From cooperation to collaboration: How First National’s new CEO is redefining real estate success

First National Real Estate’s new Chief Executive Officer, David Edwards, believes there’s a simple, but crucial difference between the seemingly similar concepts of cooperation and collaboration.

“Cooperation is about working with others to achieve individual goals,” he says.

“However, I ultimately want to create a more collaborative environment that celebrates interdependency for the greater good.”

A guiding light

The Australasian network’s great success as a cooperative has certainly been based on cooperation but, as David looks to help elevate the not-for-profit brand into its next wave of success, collaboration will also play an important role.

And after starting in the CEO role about a month ago, David’s crystal clear on the first steps to foster that development.

It starts with leadership style, and David prefers to be a guiding light, rather than authoritarian. 

“The role of a CEO is to act as a steward rather than business owner,” he explains.

“It’s my role to help grow and even protect the inherent value in the brand.”

First National is a brand that has a long history in Australian real estate, established in 1981, after a small group of independent, rural real estate agents in Victoria met to form an association that offered an alternate way of doing business.

Back then, in the pre-internet era, four core elements formed the association’s values, including developing top marketing techniques and professional training to ensure top outcomes for clients, providing its members with a national and international referral network, allowing member offices to retain their independence so they could provide their clients with local expertise and seeking membership from only the best agents.

David says that core ethos rightly remains today, but refreshing the brand’s value proposition and what it stands for, will encourage other independent real estate businesses to recognise the “genuine value” in joining the First National brand.

“But, regardless of whether I’m here one day or 100 days, I can’t make an independent judgement on how best to rejuvenate and support the brand until I listen to the members themselves,” he says.

“And I know I’m not going to get a singular focus from every member, but there will undoubtedly be some common themes about what they believe will rejuvenate and refresh the brand, and allow it to prosper.

“This is the most exciting time in any CEO’s appointment because the vast majority of members are going to give you the opportunity to succeed and they want to share with you what they believe is important. 

“So, I’ll be listening first and then counter checking with other members until I get to the point where I understand what the priorities are.”

Extensive experience

David brings with him extensive C-suite experience, having held senior leadership positions at Myer and PlaceMakers (New Zealand), general management roles at Mitre 10 and, most recently, CEO at Forty Winks.

While his role with First National is his first in the real estate industry, David says each of his previous positions has taught him something that stands him in good stead to lead the network into its next growth phase.

He says while his time at PlaceMakers taught him the art of using influence rather than seeking member compliance, it was at Mitre 10 where he first worked with a large cooperative business. 

“Its central theme was around harnessing the power of independents, coming together to group buy, so that members of the cooperative benefited through the value of competitive pricing, which they couldn’t negotiate individually, with the suppliers,” David notes.

He says the beauty of a cooperative is that while it requires members to be respectful of the brand, it embraces their entrepreneurial flair.

“What’s interesting is that Mitre 10 got to the point of saying we need you to do 80 per cent of what we ask you to do and 20 per cent entrepreneurially,” David says.

“I think the ratio was too focused on compliance.”

One of the things that attracted David to First National was that the brand was made up of incredibly smart businesspeople and that the national support office team is there to serve the members and put their needs first. 

“I believe my responsibility is to lead the office , which is there to support and grow independent members’ agencies; allowing them to be as entrepreneurial as they need to be, while still understanding that they are the face of the First National brand.”

Members come first

David says his almost seven years as the CEO of Forty Winks perhaps set him up best for his role with First National, as the retailer views its members as a cooperative family.

“Forty Winks really gave me a great understanding of a business that didn’t answer solely to shareholders,” he notes.

“It was actually there to respond to members and to address the needs of members.”

The fact First National is a cooperative, and that the administration is not-for-profit, is one of the key elements that encouraged David to apply for the role as CEO.

He says every dollar a First National member pays in membership fees must be returned to them in the form of leads, training, systems, brand profile and management support.

The independent members also benefit from the power of national brand strength, a full technology suite, outstanding professional development, management mentoring, profitability coaching and a full-service support model. 

This provides each business with the opportunity to win more listings, to grow their rent roll, upskill their staff, recruit quality team members and improve their profitability.

“It’s not about reporting profits, it’s about creating funding to be able to invest in the best services and support that we can provide to keep our edge,” David says.

“It’s the perfect growth engine because profits derived are invested back into further growth.

“It’s about making sure the members are successful because their success then, in turn, creates a value proposition which helps us to sell the opportunity to new members.”

Outside of work, David loves nothing more than spending time with his wife Amanda and their two daughters, Grace, 17, and Milla, 15.

He’s also a keen Essendon supporter,in the AFL, enjoys a round of golf and a game of pickleball, and is a keen horse racing enthusiast.

A sense of community is another element that drew David to First National.

He says not only do the First National members collectively form a community, but each individual business is entrenched in its own local community. 

“I was excited to accept the role of CEO at First National because I have observed, in the DNA of its members, an understanding that they are the stewards and custodians of their customers’ homes.Their desire to serve that need responsibly is a defining difference,” David says.

“This is why the First National members are successful, because they understand that they’re working, not only for themselves and their families, but for their clients and the greater community.

“It’s a compelling proposition.”

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