Turning passion into livelihood
Director of wHeregroup Todd Hunter found a way to turn his passion for property into a successful, sustainable business – but his road to success was less than conventional.
wHeregroup’s Todd Hunter has always done things completely outside the box. Open to new ideas and not afraid to stir up controversy, Mr Hunter has built a property investment empire from the ground up – one stamped with his affable personality.
wHeregroup, a property-buying agency and mortgage broking firm, was established based on Mr Hunter’s keen eye for buying houses.
“I’ve always loved property – before I was a broker I had already owned a couple of properties,” he says.
“[wHeregroup] helps investors build property portfolios and create wealth – and we do it very much differently to anyone else on the market.”
Mr Hunter’s unique approach to the property business relies on his walking the talk by first personally investing in locations in which he then advises clients to purchase.
Along with a knack for spotting property value and potential, Mr Hunter has also demonstrated his savviness in seeing the opportunity to build a niche business.
“There is a lot more opportunity in these places than what I could personally invest in. So then I go and buy for my clients as well,” he says.
Complementing his own investment interests with a home-buying agency obviously involves a coordinated effort, but reaching this level of business success has been a journey of 14 years in the making.
From tyre fitter to mortgage broker
Right from the beginning of his career, Mr Hunter has taken an unconventional approach to success.
“I was pretty young; I lived with a couple of mortgage brokers in a sharehouse in Perth,” he recalls. “They were living these fantastic lifestyles and I thought, ‘I wouldn't mind doing that – that seems like a good job!’
“So when I came back to Sydney, I applied and got my way into Aussie Home Loans.”
With no formal qualifications or prior experience, Mr Hunter had talked his way into becoming a mortgage broker.
“I was basically a tyre fitter before that. I pretty much sold myself to get into Aussie Home Loans,” he says.
“I sat down in the interview and just told the guy all about me: this is what I'll do and this is what I'll make happen. I think he just loved the enthusiasm.”
That comes as no surprise. Mr Hunter’s effervescent energy for aiming high and achieving goals via the road less travelled, as well as his lack of fear of traditional obstacles, is infectious.
“I was with Aussie Home Loans for about 16 months,” he says. “Then I left, went out to become an independent broker and started the buyer’s agency business at the same time.”
Finding the right people
Like many other ambitious business start-ups, wHeregroup fostered momentum and recruited fast.
“I started taking on mortgage brokers under me,” says Mr Hunter. “I had a solicitor, accountant and financial planner who would subcontract to me.”
While the rapid growth of his team looked great on paper, in practice it did not translate into a sustainable business.
“I had all the pieces of the puzzle, but I think I did that way too quick,” he says, reflecting on the early stage of the business. “I wasn't experienced enough as a manager at that stage to understand, and I didn't get the right people on board. I had about 16 people at one stage!”
When it came to organisational fit during those early days, quantity over quality became a challenge.
“I had to be a professional firefighter because all I did every day was put out fires,” says Mr Hunter, chuckling at the metaphor. “It was probably one of my worst years in business, financially. It was a learning curve, it was a mistake.”
After reassessing the situation, he decided to strip back the team to four employees and start over again.
With Mr Hunter’s upbeat approach, “a mistake” merely felt necessary and natural to wHeregroup’s progression and the tough start simply shaped the business into a confident and self-sufficient enterprise.
“Now we're a team of eight and I've slowly but surely put the right people in the right positions,” he says.
Mr Hunter now also has a new perspective on his personal leadership. “This is as big as I realistically want to get to,” he says. “I don't want to have a huge team anymore.”
He attributes at least some of his business success to a change in his approach to hiring – moving from hiring for skill to instead recruiting for personality.
“You can teach people what to do, but you can't teach personality,” he says. “You can't teach work ethic, you either have that work ethic or not.”
“I want the right person and the personality behind that. Even if they don't have the skill set, I can easily teach them that skill set.”
Technology and relationships
Mr Hunter’s openness to conversation and relationship building seems to be the key to his keeping up with innovation and change.
The current wHeregroup team would be “half ‘Gen X’ and half ‘Gen Y’, and that works well”, says Mr Hunter. “The Gen Ys certainly keep me on my toes as far as the technology goes.
“I come up with a lot of the ideas and then say, ‘Look, it'd be great if we could do this’. Then they'll come up with a solution through the IT world and all of the technology that's out there to try and do what we want to do.”
He contrasts this with the earlier days of the business, when he had dial-up internet access and used newspaper and Texta to research property locations.
“I would write notes, do drawings, scribble and cross things out,” he recalls. “My floor used to look like a rubbish tip at the end of it and I would finally come up with a location that fit all of my criteria.
“That process used to take about three weeks. Software for researching property locations has certainly come a long way. Now I can find new locations in about a day and a half.
“I have a few of those old ‘fish and chip paper’ drawings still,” Mr Hunter laughs. “The staff have been saying that we need to get them in frames and stick them up in our office, and I think that's not a bad idea!”
But while technology has helped the research component of his work immensely, Mr Hunter emphasises that it needs to be combined with genuine relationships.
“For me, researching and choosing where to buy property is all about the data initially,” he says, “but from there, it's all relationship-based.”
At a time when SMEs are increasingly turning toward digital marketing and social media, Mr Hunter again appears to take it all in his stride.
A Google search for “Todd Hunter” reveals a slew of contentious blog posts, savvy YouTube videos and an opinionated Facebook account – all written with Mr Hunter’s signature brand of friendly controversy.
Despite the active online presence, however, Mr Hunter’s focus remains on real world connections.
“I'm a little out of the box in how business comes in the door,” he says. “I social network without really even social networking. I get a lot of business that is just from people that I've met out and about. I'm just casually talking to them and it could be 3, 6, 9 months later and they say, you know what, I need to go speak with Todd,” he said.
“But I'm always just talking – it's never a hard sell,” he adds.
Much of Mr Hunter’s day involves not being in the office 9 to 5.
“If I'm in here too much, my staff kick me out,” he says, “so I go play golf, I'll meet three or four guys and they'll go ‘what do you do?’ and I'll start talking.”
What Mr Hunter illustrates is a strategy for building new referral trees that even Google employees would be enviable of.
“It works great,” he says. “You always have to be looking for those opportunities, and unfortunately, sitting behind a desk from 9 till 5, they're not going to come find you there.”
The accounting connection
Mr Hunter has always had a close working relationship with his accountant. From wHeregroup’s very beginnings, an accountant has always been on board.
However, his enthusiasm for pushing against convention meant he found himself “outgrowing” his accountants roughly every four years.
“I'm fairly tax-savvy, I stay on top of things, I stay on top of superannuation, I stay on top of tax legislation – I like to know a lot of what's going on,” he says, “but my current accountant is awesome. She's probably the first accountant who teaches me things, so I use her knowledge considerably.”
Mr Hunter places great value on creativity – as well as on compliance – in their working relationship.
“I'm fairly out there in relation to ideas of what can and can't be done,” he chuckles. “I will always bounce the creativity off her, and she will be as creative as she can within guidelines.”
While compliance obligations can often be an obstacle to business, Mr Hunter views the accountant’s role as facilitating new possibilities. He was forthright when detailing a recent example in which he wanted to buy property in the United States within his SMSF.
“Holding a bank account in the United States in your SMSF under normal legislation with the ATO is a no-no,” says Mr Hunter.
"This was Todd being creative again," he jokes, “but my accountant took it all on board and made it happen. She advised me that we had to go for an ATO private ruling, and we were the second people in the country to do so.
“She advised me that that's what we needed to do, she put the private ruling together, we got approved and away we went.”
For Mr Hunter, the value of a strong relationship with his accountant extends beyond business operations, and he has witnessed the referral tree that can be built via a genuine professional partnership.
“It's unfortunate, but for [some] accounting firms, the referral tree is all based around referral fees,” he says.
In Mr Hunter’s opinion, these are not relationships but rather, a fee for service arrangement.
“That's not the business I'm after,” he says. “For me, I probably refer 100 to 150 people a year to accountants. I do it all for free, but it's a two-way street. That's how they should be doing business.”