Plucky, lucky or just plain great?
The CEO of Greeff Christie’s International Real Estate on building one of the most successful real estate brands in Africa.
Standing in the Gallery of Great Battles in the Palace of Versailles at a black-tie dinner honoured by his peers and colleagues, Mike Greeff couldn’t be further from his humble roots. His long and gutsy entrepreneurial journey culminated in this epicentre of extravagance, but his dogged and determined rise to be found one of Africa’s most successful property agencies is the really interesting part of this story.
Greeff grew up in Cape Town, but his academic career was hamstrung by a mixture of learning, concentration and visual difficulties. As a result, reading and writing was a tortuous experience leading to low confidence and self-esteem. Greeff says in his book ‘With my Head Held High: ‘I remain terrified of being quizzed on any level. If a teacher asked me a question in class, I turned purple…The fact that I don’t understand whatever was being taught put me in a permanent state of terror. To top it all, I had a problem sitting still, so if I couldn’t get up to walk around, I jiggled my legs incessantly.’
His escape was in the form of physical activity and he eventually excelled at tennis. Through hard work, a handful of patient teachers and his dedicated mom’s after-school help with homework, Greeff received his matric certificate. He was in his 30’s when he was first diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Today, he’s at the helm of Greeff Christie’s International Real Estate’s portfolio which includes 14 development projects currently on the market, ranging in prices from R665 thousand to R16.995 million. In 2018, the group doubled its sales turnover. ‘People trust us because we listen to them and follow through. It’s not about chasing a fast buck but rather helping people make one of the biggest decisions of their lives. Whether it’s a young family looking for their first home or empty nesters that are looking to move out of a house filled with memories, we are there to ease the transition and make the process easier,’ says Greeff. Since its establishment in 2001, the company has grown from a staff complement of four to its current figure of 155.
Before he could start sinking his teeth into the property game, Greeff’s business journey took him into the sweets business. His dad owned a sweet factory and Greeff, with time on his hands during his second year of military training, started selling sweets. He refers to this period of his life the ‘Not so Sweet Life.’ Despite selling huge amounts of stock, he found when doing the marketing, the accounting system and cash flow were not good and certain supermarkets never paid on time.
It was during this time that he first invested in property. In the early 1980s, Greeff bought and renovated houses for resale. ‘Profits were low and slow and it took too long to complete the renovations, and time cost me money from the loans. This, however, taught me to buy right and sell right.’ But he focused on the sweets business (which was sold eventually), and he re-entered the property arena in 1992. ‘I knew I had come ‘home’ – literally. Selling property was something I was good at from the start.
He started out as an estate agent with Pam Golding. ‘My work ethic could always be described not just as driven, but permanently in over-drive. I believe I let feelings of inadequacy about my lack of tertiary education drive me to work hard, and then even harder. It got to a point where I was chasing success only to prove something to myself. In hindsight, it’s obviously much clearer to me that this was never going to be the right path,’ Greeff says in his book. He joined Seeff, where he was given a senior management position as regional director. However, Greeff loved selling and closing deals was what made him truly happy. His path was chosen for him, though, when a managerial dispute over the franchise resulted in the company’s license to sell property was revoked and Greeff, along with all the directors at the company, was fired. ‘Just like that I was out of a job. It might have been the end of my road, but being victim of the situation was never even a fraction of an option for me. I saw it as an opportunity to finally get the recognition I knew I could achieve.’
His path was now ‘cleared’ and he opened his own business from home. ‘I instinctively began using all the positive coping mechanisms that had got me through school. Firstly, wherever I perceived there was a gap in my knowledge or abilities, I called on skilled friends, colleagues and role models and secondly, I spent time with people who believed in me. This kept me optimistic and focused and allowed me to pour my energy into what I was good at – selling.’ According to Greeff, his ability to sell has always been one of his most powerful tools, but his ‘sharpest arrow in his quiver was the fact that I still hated the very thought of failure.’
Greeff started Greeff Properties, a one-man show from his home. Yet, soon agents from other big agencies started approaching the business. ‘I was asked: Why didn’t Greeff remain a small independent working from home? And I joke: Because all these estate agents working from home were driving my wife crazy! In truth, we believe we were blessed by catching the market at the right time; interest rates were coming down and the property market was taking off. Our approach was key to our early success and phenomenal growth. I was prepared to do whatever needed done to produce the best long–term results.’
The group focused on the Constantia Upper area, taking anything they could find, even the dilapidated houses on busy roads. Sellers got about 30% more on the sale of their properties than what other agents from other companies valued it at and soon the big expensive properties and luxury homes came their way.
‘We had actually tilted the balance of market power in our favour. It was extraordinary. Clients liked the idea of the little guy thriving and facing up to the big competitors…Some called me foolhardy to launch yet another little estate agency in an already over-catered for market. Others say I was gutsy – a label I far preferred.’
In 2001, within the first year of business, the turnover reached R109 million and Greeff Properties moved to its own offices. In its second year, turnover reached R320 million and in its third, R401 million.
In 2011, Greeff Properties became an exclusive Affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate. This coveted affiliation means that selected luxury Cape Town properties for which Greeff Properties has sole mandates, can be marketed directly to the Christie’s database of qualified buyers. This, paired with a bespoke marketing programme has given Greeff a distinctive edge. Christie’s International Real Estate is able to tap into the very exclusive and elusive client database of Christie’s Auction House and this offers an immeasurable level of exposure to the most elite buyers around the world. Greeff adds that he would like other real estate agencies in South Africa to benefit in the same way that his company has, through its prestigious affiliation. ‘Being a part of the Christie’s network is not something that is unattainable, the work we as a team have put in to be selected by Christie’s has yielded us much success. We pride ourselves in the global recognition we receive from being known as affiliates and we are looking for additional real estate agencies outside the Western Cape specialising in the sale of luxury properties to form part of this highly influential network. Christie’s enjoys its reputation as being the most significant top-end sales company across the world and one simply cannot argue the benefits of being affiliated to a brand such as this.’
A unique marketing and media mix and an immense network which currently comprises 141 affiliates worldwide allows the greater Christie’s network to be able to source exclusive homes virtually anywhere in the world for its clients. The world-famous brand powerhouse also owns Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Yves Saint Laurent, Brioni and Boucheron. This affiliation is a true testimony to how this Cape Town company has created global reach and surpassed international standards.
For Greeff, business partner and a Director of Greeff Christie’s International since 2009, Simon Raab has been instrumental in the company’s success. Raab has been with Greeff for 15 years and has taken on the leadership role on many key projects during this time.
The progression of Greeff Christie’s International Real Estate has come in various guises and while boasting the expertise and experience of established, veteran agents there is the counterbalance of youth and exuberance that younger agents bring. This includes Greeff’s sons; Ryan Greeff, Director of Greeff City Bowl, Atlantic and Western Seaboard, and Tim Greeff and his team, who is at the helm of the Southern Suburbs sectional title market.
Mike Greeff winning the Affiliate of the Year Award from Christie’s International Real Estate
Name: Mike Greeff
Education: Rondebosch Boys High School and Abbotts College
First property sold was: Dalmore Avenue Tokai
Based in: Cape Town
Currently reading: Divine Direction’ by Craig Groeschel
Guilty pleasure (pertaining to media consumption): Scrolling through Facebook
Favourite pastime: Tennis, Pilates, Walking, Aqua Aerobics
Favourite suburb to have on my books: Constantia & Bishopscourt
Life motto: Consider the interests of others before your own
Advice for aspiring property investors: Hot spots are the South Peninsula – Simons Town, Kommetjie, Kalk Bay and St. James
If I had limitless funds, I would invest in property in: The above hot spots
On winning the Affiliate of the Year Award from Christie’s International Real Estate
Christie’s International Real Estate, the world’s leading luxury real estate network, honoured Greeff Christie’s International Real Estate as winner of the esteemed Affiliate of the Year award in the Large Market category, determined by a population size above 1,750,000. The ceremony took place on 4 April at the culmination of the Annual Global Conference in Paris. CEO Mike Greeff accepted the crystal obelisk trophy at a black-tie dinner at the exquisite Palace of Versailles in the Gallery of Great Battles, a venue not open to the general public, making the evening all the more special. Mr. Greeff was unaware of his win until that evening’s announcement by Dan Conn, CEO of Christie’s International Real Estate, before a crowded room of network colleagues.
Four awards are given each year, one each in the small, medium and large market categories with the top honour bestowed to the overall winner regardless of market size. Criteria used in determining the four winners were overall business innovation, market leadership, passion to succeed in the local and global marketplace under the Christie’s International Real Estate brand, and collaboration with network colleagues and Christie’s art auction house specialists. Greeff Christie’s International Real Estate has excelled in every category.
Noted Dan Conn in presenting the award: ‘Greeff Christie’s International Real Estate recently completed a thorough re-branding inspired by Christie’s 2017 all-time record sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece Salvator Mundi for US$450 million — the most expensive work of art ever sold. Greeff adopted Christie’s colour palette of grey, white and red for its new brand, including a red dot, to symbolize the red dot placed on sold pieces of art and now applied to real estate through Greeff. The re-branding now appears on all the company’s marketing collateral, from wines, to watches, to pens and stationery.’
‘With the new branding we have set ourselves apart from all other agencies and we do believe we have successfully done so,’ says Greeff.
In 2017, the company posted 19 luxury home sales, a number which doubled to 39 in 2018. The top sale was for a magnificent homestead in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs, achieving a record price for the area of over R60 million. Greeff also supports robust social media and blog platforms, as well as a top-quality print publication. Mr Greeff’s mantra is Where it Counts, a sentiment fully aligned with Christie’s and Christie’s International Real Estate.
CEO Mike Greeff shared the following, ‘We as a team at Greeff have been working exceptionally hard to honour and grow the Christie’s International Real Estate brand. Being selected as recipients for this prestigious award is a phenomenal achievement and affords us outstanding recognition worldwide. It is a factor that will support every agent in our group for many years to come.’