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I have worked to program the software in my brain to differentiate what's really important and of high value ..... and not just urgent or distracting. I guess you could put it under the headline of "life is not a marathon but a series of sprints". In these key moments I try to lift and be as effective as possible. Fortunately over a whole day it's actually not that much. You have to know when to change gears.

Episode 34

On The Alignment Of Motorsport & Business, How To Optimise Performance & Jump-Start A Datsun 180B

Shane Smollen | Co-founder & Director | Central Element

With a remarkable career in the property industry over 4 decades, Shane has established himself as a prominent industry figure, through delivering exceptional results and consistent market leadership.

Shane is also a director of McGrath Ltd and a previous owner of a multi office real estate network, generating sales of over $3 billion per annum. His deep involvement and broad, national contact network ensures he is extremely wired into the marketplace and is well positioned to identify trends on macro and local levels, in real time.

In this episode, Shane shares his thoughts on the alignment of motorsport and business, lessons in delegation, efficiency, focus, life balance, optimising performance & jumpstarting a Datsun 180B.

Enjoy.

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Transcript

Anthony Denman:
Shane, welcome to the Property Marketing Podcast.
I’m so happy, thank you so much for doing this.

Shane Smollen:
We go back a little bit.

Anthony Denman:
We do, mate, and I’ve been hassling you, I don’t know when I sent the first email, it must’ve been at least three years ago. But finally, you’re joining me, so it’s fantastic. This is a conversation that I’ve really been looking forward to. I’m going to start in an unusual place though, the first time I ever started in this place with any of my guests, and that is Motorsport. How did you get into Motorsport?

Shane Smollen:
Like a lot of things, just put my toe in the water. I had an interest in cars since a little baby, but I’d never really contemplated that I could go motor racing, just hadn’t thought about it. I’d had a couple of cars that I’d stuck on the track for track days and that was fun, but I had a good mate who was into Motorsport and raced for some years and wasn’t active at the time. And he just rang me up one day and he said, “Hey, mate, do you want to buy a race car?” I said, “Yeah, what does that mean? How do I do that? How much?”
And he goes, “I’ve found a repossessed Falcon Saloon car up in Queensland. I reckon I can get it for $4,000, so you’re up for two grand.” And anyway, nothing like that first little bit of heroin. All of a sudden, we own this old Bomb found a lovely family to run it for us who were based out of Goulburn, and went and got my license at what was then Oran Park, which is now a sprawling suburbia, unfortunately, or fortunately, and found myself at the back of the grid sitting behind a Suzuki Swift and the lights went out and I was a race car driver. Pretty scary.

Anthony Denman:
How old were you?

Shane Smollen:
Embarrassingly I was 41. I say that because even to this day you find yourself racing with kids that are being brought up through go karts and one of the kids in our team who’s just turned 19, I mean his dad took him to Europe racing go karts from when he was nine. So he’s just come back to Australia after a decade of racing a combination of go karts and open wheelers and you find yourself up against these kids that are just totally programmed. But that makes it still a great challenge as you get older.
And now being realistic, I am old for a race car driver, but to stay fit and competitive and to find your strengths, and I guess progressively a little bit like business, I guess, aggressively it’s about trusting your instincts and being calm in situations and minimising those type of responses that just lead to issues. And when you’re an amateur race car driver, oftentimes the person who wins the championship, they’ve got to be quick, but still it’s the person who’s going to finish the most races and make the least dumb mistakes. So yeah, it’s still a really interesting challenge for me.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah, thank you. No, it’s funny because in the pre podcast we’re talking about a little bit of this stuff and it’s funny, because the reason I do these things is so I can learn more from people like yourself. And some of the lessons that I learned in the pre-podcast and that’s another one I’d take into my surfing because I’ve only just recently would you believe in the last year started competing with my surfing again. So a lot of those lessons that you’ve imparted, and we’re going to get into a bit more now, I’ve actually found have been quite helpful when I’ve been preparing for my surfing contests. I’ve got a quote here from you, which came out of a pre-podcast, the big lessons and I guess the lessons in life and in business, “The big lessons come from failure, however, the small moments of improvement come from success.” Why is the process of improvement and winning in Motorsport so aligned with improvement and winning in business?

Shane Smollen:
Look, I think it’s a well-worn path to say that the biggest lessons in your life come from failures, and that’s simply because it’s true. But I think in saying that you can underplay the importance of successes in your life. And I just truly believe that success anticipation and that element of self-belief I guess is just such a massive ingredient to backing yourself and trusting your judgment, that it would be an unbalanced view to say all your best learnings come from failures. You get so much from both ends of the process. I guess maybe the real threat is standing still.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah, totally. You’ve got to keep moving. So lap around Bathurst is two minutes, right? But there can be one second difference between 10th place and first place.

Shane Smollen:
Yeah, definitely for somebody I didn’t quite answer I guess the whole question, but I’ve just found so much overlap between competitive Motorsport and that would apply to many other sports and competitive business. And wow, both are very competitive. And if you just get down to some of those fundamental rules of who you align yourself with and in no particular order, and having a worthwhile goal and a clear plan. And making sure you’re just hanging around with the best possible people and whether that’s the people you work with in your business or teammates or people that are there to coach you or champion drivers that you have access to their data. And you can see in real time every single little input more so than you can do in a business scenario. You can see every last little piece of input. What you can’t see is what’s in their brain, what’s ingrained, what their instinctive reactions are, what their reflexes are.
But you can see every single thing that car is doing and what their feet are doing and what their hands are doing and to some extent what their eyes are doing. And so you have that opportunity to close the gap and in some cases that’s an element of just going out there and doing it. In other cases, you’re talking about an element of fear and because you are in some cases taking a risk that the car will steer off into a wall because it just doesn’t feel normal. Once you do it once and no more than twice, it feels normal. And again, there’s just an obvious comparison to the pathway of business. So because I was a late starter and now to some extent I’m a late participant, it’s more critical than ever, whether it’s physical fitness being with… Like this year I’ve stepped it up in terms of training, in terms of practice, in terms of preparation, pre-meetings, post-race briefs. I’ve got the best possible engineer that I can find who in other weekends he’s working with a teammate in supercar team.
The owner of the team is Chaz Mostert, who is equivalent, it would be up there in the top two or three drivers in the country for both GT machinery and supercars and in a good car prepared. So I’m putting everything in my favour, but at the end of the day, it’s you and the car and you’ve got to go out there and make decisions along the way and take measured risks to win. And fortunately last year win we did, we won the GT4 Australian championship. And there’s no doubt about it that despite a much sort of deeper well of competition this year that having that win and going out there with number one in the car, it does give you that extra little bit of self-belief. I’ll be interested to see how long I can do it for. Naturally, you just don’t want to leave it one race too late.

Anthony Denman:
No, you don’t. I’ve got another quote here. “You’ve got to crash to get better.” Why do you have to crash to get better in both Motorsport and business?

Shane Smollen:
I don’t really think you need to crash to get better. I guess, what’s the definition of crash? I don’t think you need to go broken business to be a great business person, but I guess we are talking here about risk. You don’t have to have contact in a motor race and write off your car and possibly hurt yourself to learn. In fact, in some ways for an extended period that could easily lead to you keeping a greater margin for error than what you need. I think you need to definitely creep up on things and you need to start to feel things slip away and you need to be smart enough to know when enough’s enough. And so do you need to crash? No. Do you need to almost crash? Indefinitely, absolutely.

Anthony Denman:
Have you crashed before?

Shane Smollen:
In which part?

Anthony Denman:
Both.

Shane Smollen:
Yes. Yeah, definitely.

Anthony Denman:
And what did you learn from those crashes?

Shane Smollen:
In business, when I say crash, I’ve definitely had chapters and the times where there’s been a line in the sand. I’ve learned when possibly one chapter needs to be closed or is closed, that there is a need for patience and a need for some degree of contemplation before you find that next chapter. Some people just have one single chapter from a teenager through to retirement, but whilst I’ve had property there as a continuous thread in my life, there has been a number of chapters. And there’s been a couple of times along the way with whether it’s success of a business or divorce for that matter where yeah, I think there’s something to be said for taking stock. The quality of the people that you, as I said, that you hang around, that you align yourself with. It’s just like what you want for your teenage kids as your kids start to mature past being infants and start to build a social network.
But you do realise that the influence from their friends is at some point, probably sooner rather than later, going to start to exceed the influence of yourself as a parent. And it’s the same in business. If you choose to align yourself for the wrong people, you are going to pay a long price and probably a deep price. And some of these situations take too long to unwind themselves for. We’ve only got so many decades to really enjoy the journey of business. So definitely the quality of people obviously taking the learnings and as you get older and more mature, hopefully you’re starting to lose some of that defensiveness or self-righteousness and realising that your success and your journey is very much a product of your own personal decisions, I think it’s important to really be clear on what you do best.
And many people have found themselves in a negative situation by possibly just believing they’re stronger than what they are in more things and what they are. Whereas I think I’ve come to understand what I’m best at and where I need to strap on help or where I just shouldn’t be at all. And having said that, we still find ourselves in a high risk industry. That’s important to me even though I don’t really identify with it in terms of at the front of my mind. Obviously some degree of risk and adrenaline is important for me to enjoy a journey. I’m just not turned on by widgets being made in a factory as much as that could be a fantastic business and possibly a more consistent business, I do need calculated risk. But more and more it does need to be very calculated and very informed and underpinned by, as I said, by sticking to your knitting, sticking to what you do best, where you do it best and who you do it best with.

Anthony Denman:
What a terrific answer, mate. Thanks for that. That’s exactly why I have tried so hard to get you onto this show for answers like that. Okay, so we’re just going to stick with Motorsport just for a little bit longer. Why is Mount Panorama in Bathurst your favourite track?

Shane Smollen:
There’s no doubt that iconic element and that history is a part of it, certainly a lot more than that, but it’s definitely a part of it. I remember as a young kid in Ipswich getting a track, a slot car track for my eighth birthday, and it was the Hardie-Ferodo 1000 and so many kids of our era and right up to today for that matter, that was the excitement of getting up. The race used to start a lot earlier, I guess it used to take a lot longer because the cars were slower. But the excitement of getting up early and turning on the black and white television and watching a Peter Brock or a Moffat zip round Bathurst and just some of the most Titanic battles.
Or watching a Brock take his fifth title, not that I was a Holden fan, I remember those moments so clearly. So there is that sort of that iconic legacy element to Bathurst, which you just can’t take away. By the first time I arrived at Bathurst, which again, because I was a late starter, I was already in my forties, you get to the outskirts of Bathurst and you look up and it’s a little bit… you look for the Hollywood sign when you’re in LA and you see Mount Panorama written across the top of the hill and the hairs on the back of your neck bristle. But taking that into a racing context, it’s an incredibly exciting track to drive on the limit. And when you’re pushing something like a Carrera Cup car, Porsche GT3 Cup at its limit, which in terms of minimum corner speeds is faster than a V8 Supercar, not quite as fast in a straight line, probably 15 to 20 kilometers slower.
The V8 Supercars would touch 300 kilometers an hour before they take the chase on Conrod Straight. Our cars are probably just over the 280 mark. But the funny thing, everybody always says, how fast does the car go? And that’s actually when you’re having a rest and having a drink. So it’s not really that relevant at all other than the fact that you want to go as fast as you can because it means time. But the Bathurst track is just extraordinary. When you get up the top, most of it, you are hemmed in by concrete walls. You just have to just be so extraordinarily focused. And there are times when that’s difficult. We used to support this biggest support race before the start of the 1000 race. And you’d smell that the sausages from the barbecues up the top of the mountain coming through the car as you’re trying to do 210, 220.
You’re on a rising crest at McPhillamy or Reid Park, and before you hit Skyline or starting the Bathurst 12 hour, the sun would heat up above the mountains with this extraordinary rural landscape that sort of sits underneath and you can’t see anything past that sort of horizon of skyline. These are incredible moments, but just such an extraordinary test. And I think some of my best racing memories in terms of successes and just banking a really strong time that so many of them would come back to that track. Yeah, just good fun, great town, amazing track, amazing history. And whether it’s somebody like myself or one of the top professional drivers in supercars, if people always just take it that next level of… it’s just that little bit more important.

Anthony Denman:
Hey, that sounds borderline spiritual. I love the sound of that.

Shane Smollen:
It actually is. There is that Zen type element to being at one with a car and everything in a state of flow, just like I’m sure exactly the same or I know exactly the same applies to surfing in an exotic location with a great wave, but sitting a few centimeters under the surface is a lot of coral.

Anthony Denman:
That’s why I prefer sand points. So we talked about the category of cars that you’re racing and that it’s the GT4 Australian Championship to which you are the current reigning champion of that category. Why did you select or why do you race? Is there a particular reason why you race in that category or a particular reason that you really like about racing in that category?

Shane Smollen:
GT4 is a great category. It’s a worldwide category, so it has a global base. It’s administered by a French base company called SRO. They own both the GT4 and the GT3 championships around the planet. And so it’s administered very well. All of the cars, there’s quite a wide variety of cars throughout the championship, but all of them are subject to what’s called a BOP or a balance of performance where the cars are tested. And by using a variety of power restraints, the weight in the car, the ride height of the car, they find a combination that essentially brings a lot of very different machinery back to the same speed. They essentially equal the cars, and whilst it might be a little bit out of whack here and there on certain tracks, et cetera, but generally speaking, they get it right.
So that’s a great thing. It’s an expensive sport, but it’s not quite as expensive as possibly a GT3 type event or other types of racing. So they’re beautiful cars. My car, it’s built it Germany in the Porsche Motorsport factory essentially. So it’s put together well, you can trust it, it’s safe, and these cars look great on track. So we’re racing against the likes of McLaren and AMG GT Mercedes, BMW. There’s a great Fort Mustang now in the category, Aston Martin’s in the category, Audi’s in the category, it’s just full fat racing. You can measure yourself on a global basis. You can go racing in Europe or in the United States if you choose, and you’d be jumping into the same machinery under the same rules. Look, I haven’t got any plans to do that, but it would be great to do it and probably a little sooner rather than later. So maybe that’s something I need to write down and make happen today.

Anthony Denman:
Do you do that often, write things down that you really want to make happen?

Shane Smollen:
Not much.

Anthony Denman:
But obviously it’s a tactic.

Shane Smollen:
Yeah. Look, I do write down plans, but I’ve never been highly detailed in terms of written goals. I’ve always, I think about it a lot and I crystallise what’s important to me, but I keep what I write down quite basic, and that’s just an honest answer. I don’t journal. Would I recommend it to somebody else? More than likely, but it’s just not something that I’ve felt a need for. It’s interesting, I find I struggle looking back, I don’t have a lot of time for being reflective. For the first time I’ve actually displayed all my motor racing trophies because I’ve got a room now big enough to do so that just happened to have a lot of cabinetry in it. And occasionally I find myself just wandering around thinking about different events and the like. But yeah, just other than the bigger lessons in life, I just don’t find myself taking a reflective view that often. I just find myself, I’m looking forward constantly, and that’s just really important for me. I just find it a lot more exciting, let’s say that’s possibly more a fault than an attribute, but it’s just the truth.

Anthony Denman:
When you say you crystallise things, what do you mean by that?

Shane Smollen:
These days? I actually design my time to have a lot of contemplation time. I really value having space in my day and in my diary. I don’t see the benefit of having a very busy diary that’s crammed with meetings. So I generally do just take time to… We’re on the water here, fairly recently, moved to the Gold Coast after a long period in Sydney, and then a little bit of time in Byron Bay. I take time to let things digest and certainly am slower in making decisions than I would’ve been at an earlier stage in my life. So I just have this basic set of principles, philosophies, if you like, and I just let things stir around in the melting pot a little, but not to the extent that I think I get stuck a lot. I like things to move forward. I like to feel momentum, but I have learnt to realise that not having anything in the diary is dollar productive, whereas I think a lot of people fear having an empty diary, whereas I see it as dollar productive time.

Anthony Denman:
How do you finding that, because your business is in Sydney, right?

Shane Smollen:
Yeah.

Anthony Denman:
How do you find being geographically removed from it in that sense?

Shane Smollen:
So this business, Central Element, which is now over a dozen years old, has evolved in a way similar to the last major chapter of my business, which was the network of agencies that I guess some people, not so much myself, called Smollen Group, which was sold to McGrath Group in 2015. In both cases, it was important for me to really invest in great leadership in management and really minimise the amount of direct reports that I had. So I guess in this case, I have to travel a little bit more than maybe I’d like, but it still, it’s one to two trips a month. It’s not really a big deal, as we all know, COVID legitimised video meetings, and I’m reasonably busy on the telephone. So in a perfect world, I’d probably like to have that personal, that physical touch with the business on a weekly basis. But the business is really well managed and I stay close to a lot of people. So at the end of the day, I guess I prioritised a decision for the family.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah, I’m sort of interested in that too. I’m always trying to find the balance, because you mentioned car crashes and you mentioned divorce, you couldn’t get a bigger car crash than having to get divorced, I’d imagine. I’ve been divorced, so I do know without kids, I’d had to think what it’d be like with kids.

Shane Smollen:
Yeah, I think abundance in your business life should be better for your relationship than a sense of scarcity or fear. I think that at the end of the day, you’re looking for the best possible outcome, and I’ve always just really been interested in leverage, that the power of really prioritising and understanding what’s most dollar productive with your time. And I’ve been really interested in effective delegation, and I try and read or audiobooks or there’s likely to be an element there of efficiency, I guess. And so for some time I’ve tried to give myself quite a lot of what on paper looks like spare time, but really it’s just spending more time in my mind to be quite frank, not in a meditative state and less time physically in the business.
And less time doing things that either I can’t do as well as other people, or I choose not to do, and I can do as well as other people, but I choose not to do or not to do to the same extent. And I effectively delegate. And over time, obviously you’re trying to compound the value of your time through such things, but you’re also trying to combine that with how you compound the value of your capital and that whole risk reward element. Yeah, I’m really interested in that. And even though I’m at a mature age now, I’ve also got an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old, and I’m able to drop them off and pick them up. And this morning it was a rowing drop off at five A.M. and it’ll probably be a 5:45 pick up this afternoon. But in between we’ll have plenty of time for some cool things that’ll relate to the business as well as at a personal level.

Anthony Denman:
Why did you choose to live on the Gold Coast?

Shane Smollen:
Well, I didn’t mean to, I was here between the ages of 21 and 35, and that was a good period, but I really enjoyed the move to Sydney and spent a great couple of decades there. And to be quite frank, could move to Sydney again tomorrow. But really what happened is we found just a really special half an acre beachfront property in Byron Bay, and we spent time up there and it was going to be… we didn’t know what we were going to do with it, but basically COVID hit and we, I guess, were quite similar to a lot of people.
Yeah, I guess it’s fair to say we were COVID refugees. We really were attracted to spending time there. It was an easy flight from Ballina to Sydney. The idea of building a dream home on this beautiful beachfront position at Belongil was just so attractive. So we did that. But I guess the reality as we built that house, the reality was we just couldn’t quite find the school solution that we were prepared to commit to to the extent of high school. And cut a long story short, we chose a school on the Gold Coast, and then I guess having that time and-

Shane Smollen:
… on the Gold Coast. Then I guess having that time in Byron and being an hour away, I started to realise the Gold Coast really had evolved and had, to a large extent, changed from what I’d known at a younger stage. We made a decision to move, and no regrets. I could be happy, they’re all beautiful places, I could be happy here, I could be happy in Byron, I could be happy in Sydney. If you’re not happy in any of those type of places, it’s probably another reason, not necessarily the geography.

Anthony Denman:
Just before we move on from the car thing, I’m just interested, what sort of road car do you drive?

Shane Smollen:
I drive a Range Rover with a large engine, and then with a 911 Porsche.

Anthony Denman:
Do you get speeding tickets?

Shane Smollen:
No. If you use waze, you can avoid most of them.

Anthony Denman:
What was it like to grow up in Ipswich?

Shane Smollen:
I had nothing to compare it with. I think it was excellent. We grew up having to be resourceful. The neighbourhood was the jungle. You explored the jungle, you tried to run the jungle. Yeah. It was hot and humid, and in retrospect, in some ways a very basic upbringing, in other ways a loving and great environment full of down-to-Earth people. Again, I had nothing to compare with. I had everything I needed and my parents worked extraordinarily hard to allow me the opportunity to get to a Catholic private school for high school. That wasn’t easy. That wasn’t easy for them. So, dad sold cigarettes for a living. Mum would occasionally work in a factory. But, yeah. I think them digging deep to get me to a quality school probably did make a difference, in terms of those sliding door moments or that they’re fork-in-the-road pathways in your life. But it was great. It was a footy town. I played rugby league. It was a Holden Ford town. Probably more Holden than Ford. But my first cars were Fiats. I don’t know. I was always wired a little bit differently.

Anthony Denman:
I love that. So, dad was a cigarette salesman, so there’s where your sales, your innate salesmanship probably comes from. I was going to ask you about the footy thing, whether you do or follow it, and if you’re a Queensland supporter or…

Shane Smollen:
Yeah. I’m die-hard. Even when I lived in Sydney, I definitely disconnected from Queensland. Except that I’ve remained a Broncos fan, some great early times. Then I was long-suffering there, there’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel again, and always a Maroons fan, and that was always good fun with your Sydney mates. But, yeah. That’s never been in doubt.

Anthony Denman:
It blows my mind. I’ve known you for so long and it’s only through this podcast. I never would’ve picked you, and this is where we’re going to go next, I never would’ve picked you for a kid that grew up in Ipswich, and I never would’ve picked you for a rugby league, man. It’s amazing. How do you go from Ipswich to owning one of the largest franchise networks on the north shore of Sydney? How does that happen?

Shane Smollen:
I don’t know. I imagine… I don’t know if Elon Musk grew up with money. I’m small fry in terms of the journey, but look. I think I’ve always been wired to, as I said, want to push things forward. I enjoy winning, I enjoy the process of success. I can’t ever think of reaching a destination where I really spend too much time either celebrating it or thinking, reflecting on it a great deal. I’ve always needed to move forward. I’ve always enjoyed quality, in terms of… I am naturally drawn to whether it’s real estate to quality real estate and quality brands and developing quality brands. As I said, I’m really drawn to helping people optimise their performance, doing that for myself and as a way to achieve my outcomes, to ensure that as many people around me are the right people, and I’m doing my part to help them be at their optimum.
Sometimes that’s just as simple as just getting clear, and start to get them a taste of what it’s like to really be a momentum and start to believe in themselves, and start, just like I would’ve had to along the way with growing up in Ipswich, and it’s just cutting some of those mooring lines around what feels enough or your attitude towards money. So many people have got a toxic slash scarcity view towards money, and whilst I haven’t cracked the code, it’s just working on it all the time. Hopefully that’ll be the case until I leave the Earth.

Anthony Denman:
You were a couple of weeks away from finishing your, I think it was an advertising degree.

Shane Smollen:
Yeah. Bachelor of Business at QUT.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah. Majoring in advertising. Which explains a lot. But then one of your mates turned up in a blue BMW?

Shane Smollen:
Yeah, he did. He dropped out of law and he jumped into real estate, which I knew nothing about. I’d seen the fronts of real estate offices, with some sparkling new cars out the front, but really had never even… My parents owned one house my entire life. My mother still lives in that same house that I moved into when I was two years old. She still lives there, and fortunately, touch wood, in good health. So, real estate just had never ever been part of our family situation. We didn’t move from house to house. My parents didn’t renovate houses and sell them. Nothing’s ever changed. But, yeah. He basically said, “Look, I’ve been made sales manager. Do you want to try this? Do you want to try real estate?” He said, “I’m making 800 bucks a week,” which was an absolute squillion back then. I was hoping to find an advertising agency to become an account executive within, and one day buy an Alpha GDV and hopefully earn 350 bucks a week.
That’s the truth. That was the model and they were the numbers, and it just resonated straight away. At the time, I’d actually become a little bit disillusioned with what I’d seen in the advertising industry, and I’d had the opportunity for a little bit of crack back then. Yeah, it wasn’t really exciting me and it just looked like a bit of bullshit to be quite frank. Sounds a bit funny, then going into real estate where it’s even worse. It paid more. Before I knew it, I found myself doing the course and making my first sale, which I drove past the Moreton Bay Islands a couple of days ago and pointed it out to my wife and said, “Somewhere out there,” on a rainy Sunday, “Somewhere out there is an island where I made my first sale in real estate, and I’ll never return.”
Drive around in Jalopies and find some staked out piece of land that we sold for $16,000. I came back and I’d left the lights on to my father’s Datsun 180B. My buyer was a police officer, and I still remember him. I was 19 at the time, and I remember him trying to… It was pouring rain and we had to get to the police credit union in the city of Brisbane to get his deposit cheque. So, I’m in there trying to clutch start the car as he pushed it down this rainy road. We got him started and got the deposit and he settled and that was the first sale, but things went on from there. Yeah.

Anthony Denman:
So, how did you get into real estate in Sydney?

Shane Smollen:
Myself and a friend, we started a boutique independent on the Gold Coast. As part of that, it was a very progressive business. We’re talking early 90s and we could see that there was an opportunity to do things at a higher level of quality. We were both ambitious, in our 20s, and we spent a lot of time in aeroplanes going down to Sydney and Melbourne, and for that matter the United States, and just absorbing everything we possibly could that we could bring back and implement. Whether that be around sales training, and we would build personal relationships with some of the best global sales and real estate trainers. So, having that base of really strong technical sales skills, as well as market knowledge, was super important. This is before, I guess, I’d really become a student of management, leadership and coaching.
But from a marketing and brand point of view, we were the first to introduce photographic signs and floor plans for our properties. There was so many things we did. We used to draw… There was no colour advertising back then. We had a local artist draw every single property, which was fantastic, until we listed our first high rise apartment. Then we looked at each other and go, “What are we going to do?” We said, “You know what? We’re going to list a bunch more in that building. Let’s draw it.” So, I’ll get to your question, which is, we sold that business and I thought I was going to leave real estate forever, and that was around 2000, 2001. But I’d been spending a lot more time in Sydney and I’d got to know John McGrath, we saw him on 60 Minutes as a guy in his 20s, and-

Anthony Denman:
I remember that, I remember that.

Shane Smollen:
He was on 60 Minutes with Simon…

Anthony Denman:
I remember that, yeah. Running around the…

Shane Smollen:
Yeah. On the Bondi to Bronte. That’s right. That’s exactly the one. He was on there with Simon Reynolds and some sort of young entrepreneurial millionaire sort of story. I just picked up the phone and rang him up, and before we knew it we were down there and catching up with him at his offices in Moncur Street, Woollahra. But fast-forward time, and my sister, Lucinda, had become his personal assistant. She rang me one day and said, “We cannot find a sales director. John said it would just be extraordinary to find somebody with your background.” I said, “Well, it won’t be me because I’m out of the industry. I’m looking at other options.” But over a period of about six months, we just kept talking. Yeah, I ended up making the move to Sydney and taking on the role as director of sales and marketing for the McGrath Real Estate Organisation, which at that point was not a franchise business, it was company owned offices.
That was 2001, we took that forward over the next four or five years, doubled the size of the business, opened a lot of new offices, as far south, I guess, as Cronulla, Northern Beaches, North Shore, to the Northwest, places like Lane Cove, new office in Neutral Bay. So, that was a wonderful experience. I again, left the business. I was never really cut out to be an employee. I’d had a lot of autonomy in that role and really treated the business as my own, which is a secret of course of being successful for any employee. The time had come, so I was prepared to close that chapter. It was another enjoyable chapter, and I just wanted some time to myself. I took on some consultancy and some public speaking and some coaching, and found myself sometimes just wandering, having a swim at Bondi Beach on a Monday afternoon and a hot bath and reading a book.
Honestly, it was one of the best times of my life. At some point you want to get going again. A little later than that, literally six to 12 months, John had to make the decision to start to franchise a part of the business. Again, it took me a long time to make the decision, basically had to get therapist help to make the decision, and I bought a small chunk of the business. Which had no backend, no operations, it was just two sales offices with a fairly small sales team, some good people, some good people that are still champions of the industry today. So, that was in 2007, and that was it. I was just head down, and over a period of what was really only seven years, we built that business to what I think was the best of its time in the world. I don’t say that lightly, but from a productivity point of view, in other words the amount of business that people individually were writing and the type of market shares that we enjoyed. It was a business I’m immensely proud of.
From a legacy point of view, immensely proud of what a lot of the people in that business are doing today, many of who are now business owners and a lot still within the McGrath organisation. But outside of McGrath as well, because they’ve moved on for whatever reasons. We grew that to a business that exceeded $3 billion worth of sales. It was a high quality business. I was very clear, just even though I couldn’t verbalise it back in those early days in starting real estate in Ipswich, leadership was critical to me. Not just leadership in terms of me as a CEO or a leader, but the way in which people took on leadership roles in no matter what they did, and showed up as leaders and took self-responsibility. That did things, business, that did things in a quality way, a business that acted fairly, that had a real element of fairness about how it treated people and treated situations, and respect.
I do honestly believe, that for the mainstay, our business lived those values. Central Element today is no different. It’s a combination now. I have partners, and my partner, Wayne, has got two sons in the business, and it truly is a family, with a strong family DNA. But again, because I think we share a lot of commonality in terms of those values, all of those, whether it’s leadership, whether it’s fairness, whether it’s showing respect, whether it’s doing things in a high quality way, I think all of those elements are showing up in the business today. If there was another business left in my journey, I can swear to you it’ll be the same again, those elements. But it might be a totally different business or sector.

Anthony Denman:
Wow, there you go, hey. That’s really interesting, how that journey unravelled. I never would’ve seen that coming. When you were in business with that fellow on the Gold Coast, do you remember the name of the agency?

Shane Smollen:
Yeah. It was Lambert Smollen.

Anthony Denman:
Lambert Smollen. That’s really interesting that you were the sales and marketing director there at McGrath, that they had a definite edge over their competitors. I was always a little bit miffed, I’ve got to say, when I looked at guys like Craig Pontey and Bill Malouf and Bart Doff. They were sitting in these brands that just didn’t seem like they were truly reflective of who they were and the market they were operating in. There was a distinct lack of design savviness, I always felt in those brands. But McGrath for me, they were the ones, or that brand was the one that really owned that design savviness in that space in the eastern suburbs.

Shane Smollen:
Yes, without a doubt. I mean, at that point in time it was indeed the innovator and definitely was doing things in a more consistent and quality way. The word consistency is super important, because it’s not that hard to come up with excellent design, et cetera. But it’s that discipline, the character that it takes to stay true to that over the course, that I think makes a big difference and such a major part of creating brand equity. Look, a lot of those… It’s interesting you mentioned Craig Pontey because he now owns McGrath Double Bay. I think a chunk of the McGrath mojo is back, I wouldn’t say it hasn’t been a linear process. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it lost its way, but I would say it probably forgot how good it was there for a while. It really now is back to doing what it does best as a brand.
But interestingly, it’s time for me to potentially close another chapter mid this year, as the likelihood of privatisation and new stakeholders coming into play takes force, which has been well publicised over the last month or two. Yeah. So, again, I’m aware it’s been a 23-year journey and one that has been a really fun one, but who knows? Might manifest itself in one more chapter for me with that company, or not. I’m not sure. For the moment, I’m very focused on Central Element. That’ll be the backbone of my business career, I think, until I throw the cards down.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah. I don’t think you ever will throw those cards down somehow. What’s the difference between a good general agency salesperson and a good project marketing sales person?

Shane Smollen:
In terms of what they do day-to-day, a good project marketer, from a strategic point of view, needs to take a long-term view. Really needs to understand the stages in a campaign. They need to have a good mix. Are you talking about just the salesperson themselves?

Anthony Denman:
Yes, just the salesperson.

Shane Smollen:
Oh, from a salesperson point of view, I mean, there’s plenty of commonality. But generally speaking, most of the work being done in general agency is being done by people who are probably more focused on listing the property, or building their own profile and accumulating the listings. It goes without saying that they’re not going to get very far if they’re not servicing buyers to a reasonable extent. But typically they’re more focused on listing property. Then these days, as team structures have evolved, to the point now you could have an agent that could have easily seven or eight people working underneath them. A lot of that buyer work is done by people less experienced in most cases. Or who are just simply more suited, who actually have more of that nurturing style personality. To be quite frank, most general real estate agents just would not have the concentration span to be successful at projects.
Whilst you need to, always in sales, retain a sense of urgency, have great product knowledge, look to actually complete a transaction and strike while the iron is hot. But these guys are often going to take a two, three, four if you’re working at Crown Barangaroo, a decade type approach to selling a project. The style of personality for a lot of the most successful general agents would never deal with that. It just wouldn’t fit with their persona. So, yeah. On the outside you would think very similar, on the inside, quite dissimilar actually, in terms of what they focus on and who they are.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah, that’s a good answer. I mean, Justin Brown said a similar thing. One of those general agency guys really only needs to maintain a relationship for about a month, like you said, versus potentially a decade.

Shane Smollen:
Yeah. Well, look. The smart general agents work out that’s actually not the case, and they need to find efficient ways to keep quality contact with people over many years. Most of them don’t do it well. Almost all of them don’t do it well. I sold the property, property when we first moved to the Gold Coast, which was a lovely old penthouse down at Burleigh Heads, I sold that a few weeks back and just thought to myself, wow. The agent that I bought it off, it would’ve been so easy for them to place an extra one to three phone calls over the course of the ownership period, which was only two to three years, add a little bit of value, check in on how we’re going. It would’ve been, I would think, an 80% chance, 90% chance that they would’ve got the listing. I told them I was interested in buying potentially another property in the building, no real follow through.
On the Gold Coast, a lot of the agents are charging up to 3%, no less than 2%. So, you just think, a check for 100,000, really? There’s just no system there or possibly just no intent to want to build those relationships, rather than go onto that next piece of business. Some have worked it out, most haven’t. Or if they have, they’re just not doing it as well as what they should. As a developer, I mean, you’d just die, wouldn’t you, if people on site were not following through on… Some of these leads cost literally thousands of dollars each. So, I’m sure a lot still go through to the keeper, but not even close, I think, to what happens out there in the general real estate world.

Anthony Denman:
How did you meet Wayne Chivas?

Shane Smollen:
Just through a common contact. Through a mutual contact. A gentleman that had come into my business and had some prior relationship with Wayne, and he just said, “Look. I’ll put you guys together.” Wayne had been… He’s a chartered accountant by trade, he was one of the founding partners of Goodwin Chivas, which is still a successful burgeoning practice in the hills. He’d been involved in both a construction company and as a successful developer on the Central Coast with some high quality apartment and commercial development, their called Platinum. We just started talking. It was just quite clear that we were quite in sync in terms of type of people. We’re different personalities, but I think our value set are quite aligned, and we’ve got skill… Again, we’ve got a skillset that has got some commonality, but we have different strengths. It just started to make sense. Again, not because I have some sort of specific goal with well-defined timelines in terms of how I look to the future, it was pretty clear to me that over time I was probably not wanting to be in the cut and thrust of agency.
Even when you’ve got a great management team, there’s a lot of emotional energy that goes into managing real estate agents. I know that’s a great surprise to you. But I knew it would just find a natural conclusion. As happened, it did find a natural conclusion, and it found it in quite a very definite single point in time way, which was the purchase of my business in its entirety when the the McGrath float occurred, which was again, not something I’d planned. But in business you’ve got to be ready and open to opportunity. But a little prior to that time, Wayne and I got together and realised that it’d be really cool to start to look to do some development work. Just like anything else, we started really small. Started with I think our first site that we worked on, just didn’t work out.
All of a sudden we found a couple of opportunities for mid-range apartments on the lower North Shore, which I think we executed well and certainly to a higher level of quality than what had been typically done in the area. We started to build some momentum, and that’s just increased along the time to today. No different than anything else in business, no different to motor racing. I guess what we consider to be possible now, or normal now is a different possible and a different normal from where we were 10 years ago. But there’s no overnight success, because you have to build that belief and you have to also build that reputation.

Anthony Denman:
Where did the name Central Element come from?

Shane Smollen:
I put it out to my marketing team-

Anthony Denman:
Where did the name Central Element come from?

Shane Smollen:
I put it out to my marketing team and they came back with a shortlist, and I probably wish I hadn’t have picked it, to be honest. It’s very generic and too long, but it works for us. I mean, the rationale behind it was that we are… Because I was recently new to development and I just worked out that our outcomes was such a product of… It was almost like a hub-and-spoke, all of the consultants and the architects and the builders, just all of the people, like we were there in the middle as almost the conductor. We had the vision, but we were so reliant upon so many critical parts, and the financiers and the banks, and so that name resonated because we were, in my eyes, the Central Element. So I went with it, but, yeah, if I had time I-

Anthony Denman:
I like it. I think, especially with that rationale, I never would’ve thought… Yeah, I thought maybe it had something to do-

Shane Smollen:
Yeah, that was the rationale. But, yeah, look, if you were doing Marketing 101, Anthony, you’d probably say something that you can own but isn’t necessarily common speak, and may be even a bit more succinct. But at the end of the day, does it really matter? There’s some pretty weird names out there. It’s what it stands for.

Anthony Denman:
That’s right.

Shane Smollen:
And I believe what we’ve now built, a brand within our sector that really does stand for something that’s quite special, and again, quite aligned to that value set that I spoke about earlier, which included the words leadership and included the word quality, et cetera. And certainly how we operate the business, again, respect, fairness. Yeah.

Anthony Denman:
You’ve done such a great job of articulating that story too. I noticed, and I’ve watched with great interest how you’ve articulated that story over the years and how it’s consistently become more sophisticated and engaging, and I think that was really interesting hearing your original rationale for the business. I feel like where you’re at the moment and what you’re doing in terms of your storytelling for that business is still very much aligned with that strategy and that overall vision for business that you have.
Okay, all righty, here we go. So let’s talk about courage, if you don’t mind, because property development is, real estate is, but property development especially is a very courageous endeavour. There’s no doubt about it. As is car racing. Where does that courage come from?

Shane Smollen:
I would think that it’s a fear of the opposite. In other words, I think it’s a fear of not having a go. I think it’s a fear of standing still, of being beige. That’s more so what I think it is. I don’t really want to bet the farm, but it’s also a business that you have to take calculated risk. I think over time, particularly if you want to grow and expand, you need to become very conversant in the fact that there are businesses that, I guess, for them want to align with the brand equity you’ve built and the pipeline of opportunities that you’ve built and the skill set you bring to the table, et cetera. And you can start to play risk by bringing different partners into a project, into a deal, if you like. So I think the courage, in a way, is actually anchored to the fact that the thought of not having a go is not exciting at all.
So I’m always going to slightly favour that way, but I guess more and more it’s a better educated, more informed, and sometimes a slower decision. I’ve been the last to fall in the line with a couple of situations, even over recent times. And in each case I can’t really think of a time that, at the end of the day, Wayne and Nathan and myself have not landed on the same place to make a decision. But we get there differently, and I probably started out as a slightly younger man being a little bit more gung ho, and I was getting there more quickly, and now I’m probably getting there a little more slowly. But the outcome is still, we want to move forward and we understand that we just have to take calculated risks to get there, but they’re just hopefully smarter or calculated risks.

Anthony Denman:
How do you calculate risks?

Shane Smollen:
With a combination of great information and understanding, sticking to your knitting, like sticking… Obviously, the more that you are specialised, the more that you understand the marketplace. By finding a balance within your mindset and in your due diligence approach that ensures that you are tempering a bias towards optimism, but at the same time understanding, if you don’t have a reasonably optimistic view, if you don’t think as a brand you can’t add value to the revenues of a project, that you probably won’t do a lot of business.
So it’s trying to find a balance in that risk profile where you’re backing yourself, but not to the point where you’re just talking yourself into numbers. I mean, these days, particularly in the construction and funding environment that we find ourselves in, yeah, it would be easy to make the numbers work because we all want to get quality deals done. You don’t sit around a table and not want to get something done, but of course, most of your best wins will come in your ability to say no, because you don’t need to say yes to that many deals to have a significant business in this sector. It’s not like general real estate where a good operator is looking to finalise 10 to 12 transactions in a month.
Three to four in a year for us is a year well spent, and that would apply to most developers. Some would do more, but I guess it depends on the actual scale we’re talking as well. So I think sticking to your knitting, understanding that area of specialisation, being highly diligent in terms of sourcing data and comparable sale information, being highly diligent in this crazy moving feast that is called the construction industry, building and maintaining awesome relationships in the funding, and both in terms of debt and equity in an area that allows you to move forward with confidence, and sometimes knowing that your solution’s well in place before contracts are signed.
It’s really just going through all of the elements of due diligence, and as I said, being confident, but not to the point where your optimism gets the better of you and your numbers are simply wrong, in which case you chase your tail from day one. And unless there’s some extraordinary bounce in the marketplace, you’re likely to never recover. In fact, it won’t be likely. You’ll definitely never recover.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah, the difference between making decisions like reversible decisions as opposed to irreversible decisions?

Shane Smollen:
Yeah, it is. Along the pathway of a development there are times that decisions are not necessarily… I guess an example of a reversible decision would be an option agreement. But I think certainly you need to have milestones where you potentially can walk away and divest the asset or change tack. It’s a dangerous business if you just lock in and put it all in black, that’s for sure.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah, you definitely need the two-door decision-making model as opposed to the one-door decision-making model.

Shane Smollen:
Sure.

Anthony Denman:
That’s for sure. Car racing is also a game of calculated risks. You’re making split-second decisions, aren’t you?

Shane Smollen:
Yeah.

Anthony Denman:
Do you ever make split second decisions in business?

Shane Smollen:
Oh, yes, probably. Obviously, situations allow you a little bit more time to contemplate, but it only takes one word to come out of your mouth the wrong way in a situation for there to be a whole butterfly effect, or a long line of repercussions. I guess what experience and preparation provides is, it just minimizes the chance of that word, or for that matter, that significant decision is going to be the wrong one. But look, I think it depends how you define that. I think we’re making those split decisions in every moment, in every conversation, certainly every critical conversation. So the answer is unequivocally yes.

Anthony Denman:
What’s the biggest error that you’ve ever made, that you’ve learnt the most from?

Shane Smollen:
I think anything that’s… There’s not one that’s just smashing me. If you said, what would be the most important thing… To be quite frank, the message of health and the importance of managing both your health and managing energy from the earliest moment possible, it’s probably still the overriding most important thing, whether it’s anything holistically in your life, it needs to be underpinned by great health and great energy. So that’s not probably where your question is pointed, but I’ll say that, no matter what, it’d be very hard to find things that are more important than decisions that you make about how you manage your health over time, because I still think that’s the greatest contributor to not just success by a financial thermometer, but by just success in how you feel as a human being.
I think a lot of people’s financial successes are dulled by them, how they feel about themselves. And as I said, their health outlook and their ability to enjoy those outcomes and the energy that they bring to the table. So just coming back to more specific things, look, I think from a straight business point of view, it’s anytime in the past that I was potentially motivated by a quick profit, or any time that you are prepared to compromise your values in any way for the sake of profit in particular, particularly in aligning yourself with people who think differently, act differently, make decisions differently, and are potentially just not the level of quality that you should be spending your time with.

Anthony Denman:
At what point did you… Because this health thing is very interesting to me. I mean, I agree with you and it’s one of those things, isn’t it? You don’t realise how valuable it is until you don’t have it anymore, health and well-being. Have you always felt that way about health and well-being, or was there ….

Shane Smollen:
No, I think I just did enough to get by and probably less for a lot of years. When I was 27 I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition called ankylosing spondylitis, which to this day is something that I need to manage. And I probably, because that came at exactly the same time as I was starting a business, had a child, was divorced, life, it was just go. It was adrenaline city, so I managed it with medication rather than lifestyle. So I don’t think that sets a very good base. So, yeah, no, I think I’ve let myself down in that area.
I mean, these days I eat well. I really try and focus on getting enough sleep. I do struggle with energy. A lot of that is related to that ankylosing spondylitis and just some of the wear and tear over the years and potentially have a medication and how that condition affects gut health. I have to really focus in on managing energy and, as I said, in younger years, I would’ve just… And still have to, to some extent, but I’ve just thrown medication at it. I would’ve gone on a different journey with the benefit of hindsight, and I think that would’ve had a different outcome.
So, yeah, I definitely would’ve… I think the decisions I made relating to health have been pivotal and not necessarily in a positive point of view. But, yeah, these days I’ve found a much better equilibrium and fortunately get to the gym each day and really do focus on what I eat, and days of drinking are certainly behind. Might have one or two glasses of red. I think I could have done a much better job. So I think, if I’m being retrospective, then, yeah, I would definitely change decisions around health, and I think that would’ve had any number of positive ramifications through my outcomes and my life experience.

Anthony Denman:
An amazing answer. How much sleep do you get a night?

Shane Smollen:
I was going through a period where I was really struggling between five and six hours, and it was killing me. These days it’s still a drama, but I really work towards trying to get seven, but it doesn’t happen. If I get six and three quarters, six and a half, I’m okay, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to be careful not to become obsessive about it, but at the same time it’s super important. Yeah, I’m really trying to invest in the right decisions and keeping consistent rituals and supplementation and exercise, just so you’re not taking the next… Whether it’s drinking alcohol or whatever it is, I’m just really focused on not giving away that next day or two.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah, totally. Do you use an alarm clock to wake up? Or do you wake up-

Shane Smollen:
Oh, God, I wish.

Anthony Denman:
You wish you’d be… Wake up naturally?

Shane Smollen:
I go to bed at 9:00 and I’ll wake up with something with a three. If there’s a four in front of it, happy days, that’s fantastic. But oftentimes there’ll be a three in front of it.

Anthony Denman:
So what do you do that early in the morning?

Shane Smollen:
I do try and zone out. A little bit of, I guess, I do actually use a little bit of the meditation skills that I did learn at one stage in my life and just try and breathe it out and just get a bit more rest, and occasionally doze back off. And then once I realise it’s probably not going to happen, I’ll start to think. I certainly won’t just grab a telephone and start reading stuff, that’s for sure. And then I’ll get up at usually about 5:00.

Anthony Denman:
Okay, so you’re lying in bed for a fair while?

Shane Smollen:
Yeah, probably an hour.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah, right.

Shane Smollen:
But again, look, whether it’s a long shower or a walk or lying in bed, once you’ve realised that you’ve either got enough sleep or you’re not going to go to sleep, I just use it to let thoughts come and go.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah, I find that it’s weird when I sleep, really. I’m very lucky in that way. I do eight or nine hours, but when I do wake up and sometimes that sort of 2:00 or 3:00 hour in the morning, I just have the most amazing ideas that occur to me. And there was a point where I used to go, “Do you know what? I’ve got to write that down so I don’t forget it.” But I’ve gotten so good at being confident around the fact that when I wake up, there’s… That idea is still going to be there, and it always is, right?

Shane Smollen:
Yeah, I agree. And when that does happen to me, I really try and let it go, because otherwise you just… If it’s that good you’re going to be introducing it into thoughts and it’s just not the time that I want.

Anthony Denman:
No, that’s right. That’s right. Exactly right. Coming back to courage, there’s a big emphasis obviously on building and structuring a team that mirrors this incredible way that you think about business. When you’re recruiting people, how do you identify courageous people in the recruitment process?

Shane Smollen:
This might sound a bit boring, but I am a big track record person when it comes to recruitment. It’s not to say we don’t take risks for people that would appear to have the right chemistry, the right outlook. But I just figure, and this is the more conservative side of me, I just figure there’s enough talent out there that is either not appreciated or not being led or managed well, or not being given the opportunities. And that if you are active enough in recruitment, and in no matter what business you’re in, you could be doing more in constantly looking for the right people. And most people are still, regardless of what type of company they have, they’re still doing most of their recruitment when there’s a recruitment need.
Most business owners, in my experience, just simply don’t prioritise the critical importance and the effect that it has on their business success, having more of the right people. My approach, whether it was for an agent role or now in Central Element, or whether it’s for leadership, management, sure, did we use personality profiling? Of course. Did we use a multiple? Was it that blend of process and instinct? Of course. Did you take your time and have multiple conversations and take different journeys with where those conversations went to get a better sense of the person? Of course. But if you are speaking to enough of the right people and you’re tuned in to what’s happening out there, particularly in the immediate competitive environment, you’ve typically already got people that are actually shining at what you need.
So you have to make it your business to essentially get to know more of those people. And I know that sounds so basic, but it’s like, “Why do I need to go and take the chance on somebody in a brand new role or stepping up three levels?” Even though… When I probably usually default to wanting to find somebody who’s extraordinary at doing exactly what I need and giving them a better place to be and to be treated differently and to have different growth opportunities, to have a bigger smile on their face, possibly be paid more, depending on the situation. Probably being paid more. It’s actually false economy not in most cases.
So I would say that first, before I go down some magical formula of identifying talent, because I don’t have it. Nathan religiously uses a profiling process to both recruit and to lead, and I think that’s been extremely effective. I’ve never had the discipline to do it, or really the desire to do it to the extent that he does it. And I’m really happy that he does do it because it’s such a wonderful, consistent foundation in how he understands the behaviour and the traits of people to make better informed decisions. And I’m always quite reassured when that information lines up.
But I’m… Sorry, probably the most boring answer you’ll get today, but possibly one of the most valuable is, recruit more, elevate the value and the importance of recruitment within your business regardless of the role, because having the best receptionist in Sydney or the east coast of Australia is going to provide exceptional benefits to your business. It doesn’t matter what the role is. Really make sure that you or you with your management team, and constantly looking for the best people, not just when you need them, and it’s unlikely going to make a lot of bad decisions.

Anthony Denman:
Fantastic. Let’s talk about premium, ultra, residential, commercial hotel stuff. So you started in the middle market territory, as you mentioned, but you looked to do that really well, like across all of those great governance parameters that you make sure are instilled into your business on a daily basis. In fact, you’ve done that. You’ve proven to have done that, not just in development, obviously, but also in your real estate business, really better than anyone else. So now you’ve moved from that middle market into the premium market. Why do you find that so interesting, that premium market, more so than the middle market?

Shane Smollen:
There’s two parts to that. In terms of the business environment we’re in, it makes commercial sense from the point of view that capitalising on the very buoyant, ultra-prestige market, particularly in Sydney, does give you a better opportunity to dilute some of the inflated inputs of the last few years of post-COVID. So even though construction and other costs have inflated significantly, the fact is that that end of the market has risen even more, and not wanting to be too specific, but being able to absorb 20,000 a square meter in construction costs is a lot easier if you’re aiming and achieving $100,000 a square metre for the actual end product. It’s very, very different to being here, say, in South East Queensland where you’re trying to build at 10,000 square metre and sell at 14,000 a square metre. It doesn’t work, and a lot of people are feeling that pain.
So there is a commercial reason, but fortunately, I just really love luxury architecture and I love the ability to… Whilst I typically will dress quite casually and don’t have 15 pairs of sunglasses lined up in my wardrobe, but I do really like the things that are built and designed really well. And I’ve become, I guess, more tuned in to what great architecture looks like. For me, it’s always underpinned by beautiful materiality, but very clean and timelessly classic in terms of its approach. I love beautiful surfaces and wonderful appliances and things that are just tactile to touch and feel that will stand the test of time. So it’s just a really interesting part of the business to be in for us. Could you make more money building industrial sheds or storage facilities? I’m sure you could make just as much, and I’m sure you could do it with less headaches, but again, I’m just not here to make widgets at this stage of the game.
That point of legacy does become important. I don’t want to build stuff just because we can sell it and it looks okay at the bottom of a feasibility or a P&L. It’s just not important to me. I’d rather not do it. It’s not to say that we want to do prestige and not make… Like I’ve always judged a business and my success in business, I’ve always really judged it by its ability to be commercially viable and commercially successful. I’m not drawn to businesses that are very revenue-driven but don’t show a profit. That’s just not important to me. Obviously, a lot of people become very rich in the digital sector, et cetera, the online sector by doing exactly that, being acquired, et cetera, and finding amazing uplift in their valuations.
It’s just not an area where I’ve found myself, and I think it’s super exciting for the people that have. So, yeah, just I love that stuff, whether it’s picking up a magazine or scrolling through Instagram. Or in just my own experience, we’ve just finished a really, I think, beautiful home on the beach at Byron Bay and just finessing every last detail of that has been generally a real joy. So to be able to look to our mostly apartment developments and bring that same level of quality and design integrity and work with great architects, and to really leave the place a lot better than you found it, and to see a smile and a great level of satisfaction with our clients, and to see them make good money on their properties over the years, it’s all really rewarding and fulfilling.
It’s just a place that I like to be, and I think it does take a lot of emphasis on a lot of 0.1-percenters, and I think because we’re up for that and we have built a brand and we have built track record, then I think that provides us with great opportunity to really be the best in the world at that sector.

Anthony Denman:
You’ve always been like that, as long as I’ve known you, even choosing a Fiat over a Ford. Let’s segue into storytelling. So I’ve got this quote from your Central Element website, which I would advise everybody go and take a look at, because if you want to see an example of corporate branding done well in the property space, in the property marketing category especially, go and have a look at that site.
When we get, and I hope you don’t mind this, but occasionally when we get asked to do some corporate branding for someone, I always go back and have a look at your site to see how things are done, how the story’s been told, and obviously that’s reflective of who you are, both as a person and as an organisation. So I’ve got a quote here that I’ve taken, I think, directly from the site. “We take a no stone unturned approach to finding and bringing these stories to life. That means patient sleuthing, wide and deep community consultation, rigorous research, and listening to learn.” How do you listen to learn?

Shane Smollen:
What’s a better way of learning?

Anthony Denman:
That’ll do me. I don’t think you need to embellish that. In fact, I probably can, like the amount of people who just… They’re just never present enough to listen, to learn. In fact, that’s because they’re not actually listening, right?

Shane Smollen:
Yeah. I think that word presence is so critical. It’s definitely been one of the habits that I’ve had to be a bit more conscious of in terms of building over the years. I think in earlier years… You haven’t asked the question. I’m just volunteering the information, which is, I think over the years I almost saw it as a badge of honor to what extent I could multitask, including in a meeting, whether the person across the table, for example, knew it or not. I think now there is so much to be achieved through being present and of course asking great questions. And if you don’t find that interesting or valuable enough, there’s probably a question on whether you-

Shane Smollen:
… interesting or valuable enough. There’s probably a question on whether you should be in that meeting in the first place, and whether it was required at all or whether somebody else should have done it. Because any meeting, particularly as a business owner, any meeting that you’re in, really should be at reasonably high value, and that doesn’t mean it needs to be of financial value immediately. It could be a discussion with anybody on your team or it could be, try to work out a problem or deal with a complaint. It doesn’t really matter, but if you’ve made a decision to be in that situation, particularly a meeting, not just meetings for the sake of meetings, which a lot of people do because it makes them feel worthy, then work on being present. That’s a very important word.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah. It’s funny, I’ve only recently, probably in the last five years, I reckon, become pretty good at that, but I do remember when we used to work together a long time ago, it was something that always struck me about you. You’ve had that for a long time, that ability to be present and to remain focused.

Shane Smollen:
I think the other word is curious, and I’m not sure to what extent these types of things are innate. I’m not sure to how you build a habit, but if it’s not innate and it’s important, then you have to build a new habit, don’t you? You have to build a new skill and it needs to be instilled as a habit. And present is one thing, but genuinely curious is another.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah.

Shane Smollen:
Awesome if you’re that way as a child, some are and some stay that way, some don’t.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah.

Shane Smollen:
Some people are anaesthetized and all of that’s bashed out of them, but yeah. Look, even if you just have to be smart enough to ask great questions to, at worst, appear curious, better than not doing it at all.

Anthony Denman:
If you can’t be curious, appear to be curious. I like that.

Shane Smollen:
Well, it’s critical.

Anthony Denman:
Oh man, I’m so excited. I’m dead set. I’ve got chills here, I’m so excited about this. Okay, so just a little bit more, another quote from your website, “At Central Element we search out a site with a story, a story of depth, beauty, of breathtaking natural surrounds, of cherished traditions and of captivating characters, alive or passed. When we find it, we see it as our challenge to preserve, translate, and celebrate this story. This isn’t easy. It means relentless adherence to a vision, saying, “No,” as many times as, “Yes,” and as much patience. It means finding a way despite everything, naysayers, the financial climate, even our own trepidations, to stay committed, to stay resolute, to stay original.” God, this is a good copy, “We relish this challenge and meet it head on.” Why is the history of a site so important to you in regards to your project storytelling?

Shane Smollen:
I think it just gives it the layers of depth. It’s not like we have a process that just, look, maybe it’s the law of attraction, but we’re just excited when we find a property that has got that level of both history and complexity, and our track record that we just don’t step away from that. And sometimes, particularly dealing with heritage in the planning process, it’s been extraordinarily frustrating and of course expensive. But if you look at the outcomes from the back of it and the way in which we’ve integrated the heritage of properties, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes because of course there’s no choice and nor should there be, but it just creates wonderful degree of interest, and complexity, and satisfaction, and legacy. And we’re always going to look back at the developments that people continue to enjoy, that have those elements more than a bunch of boxes on a 800 square meter site.
But it’s also a product, realistically, it’s a product of doing business in Sydney, in an older town by Australian standards, not world standards. And because we’re more and more focused on the city fringe, the eastern beaches, the Lower North Shore, et cetera, et cetera, it’s like naturally we’re going to come across more of those type of opportunities. And that’s where, I guess, we do have the courage really, to look deeply at what’s possible. And we do that also by being prepared to work with architects that are always going to look to fully celebrate, and the heritage of the property and are storytellers in themselves, oftentimes that is not the most cost-effective approach, nor do we want to find ourselves in a situation of needing to value engineer to the point the soul is lost from the development, even though it has a heritage element to it, no matter how great.
So it’s just a really interesting process. It gives us so much more opportunity. It brings up a lot of, definitely, threats in terms of its ability to really commercially become a real impost to the project. Projects still have to work at a commercial level, otherwise they won’t get funded, and they won’t get built, and we won’t be viable, but it’s just super interesting.

Anthony Denman:
What’s the most interesting story that you’ve told to date, in terms of projects that you’ve developed?

Shane Smollen:
Well, I think some of the, not necessarily are larger projects, but in no particular order, the Anden project at Coogee, which has just received a significant award worldwide. We preserved the fabric of the old apartments from a Art Deco period that we preserved that voluntarily, and that has now been awarded on several occasions. And we’re just so proud of what we’ve been able to deliver there, in terms of old and new.
Bruce Dellit is an architect from earlier times in the 20th century. He seems to have crossed our path, more than once, but what started as a full redevelopment of a site, in Beecroft in Malton Road, ended up in two heritage-type homes being restored and converted to beautiful dual-occupancy properties. We developed the rear of the property with new, but very compassionate, new] apartments. We’re very proud of the outcome there. There was a lot of opposition from neighbours, as it was in Coogee, and now look at the outcome.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah, you can’t believe that, can you, in retrospect?

Shane Smollen:
Yeah, that’s right.

Anthony Denman:
It’s hard to imagine anyone would.

Shane Smollen:
That’s right. I’m incredibly proud of what we were able to create and eventually have approved for the Minerva Theater and that, but now we made a decision to divest in that property quite recently. But as we’ve taken more and more a focus on that ultra prestige sector that we’ve discussed before, but the way we were able to celebrate and really look to bring that property back to life, but with a new slant and with new elements, really quite incredible. We won’t get to deliver that particular project, but super proud of how we dealt with both the community, and the design process, and the planning process for City of Sydney. It really did take a great deal of thinking, and perseverance, and courage.
The same could be said for the hotel that we’re building at the moment, on the corner of South Downing Street and Oxford Street, and where there’s a full facade retention there of the Olympia Theater, and a lot of people know it from crazy nights at the Blue Pacific Room upstairs there. But very proud of what we’ve done there with TZG Architects who also, that were involved with the Minerva Theater. So look, there’s a lot and there are some more in pipeline as well, but yeah, really proud when we’ve had that opportunity to really create a new chapter in the story of some wonderful property in Sydney.

Anthony Denman:
Okay. Warren Buffett, I like-

Shane Smollen:
[inaudible 01:19:56].

Anthony Denman:
… quoting Warren Buffett sometimes. This is a good quote, I think, interested in your thoughts, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on, but that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.” So you’re probably the most focused person I’ve ever worked with. I’ve said that from the get go. Where does that focus come from?

Shane Smollen:
Well, but I’m not focused all the time. I think I’m just focused when I know I need to be.

Anthony Denman:
Which is a lot of the time.

Shane Smollen:
No, I don’t think it’s… Well, it depends on your definition. I-

Anthony Denman:
Not so much anymore.

Shane Smollen:
No, I don’t think it’s changed that much. I just think I have actively tried to train myself, and it’s not like it’s a 10-step process here because we’re really talking about awareness, but I have just tried to train myself, when those pivotal moments are in play and to realise, and I’m not talking about on a motor racing track because you’ve got no choice there. You’re locked in and you do whatever it takes. I’m talking about when you’ve got a lot of choice, and I have definitely been aware and proactive in trying to train myself to be better, not perfect, just better at understanding when those pivotal moments are in play. And pivotal moments don’t have to be massive, life-changing, sliding door moments.
I’m just talking about the moments in a day, which could be as simple as the last rep in a gym through to a critical business decision, or that one word. But I just have tried to focus the software in my brain to know there are certain times, I guess you could put it under the headline as, life is a series of sprints not a marathon. In those times, I try and be as effective and focused as I can. Fortunately over a whole day, it’s actually not that much. There are a lot of people more driven than me.

Anthony Denman:
Is that something that you just came naturally to or did you learn that?

Shane Smollen:
I think it’s been a couple of people across my path. One that has been influential on a lot of people in real estate, there’s a mentor by the name of Dr. Fred Grosse. And probably when I first met him in the ’90s, he definitely did introduce me to concepts around dollar productivity and just life quality, understanding the mooring lines that anchor us, and just being more understanding of where they’ve come from and how to deal with them. So I think he’s an example of a mentor. It may come from reading a book. These days, I read less, but I am constantly listening to audiobooks, and typically that would be in a gym or on an aeroplane, not so much just walking around a place. If I was riding a bike, that might be another example, even though it doesn’t sound that safe, but you have to be careful. But yeah, so I think there have been a couple of pivotal influences, but I also am a big believer in just osmosis, in terms of not just osmosis by hanging around the right people, but also in terms of what you absorb.
I’ll still watch a bit of Farmer Wants a Wife or a bit of MAFS now and again, no problem at all. But I can assure you, when I do have those sort of times, I am constantly listening to books, and people say, “Oh, tell me all the titles,” and really, I have to go back and check because I don’t remember them. But if I showed you my audible right now, you’ll just see there’s a long list of books that do have a bit of a thread that comes back to leadership, and effectiveness, and performance management, that type of thing. It’s got to be a pretty special biography before I’d probably want to read one, as much as I think they’re great. So I am a big believer in just, yeah, osmosis and really becoming a student of what will give you great leverage and great efficiency in your life because, yeah, I have more spare time than most people. Even when I was at my busiest, I wouldn’t ever put a meeting in my diary before 10:00 and certainly not after 4:00 or 5:00.

Anthony Denman:
How do you know the difference between those things that take a lot of energy and those things that really count?

Shane Smollen:
Again, just by being aware of it, talking about it, reading about it, thinking about it. I think we all know. So many people are tied to busyness, and again, it’s because we haven’t really taken the time out, because we’re so busy, to really think about the productivity and the efficiency that really sits. Was that meeting necessary? How could it have been more efficient? How could’ve we ask better questions? Did I even have to be there? Yeah, just constantly looking for ways, and you can do this through delegation, or you can do this by saying, “No,” more often, or being more clear about what you’re best at doing, what you want to be best at in the world versus not good at all. But through just being aware of all those things, you walk up the pyramid of productivity, and right now, I’m nowhere near the top and never will be, but it’s just a process. I hope I get better at that stuff forever. I find it really interesting, as I said earlier.

Anthony Denman:
Do you believe that perseverance leads to luck?

Shane Smollen:
Yes, but it’s not luck. It’s just probability.

Anthony Denman:
Creating a larger surface area for that luck to stick to, right?

Shane Smollen:
Yeah, that’s a nice way to say it. But yeah, it’s not luck. It’s just the old Michael Jordan, and took more shots, and missed more shots than anybody else because you took more. There’s no such thing as luck, really.

Anthony Denman:
It’s opportunity meeting preparedness, is still probably the best rational way I’ve heard of it being explained.

Shane Smollen:
Yeah, that’s right. If I’m fortunate enough to win the next motor race that I compete in, there’ll be almost infinite number of moments that will happen over a one-year post… Sorry, a one-hour period, where getting a positive outcome could be described as luck. That could be missing a car. That could be a car turning in front of you. That could be how you respond to 25 cars around you in the start, how you undertake a pass. But you could say, “Oh, my god, that was lucky.” Sure, it probably was, but really it’s just the sum total of all of that perseverance, and all of that muscle memory, and all of that instinct, and all of those things that have become habit, and all of that practice, and you make better decisions in the moment, and that’s what it is.

Anthony Denman:
How do you think big?

Shane Smollen:
I think it’s about having some feel for what genuine purpose is all about, because you’ve got to be way careful that you don’t just put yourself on a course to big and empty.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah.

Shane Smollen:
So you do have to work out what truly is going to get you out of bed. Yeah, I was talking to a guy yesterday, who last week was in Maui with a friend of his who has sold his company at 48. He wouldn’t be the richest guy in Hawaii. He probably sold out for a couple hundred million, US. He didn’t dive into something else. He spends his days hanging out with good people, and kite surfing, and riding his bike, and eating good food, and enjoying a great relationship.
So yeah, so think big. I don’t know what’s big. What I do know is that some of the people that had the biggest runs on the scoreboard are definitely the most unhinged people on the planet. They’re just extraordinary at possibly one thing, and they’re prepared to sacrifice everything to get there. That’s great, as long as we enjoy getting there, and by the way, there’s never going to be there. We’ve got to be careful on not just what fights we pick, but what journeys that we select and what challenges we take on, because I think most of us struggle with the why. Some of us are just on this treadmill because it’s just habit. We fear what it would feel like to not be on it.

Anthony Denman:
Totally. I did a podcast with Deanna Lane. She follows a ikigai, I think it is, Japanese method of purpose or finding your why, and she describes it as finding something that you love, obviously, and that you’re good at, and that can provide a living. There’s is the reality check, right? So once you find the intersection of those three things, what you love, what you’re good at, and that can pay the bills, that’s most likely your why.

Shane Smollen:
Yeah, and that’s where you’re most likely to succeed at, and that’s where you’re probably most likely to feel good about. And in a way you could argue that, hey, that sounds a bit like comfort zone. My belief is far better off to play your strengths in this world.

Anthony Denman:
Oh, totally. How do you make yourself totally redundant?

Shane Smollen:
To who?

Anthony Denman:
To the business that you’ve created.

Shane Smollen:
Oh, I probably am.

Anthony Denman:
I don’t think you are.

Shane Smollen:
No, I think it’s about really reflecting on, yeah, self-worth and really asking yourself the question, what if I didn’t feel like the most important person? What if I wasn’t here, where would I be? Actually building a business to the point that it’s not relying upon you is clearly, it’s about finding the right people to take over, and losing the notion that you’re not the best at everything and the world will keep turning. There’s no, yeah, having a business that is, unless it’s genuinely a one-person consultancy, or you’re a public speaker, or you do something that is clearly you have no interest in scaling or replicating, most businesses, you can definitely make yourself redundant. And even if you don’t make yourself redundant, it doesn’t really matter because the benefits to yourself, I think, in releasing your mind and your time from certain roles within your business, they pay you back in so many ways.
Now, it might mean that despite best endeavours that you’ve replaced yourself with somebody who actually doesn’t do it as well as you do. And there could be even a financial cost or maybe a cultural cost to the business, but it’s not doom and destruction. It’s just not quite as good if you stayed doing the same thing. However, what’s the payback on the other side of the ledger? What have you done for your life? What else have you created? What space have you created? Are you showing up as a better spouse or as better father, mother?
So that’s why I think that question is a bit of a hard one to answer. It’s pretty obvious like but the immediate answer is you build great systems, and great scale in your business, and you recruit well, and you grow talent, and you retain that talent, and then you’re not dumb enough to hang around too long, and you look for an intelligent exit, and possibly at some stage a sell down or a sell out. And that’s pretty obvious, but I think a big part of it is realising what other people can do it as well or better, or bring to the table. Or as I said before, they don’t do it as well, never will do it as well because you’re really bloody good at it, but the payoff elsewhere in life is drastically higher and we’ve only got so many decades to be around.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah. Another great answer. So we are now drawing to a close. What is the legacy that you would like to be remembered for by future generations?

Shane Smollen:
I don’t need a personal legacy where people are talking about me, per se. I just hope it’s an influence on my children that sees them have a happy life and be a good example. That’s all that’s important.

Anthony Denman:
Speaking of children, I would hope that when both of us actually are no longer on this planet Earth, that both of our children, or even grandchildren, may actually listen to this conversation.

Shane Smollen:
Wouldn’t that be great? Yeah, but that’s really satisfying. But legacy, being admired, or spoken about, we’re not, depending on your belief set, we’re not going to know about it.

Anthony Denman:
No.

Shane Smollen:
The investment we’re making now in trying to live a decent life and have a positive impact on people and places, it’s for the future and nothing is more important than the future, than my own children and their children. So-

Anthony Denman:
Let’s just imagine for a minute that your children, or grandchildren in fact, are listening to this conversation and you have the opportunity to impart… You’ve already obviously imparted a significant amount of information, but let’s just imagine that they only were able to tune into what comes next. What would you want to tell them, as succinctly as you can, about life and the best way to lead your life?

Shane Smollen:
And you mean they’re actually going to listen this time?

Anthony Denman:
Let’s hope so.

Shane Smollen:
[inaudible 01:31:59].

Anthony Denman:
Let’s hope so.

Shane Smollen:
Let’s just say they were going to listen. I would impress upon them absolute importance of prioritising health above everything. From health comes good relationships with others and comes good relationships with self. From health comes energy. Energy is the precursor to most good things that are done in just about any pursuit in life. So we’re not all blessed with the same DNA that delivers us a reliable or predictable health outlook, but you deal with the cards that are dealt. So I think health above all, and it’s not the textbook answer that maybe once I would’ve given to a question like this, but I actually do think it’s just that critical. The more that is invested, even if it appears selfish at times, the better the outcome, the better the legacy, the better the everything.
In terms of coming back to clearly, follow your passion, sounds so cliche, but it’s so true. My kids, once upon a time, I thought, “Oh my god, I just hope they don’t want to be dancers, or actors, or something that’s just doomed for failure.” I couldn’t think of anything better for them to be in the creative arts. I don’t want them to be in a bunch of workstations. I don’t want them to be a lawyer or number crunching their whole lives. It’s not what I want for them, but then that doesn’t matter because they’re some of the most noble pursuits for people that are truly passionate. There are very few pursuits in this world that have done well and done to a standard of excellence, cannot be a wonderful journey. There are very few.
So I just hope they’re true to themselves. I hope that they learn to deal with the influences of negative people and naysayers, better than most. I hope they know, have learned the art of saying, “No,” to both negative influences and poor choices. And I just hope that they’re good, fair people that do the right thing by other people and realise that always comes back to you in more ways than we could ever count, but they probably won’t listen. But you know what? I just hope they enjoy the journey and hope they’ve had half the fun as this imperfect bloke from Ipswich that is still trying to work it out.

Anthony Denman:
Hear, hear. Mate, thank you so much for joining us. I hope everyone got as much out of this conversation as I did. If somebody, if they want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Shane Smollen:
Just call, or write, or just write an email to ssmollen@centralelement.com.au.

Anthony Denman:
Beautiful, and thanks so much for doing this.

Shane Smollen:
Thanks, mate. I really appreciate you wanting to invest part of your life to have a chat. Thank you.

Anthony Denman:
I have for a long time. I look forward to catching up with you soon.

Shane Smollen:
I really appreciate it.

Anthony Denman:
Ciao.

About Us

The Property Marketing Podcast is an original podcast hosted by Anthony Denman, co-founder of Our Agency. In each episode Anthony talks to Australia’s most experienced property professionals, exploring their personal & professional stories whilst unearthing insights on how to create the most successful property brands possible.

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