a challenge.
“I remember one property up on the Pacific Highway out near Hornsby and it had a train line going straight down the backyard,” he explains.
“So you had the highway, the house and a train yard. It was a great challenge and I’m sure many properties have had that but a lot of agents will roll their eyes and say they don’t really want it.
I wanted every piece of business I could get, I wanted to help everyone, and still today, I want every piece of business.”
McGrath, as a group, now claims about 10 per cent market share on the east coast of Australia.
But rather than boasting, the enigmatic CEO provides a deadpan retort: “That’s bad,” he says. “We haven’t got 90 per cent”.
“So nine out of 10 people that are about to undertake one of the most challenging financial transactions of their life don’t have one of our representatives holding their hand – that worries me.
“A lot of people that are in real estate companies say, ‘I’d love to have what you’ve got’ and I say, ‘Well thank you, but I don’t think what I’ve got is anything special; I think where we’re going is special’.
“We’re only at the tip of the iceberg.”
A While John McGrath is now a mentor to his staff, as well as to thousands of other Australians keen to succeed, he has his own, ever-growing pool of talent to look up to.
“I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of mentors, some I’ve never met,” he says.
“Steve Jobs was my first inspiration and I don’t know whether to call him a mentor because I never met him but I used to study what he did and I used to study his business approach and still today I say things in the corridor at McGrath and Oxygen that are like “less is more”, “keep it simple”, “control the controllable” – things that I learnt from watching Steve Jobs.
Even though he never met him, McGrath knew so much the late Apple founder that he he felt as if he was a mentor.
“I try and find not just who could be a good mentor but who is the best possible mentor,” he says. “Can I meet them? Yes or no? If I can’t, I can still study them; if I can, I go and meet them.
“Anyone that’s achieved greatness in their life, there’s plenty of information about them. People are doing interviews with them all the time and there’s snippets of information, so piece them all together and create your own personal plan, design it yourself – it’ll be awesome.”
In the early 2000s he set his sights on the next project: Oxygen Home Loans. Mr McGrath says mortgages are a natural progression from real estate, something now also recognised in the business models of LJ Hooker and Century 21.
While he admits the venture into home loans hasn’t been easiy, it’s been well worth the effort.
“We were the first to bring it into the real estate industry,” he says.
The CEO says about 85 per cent of Oxygen’s customers already had a loan when they approached the broker for a mortgage. So why did they take one of his?
“Well, they felt more confidence in the brand, the relationship,” he says. “They got better advice or just a better product.
“Most of my clients are private banking clients. The reality is that doesn’t mean they can’t get a better loan. We’ve got a simple proposition: we do it faster, we get you a better deal, we come to you, and we do all the paperwork.
“So those four things, that takes me 30 seconds to tell you and then you can say, ‘that sounds like it’d be worth a half-hour conversation’ or you say, ‘I hear that, great business.
Guess what? My brother in law is a bank manager at NAB and I’m going to stick with them’ and I say, ‘no problem, I’m still happy to do some homework for you if you like’.
A day in the life
John McGrath gets up early, around five. He does 30 to 40 minutes’ exercise, which is generally a long walk around the Sydney CBD (he lives in The Rocks).
He always listens to audiobooks to learn something new on his stroll. He leaves home at 6:45 to start work at 7:00.
“The first hour of the day, if I don’t have early meetings, I sit quietly and just think about what’s our strategy, what are our issues, what are the blockages, how can I clear the blockages. So I think about that, I send off a heap of emails, texts – I do that early – then I kind of get on with the day of meetings,” he explains.
“My energy is best up until around early afternoon so I do all the most important tasks until about 2:00 to 2:30 and then I spend the last three or four hours returning emails.
I might do some outside appointments on the way home, those sorts of things.:
He tries to finish up by 6:00.
“I manage my energy to do all the most important things when my energy is peak,” he says.
“There’s a statistic I read recently that said two to five hours after you wake up is your peak time of energy, psychologically, and that works well for me.”
James Mitchell has over eight years’ experience as a financial reporter and is the editor of Wealth and Wellness at Momentum Media.
He has a sound pedigree to cover the business of mortgages and the converging financial services sector having reported for leading finance titles InvestorDaily, InvestorWeekly, Accountants Daily, ifa, Mortgage Business, Residential Property Manager, Real Estate Business, SMSF Adviser, Smart Property Investment, and The Adviser.
He has also been published in The Daily Telegraph and contributed online to FST Media and Mergermarket, part of the Financial Times Group.
James holds a BA (Hons) in English Literature and an MA in Journalism.
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