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Listening to Kirsty Dunphey, you would swear she is making up for lost time.

The real estate dynamo runs one of the country's fastest-growing businesses, has a string of state and national business awards to her credit, and has released a new book that is destined to be a best-seller. It might be enough for most 26-year-olds. Dunphey, however, is eager to keep challenging herself. She wants to expand her real estate empire, weigh up other business ventures, take her public speaking message to an international audience and says it is about time she learned how to water ski. Even when asked to describe herself, she opts for a word - "tenacious" - that suggests things might be unfolding just a little too slowly.

The real deal

Dunphey remembers opening the doors to her agency, M&M Real Estate, in Launceston in 2000. Then 21 and the youngest licensed real estate agent in Tasmanian history, she set up the business with two business partners after telling the bank she needed a loan to buy a car.

Operating out of a two-bedroom apartment, Dunphey admits she was petrified. They had no phones, no computers, no desks and no clients.

Just over 12 months later, she beat a field of more than 2500 entrants to be named the national winner of the Telstra Young Business Woman of the Year. Last year, M&M ranked 24th on the BRW Top 100 Fastest-Growing Companies list in Australia. Dunphey and Tony Morrison - now the joint directors - have formed a joint venture with franchise group Harcourts and are opening their fourth Tasmanian office.

For all her success, Dunphey wishes she had learned some business lessons earlier. In her new book, Advance To Go, Collect $1 Million, she offers the following advice:
•    Find a mentor: you can learn from their successes and failures.
•    Do not be afraid of mistakes: just make sure the risks are calculated.
•    Get inspired daily: even loud music or a motivational quote can kill inertia.
•    Compliment someone daily: the laws of reciprocity will see good karma flow back to you.

Dunphey and Morrison had the good sense - or good fortune - to launch their business at the start of a real estate boom in Tasmania. Trading off a simple business philosophy of "we do it right the first time", the focus on over-servicing clients has driven buoyant property management and sales departments. The business turns over about $2.4 million a year and sold more than $160 million in property in its first four years.

All now seems rosy for Dunphey, but she admits that the early days of M&M Harcourts "wouldn't serve as a very good role model" for other businesses. She had dropped out of university and, in the absence of a business blueprint, relied on "naïve confidence" that everything would work out. Systems and staff management are now more ordered, which means success at M&M Harcourts is no fluke.

Each of its divisions, administration, property management and sales, has a head of department and there is an office manager who works in conjunction with Dunphey and Morrison to ensure staff and the business are on track.

"We each take individual and group roles in terms of the management of staff. We're very goal-oriented and also actively involve our team in goal-setting for the company," Dunphey says.

The aim is to ensure the entire team has a diverse range of skills, experience and knowledge that translates to better service for clients. The correct match of personalities within the office is crucial. Drive and enthusiasm are givens.

The pressure of running an expanding business has not affected the Dunphey-Morrison rapport.

"(We) disagree sometimes, rarely," Dunphey says. "But we're both rational people and we discuss things, compromise and listen to each other knowing what our own individual strengths are."

Jewel in the crown

Dunphey's entrepreneurial spirit is in the blood. At 15, she started her first business selling jewellery sourced from Melbourne and Thailand. She wrestled with other business ideas and wondered how she could "rule the world". "Growing up I didn't want to be a doctor or a ballerina," she says.

Early inspiration came from her parents, who owned small businesses.

"I think that's definitely where it got started," says Dunphey, who adds that the later bankruptcy of her parents' business and property portfolios only served to harden her resolve.

An after-school job in a real estate agency turned into an informal five-year apprenticeship and, at the age of 20, she woke up and realised: "Shock horror, I actually like real estate!

"When it clicked, I knew that if this was going to be long-term for me, I wanted to own my own agency."

The burgeoning M&M Harcourts brand is the result.

Dunphey is hell-bent on turning it into the biggest agency in Tasmania through the joint venture deal, on the proviso that growth does not come at the expense of quality. Staff training - and earning the loyalty of workers - will be critical for a business that typically hires one new staff member a month.

"The bigger we grow, the more we want to make sure that everyone is getting the attention and training they need," says Dunphey, who adds that the key to recruitment is getting staff who fit and embrace the M&M Harcourts culture. With the reputation of the agency depending on the quality of staff sent out to people's homes, there is no room for complacency.

Motivation is not an issue for Dunphey, but she cites lipstick princess Poppy King, real estate whiz John McGrath and US investment guru Warren Buffett as sources of inspiration.

Dunphey admits to having insecurities, especially on the public speaking circuit that is becoming an increasing part of her life. Rather than be daunted, she hopes to take on speaking engagements in the super-competitive US market.

A winning team

Although she is the product of a boom market, Dunphey is confident of riding out the notorious property market cycles. Continuing to attract and retain the right staff will be essential. Now with 28 people on the team, Dunphey says learning to delegate has been one of her toughest lessons.

"Surrendering a little bit of the control has been much easier than I thought it would be because of the confidence I have in those people around me," she says.

Despite her success, Dunphey concedes she has made some mistakes along the way. Such errors are rarely repeated. "That's our office policy on mistakes - own up to them, fix the problem and make sure it doesn't happen again by learning from it."

There seems little chance of Dunphey burning out. She relishes the prospect of new competition and opportunities as M&M Harcourts strives to become the best agency serving Tasmania. "No two days are the same and they're never boring," she says. "I find myself missing work and the amazing people we have here when I'm away."

Published on: Thursday, June 18, 2009

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