Expert In Focus - Steve Douglas
With some early sacrifices and a steely determination that has since forged an internationally renowned property, tax and finance business, a young Steve Douglas clawed his way onto the property ladder. He has not stopped climbing the rungs ever since. As the founder and Executive Director of the SMATS Group, Steve has applied this same sense of foresight to help transform the finances and lives of thousands of clients around the world.
Can you remember when you first started investing and what drew you towards property?
I bought my first property at 19 years old with my partner. Back then, prices were reasonable and lending readily available, so I used every cent to get in the door and was happy to sacrifice all my spare cash to be an owner. Interest rates were a staggering 18 per cent but the power and passion to own overwhelmed obstacle. The first purchase is the hardest but it is always worth getting started. The pride of ownership, the certainty of presence and profit opportunity were exciting motivators.
As a tax expert and avid investor, which is your first love - tax or property?
That is a real chicken and egg question. I’ve always admired architecture and what homes did for people and buildings did for the community. Tax was my thing and I found it exciting from the first lesson I had at university and that only intensified once I started work. When you saw the fear tax incited in some clients, and the difference it made when they got their situation under control, it gave me a real buzz that I still feel today after more than 30 years as a tax accountant! The power of property to improve people’s lives gives me the same sense of excitement.
How has living a large portion of your life as an expat, shaped your involvement in Australian property?
It showed me what the future would look like! When you see the impact that long-term population growth has on property markets around the world, you never complain that Australia is expensive and become motivated to act while you can afford it. Australia has the best value and quality property in the world, matched by a low population and incredible lifestyle and career options. Sadly, many Australians don’t see the wood for the trees and overlook that.
In your early days as an investor, did you encounter any major hurdles?
Saving for deposits and getting finance are the main hurdles. The Australian building standards and ownership laws are amongst the best in the world, so you always feel safe investing. But you still have to find a way to get the deal done. I never truly felt I could afford any of the properties I bought but my determination was strong and I was willing to sacrifice almost anything to get the next property. Once you start building equity, investing becomes easier. Unfortunately, these days lending has gotten tighter, so I am glad I was brave enough to build a strong portfolio early.
What realisations helped you overcome these difficulties?
Quality is the most important thing. As with many investors, I was initially conservative and bought average and affordable property. Some did ok but not as good as some of the nicer properties. So these days I buy “the best I can afford” and that helps me outperform the market.
The past couple of years have been a challenging time for property investors in Australia. How has this affected your investment strategy?
Yes indeed. With finance harder to obtain, you cannot just keep buying, so I have had to rationalise and decide which property to sell in order to acquire the next. I have tried to upgrade my portfolio, selling those I doubt will appreciate to bolster the lending power on better quality property.
Do you have any exciting property investment projects on the horizon that you can share with us?
I am fortunate that my company has become a developer in recent years and we have some very attractive properties. We have stuck to our beliefs and only build “liveable” property that is a good size and offers comfort at the best value we can offer. We also collaborate with some of the leading builders around Australia. I learned early on that everyone has different tastes, styles and preferences, so I don’t think there is the perfect property, just the one perfect for you and your budget. I am very excited about Perth and Brisbane. I believe strongly in cycles and those cities are due for growth. There are some amazing properties in these markets at very reasonable prices, at least for now, so it’s time to have a look and get active.
While the company was initially built on Steve’s vision and passion, it has now grown into an award-winning market leader in Australian taxation, finance, property, foreign exchange and migration services to Australian expatriates, foreign investors and intended migrants. Expert staff work in 11 offices around the world. A new technology enterprise, CompleteEmpire, is changing the way property developers and real estate agencies manage their business units. But throughout the period of dynamic growth and service expansion, a simple commitment to timeless values is at the core of the operation.
As a leader in Australian property, tax and finance since 1995, what are the key drivers behind the longevity and continued growth of SMATS Group?
We have a simple strategy based on client first, staff second and company third. If we look after our clients we secure revenue stability and referral growth. By looking after our staff before profit, we get operational stability and consistency, which has made us a strong company with a great history and exciting future.
Often described as a modern company driven by old fashioned values, what does SMATS Group aim to provide its clients?
Sincerity above all else. We genuinely care about our clients’ wellbeing and take the time to listen to them so we can tailor advice and service around achieving their personal goals.
Maintaining this level of service across so many locations globally is no easy feat. Can you share the secret behind your success?
We use technology as an efficiency tool and for education to allow us to deliver our services on a broad scale. In truth, there is no substitute for hard work and we have an amazing team that are prepared to go the extra mile without pressure from above.
How has technology helped the company to provide this familiar and consistent service to clients - regardless of which office in the world they walk into?
I have been into system design for many years and had the good fortune to partner with an amazing software developer in our Empire Software business. We have been evolving our CRM and communications software for almost 20 years, so I would hope we are getting close to having it right! In recent years, the advancement of development tools has allowed us to do things only big-budget corporates could previously afford. But we are able to do it more efficiently and with better outcomes due to our internal knowledge and experience.
The past two decades have seen SMATS Group grow from strength to strength. What do the next 20 years hold?
It really feels like we have only just begun. We continue to attract great talent and are building on our service capability. We are enjoying the different opportunities that our clients are asking for and supporting. It keeps us fresh and evolving. We continue to see client and market education as an important role for us as well. The most important thing about the past is remembering and respecting it. We came this far based on trust and effort, so we cannot lose that focus. My mission is to ensure that no matter what we do, we never lose the respect of our clients. If we can achieve that, then we have a future that never needs to end.