Most people in the Canberra business community (especially at the top end where success lives) are generous in sharing what they have learnt in their business journeys. We are a tight-knit community, with unique business circumstances, and tend to stand together in our common goal to grow business in and beyond Canberra.
This week I had the greatest privilege to interview a man of substantial business acumen, John Runko, who is CEO of the Independent Property Group empire and it’s easy to see why. A humble man, he has earned his stripes through hard work, persistence and a sharp mind. A Canberra boy, John’s family migrated here from Europe in 1957 and his dad, who was self-employed, drummed the lesson into John early, “If you want to get ahead in this life, you work hard and take risks.”
He has followed this advice for the past 30-plus years.
John went to local public schools and he tells me he always wanted to be in business one day, from an early age (He did sell ducks at the Jamison Trash ’n Treasure whilst at school). After he left school, though, he thought he might want to be a scientist like his brother, and got a job at CSIRO where he worked with genetically modified blowflies!
It was not a glamorous job by any means, and realising that promotion would mean working with stored grain and weevils was an eye opener. Private enterprise was the only solution for this young man, who was ambitious, competitive, competent and confident.
When his girlfriend (now wife) Pauline graduated from a hairdresser’s apprenticeship, they decided to buy a salon and John ditched his CSIRO job and joined her. He became her apprentice and boasts about winning an award from CIT at the time. He tells everyone, tongue-in-cheek, that he was an “award-winning” hairdresser. The couple bought their first salon in Duffy, then a second in Charnwood, but soon sold Duffy and concentrated on the one in Charnwood which had more potential.
But the young and the restless wanted a better lifestyle. Surf, sand, and beaches beckoned, and knowing nothing at all about hospitality (such ignorance about new business ventures is the prerogative of young entrepreneurs, John tells me), they bought the Ocean View Motel in Mollymook. Reality set in rather fast. In summer, they worked 24/7 and had no time for the beach, and in winter there was no one around, but it was too cold to swim. The young couple licked their wounds and got lucky enough to sell the business after just eighteen months, with enough of a deposit to buy a property back in Canberra.
John noticed at that time that the real estate agents selling houses around town drove better cars than he had, yet the services they provided were rather pedestrian. He decided he could do a better job and that’s when he went into real estate.
Those were tough times in real estate with sales staff working on commission only. The Runkos had to take out a personal loan just to eat, and when that ran out, they had to take another loan. Most would have quit at that point, but John tells me he was bloody-minded, highly competitive and wasn’t about to let it beat him. He stuck it out with Reg Daly Real Estate, as the guy who hired him, Richard Tindale, of National Zoo & Aquarium fame, was an excellent mentor.
To cut a long story short, John was working hard in real estate, still doing hairdressing part-time on a Friday night (which was great for getting to know people), and starting to gain momentum. He secured a junior management role within twelve months and three or four years later was Principal of Reg Daly in Philip, which then moved to Tuggeranong.
Reg Daly, RO Wellsmore and Federation Real Estate agencies combined and eventually morphed into Independent Property Group, new business which decided against joining the multi-listing fad.
Multi-listing allowed a seller to list their house with every agent, but as John pointed out, the strategy was doomed because agents started to push vendors’ prices down and worked for the buyers instead of the sellers.
John quickly became a mover and shaker within the new group, opening the first agency in Gungahlin at Ngunnawal shops in 1994. He recalls that period with fondness, describing the need to use 4-wheel-drives to visit fog-enshrouded Palmerston land release sites where they often got bogged in the mud.
In 2000, John moved into the corporate sphere as a sales director, overseeing sales for the whole group. In 2002 he took on the CEO role and there he has remained for the past 15 years.
He told me that as CEO he aims to work to the rule of threes: A third of your time is spent on the mechanics of business, another third face-to-face with your people, and the final third on strategy, growing the business.
It has been an interesting journey for John, who has learnt much along the way. His advice for people who might just be starting out in business, whatever that might look like: “If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will take you there.”
To explain this position, he quoted Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:
“One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked. ‘Where do you want to go?’ was his response. ‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered. ‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.”
John says that you need to start business with the end in mind, and know where you want to go.
Of the tough times (apart from the motel fiasco in his 20s), John remembers the mid-90s when John Howard cut the public service and for the first time ever, Canberra had negative population growth. Nobody was buying property because they didn’t know where rock bottom was, and he wonders now how on earth they survived.
In hindsight, however, some of the darker moments were also places to find opportunity and he knows that you need to be counter-cyclical and go against the crowd, taking a measured risk strategy.
The highlights for John revolve around community and people. The Independent Property Group Foundation makes a philanthropic difference in the community, and he remembers fondly the cubby houses they have built for charity auction at Floriade in recent years.
His biggest buzz, though, is in creating new leaders. He is immensely proud of the amazing people he works with who have come through the ranks and ultimately made the company what it is today.
Independent Property Group has a unique structure, business model, and philosophy that has made it the most nationally recognised agency in Australia. John tells me that it was long ago that he learnt about scale and transformation: having partnerships with the right people builds a strong organisation; you can scale and transform the level of service which in turn makes the lives of clients so much better at crucial moments when they are making life-changing decisions.
It’s become a full-service business, and John knows what it’s like to move house – he’s done it 16 times with his own family and that makes him all the more aware of clients’ needs.
Canberra is home to this unique business and to live, work and play here is still the dream. John’s grandchildren are now third generation Canberrans, and for that, he is truly grateful.
He’s come a long way from selling ducks at Trash ’N Treasure – indeed, he has become one of our Bucking the Trends business treasures!