Real estate agent Graham Wall wields his world-class charm on sellers and buyers of the most expensive, and sometimes most beautiful, homes in New Zealand. He is an apex predator in Auckland high-end real estate. His company has just brokered the sales of four Herne Bay properties worth $63.5 million. He’s sold the most expensive home in New Zealand almost every year for a decade. A former advertising gofer, cadet, and executive, he sold cars before he started selling homes.
Tell us about your first real estate deal, developing a luxury retirement village in Remuera for Metlifecare under its founder, Cliff Cook.
I wasn't in the property business at all, but I had seen this chunk of land. I told Cliff that “instead of just another one of your retirement villages, you should go for the Four Seasons”, that sort of thing. He was curious. Cliff said, “How about you come and make a presentation to the board?” So I cut a few pictures out of magazines of nice resort hotels around America and went and sold the concept. They gave me this project, which was fantastically generous of them because it was high risk. I didn’t know what I was doing. I got to choose the architects, the designers, the look.
You trade on personal charm. You were in advertising and a car salesman prior to real estate. Tell me about that.
I was never that successful in advertising. We had a bit of luck. We started an agency called Rialto. I was the only guy there who didn't have any equity. They gave me some as we went along. That agency was very successful. I don’t think I had any real confidence, even though I was cocky. People thought I was confident, but I really wasn’t. I must have looked like I was good at it from a distance, but I wasn’t that good because I am hopeless at detail.
You also worked for motor-vehicle magnate Colin Giltrap, trying to help create an internal advertising agency for him. How did that go?
I told him, “You’ve got four advertising agencies and 20 brands – it’s a bloody confusion.” I spent six months getting that job. I’d go back and back saying, “You gotta give me this job. You need me. I'll start this advertising agency within your company, it'll save you millions.” It was a total fail, because in that car business, the guys who run the divisions are so utterly independent they’d just tell me to piss off. So, I ended up just selling cars for them, which I was very good at and loved, except I didn’t like the lack of status. I just didn’t like being a car dealer.
You’ve brought your sons Ollie and Andrew into Wall Real Estate. What’s your plan?
The current plan is more of exactly the same. That would be the dream. We’ve made a little bit more money every year. It’s the only number I pay any attention to. I ask my accountant on Dec 23, “Mate, I want that number over last year’s number.” Anticipation is maybe the best thing in life.
Why have you kept it a family business rather than grow, or join a big agency?
You’d think that'd be a logical way to go. Every month, some guy will ring and say, “I'm Ray White's best guy…” I used to listen and have a chat with them. Now, I'm absolutely convinced that even if it made us a little bit more money, we make a lot of money anyway. We wouldn’t be a family business, and I love that we are a family business… If you're dealing with a family, you can be pretty confident that they have exactly the same agenda.
How have you structured the business between you and your sons?
The boys decided that they should share theirs down the middle. The fact is it’s easier to sell a $20 million house than a $5m house and we get 2.5% whichever way it goes, so if Ollie does a deal and it’s $10m and Andrew does a deal and it’s $18m, they split their share 50/50. We’ve never had a single dispute, we have never had one single instance of envy or jealousy. They’ve got very complementary skills. Ollie…he’s very advertising savvy. Andrew is an artist, and they've never stopped being, like, the artist guy and the advertising guy. We like to think we’re the un-real estate guys.
Do you have to play good cop/bad cop with your sons?
We don't have to. We do make that joke though; they say, “Dad, you come along and be the bad cop.” And I say, “No, I want to be the good cop.”
You’re 70. What’s your succession plan?
Well, I can't even imagine retiring. I think what I’d probably do, if we hadn’t had covid, was spend two and a half months banging around the Med. I am very fortunate I have some very generous mates, not least Adrian Burr [the late philanthropist] – yes, a client as well. We were the “victim” of his massive generosity for years and it was all private jets and superyachts and it sort of got me quite accustomed to it. So, I am going to spend more time doing that. I am going to just gift the business to the boys. Keep my third, or I might even say 25%, until I just run out of runway and I’m gone. I think I would know if I was a nuisance.
What's the biggest mistake you can recall in business?
We haven’t made many mistakes. A mistake we almost made was setting up an international yacht brokerage. We got one deal done and made quite a lot of money out of it but it took a lot of time away from [real estate] things.
Was it when you were selling cars that you realised charm was your big asset?
Not until you told me. Do we thank our parents for this, or our mothers? I don’t know. But I never found it at all difficult to talk to a teacher or a headmaster when I was a kid, or to my friends’ parents. I was never fearful of anything. I have never felt daunted. I have never felt superior to anyone, but I have never felt inferior to anyone either. It’s never crossed my mind that someone should be treated all that differently. Most successful people I know, in their quietest moments, would say they owe their success to “a bit of hard work and a heck of a lot of luck”.
When does the charm stop and you have to be ruthless?
I don't think they're mutually exclusive. We don't have any business to be ruthless. The only time you have to be anything other than sweet and lovely is when you have to say, “I know you think the house is worth $15m.” (Most real estate agents will magic up a higher number because people do think their house is worth more). We say, “I can understand why you think it’s worth this but it’s just not and here’s why.” That’s not to say miracles don’t happen.
Which houses have you fallen in love with? I know you’re a fan of modernist homes.
Recently, the boys sold the Brake House [in Titirangi] and a Sang house [in Remuera]. They did magic on those jobs. They have an innate sense of PR. I found a book about mid-century modern houses. We’re going to buy a hundred copies and are going to everyone who has an interesting-looking mid-century house and give them a copy. We’re going to write them a personal letter saying we're fans of the same stuff.
You made a big impact selling a dozen houses at once in Herne Bay, an estate built up by the Sultan of Brunei?
People say, “How on earth did you pull that off?” I went and asked and they said, “Yes.” There was no skill at all involved in that. I sold the whole lot of them to Gary Lane, who was a guy I knew well even then. He kept three and lives in Waimanu [a hotel-sized home with a QV-estimated market value of $33.7m]. Sometimes I look at a map of all the places we’ve sold in Herne Bay and think, what did we do with that money?
This interview has been edited for clarity.