"Is what I’m doing having a positive impact on the people I influence?"
The cliché about most successful entrepreneurs is that they were prepared to take the road less travelled. Murray displayed these entrepreneurial attributes not long after he was out of nappies.
Born in Melbourne, the second of four children and growing up in what was then the outer suburb of Mount Waverley, Murray took a totally different path to his family. Before he even started school, the road paved in black and white seemed far more attractive than the one travelled by his parents and siblings which was paved in black and yellow.
“I was actually born in Richmond” confesses Lees, “and all the family followed the Tigers”.
Murray recalls his first act of defiance against his father was to follow Collingwood at the age of five. Despite his father trying to talk him out of it for years, Murray continued to say, ”No, not for me, I’m black and white.”
Fast forward the Murray Lees story and that same sense of defiance lead to the formation of the biggest mortgage aggregation business in the country.
Having established a successful broking business with his brother, Glenn, the market became congested as they were now one of over twelve-thousand mortgage brokers in Australia. This situation was becoming rather fraught for the various lenders who wanted it streamlined.
Understandably, the lenders declared “we don’t want to have twelve-thousand different agreements out there. We want you to look more like the financial planning industry, and form up into bigger groups, like dealer group arrangements, known as aggregators.”
This meant Murray and Glenn would have been required to join a group and hand over 20% of what they were earning. That was the path most of the twelve-thousand followed.
Murray and Glenn Lees hit that fork in the road and decided there was another path; one no-one else seemed to be travelling.
“I don’t have an MBA and neither does Glenn, but we said, ‘why don’t we just start our own aggregation business – how hard can it be?’ We didn’t want to join an existing group, so why not just start a group ourselves. It was about as sophisticated as that,” Murray admits. Connective Mortgage Aggregators was born.
There were many intersections on the road from Collingwood to Connective, where Murray headed in a different direction, and his life could have been drastically different were it not for a number of helpful signposts and guides along the way.
In the early days, there were some very influential mentors. The first of those was his mother, who came from a working class background in Richmond “She was born in the wrong era. She was an incredibly intelligent woman and left school at 14 like most women of her generation. Had she been born one or two generations later, I’m sure she would’ve been an academic of some sort. She instilled in all of us a real love of reading and knowledge.”
Murray’s mother passed away five years ago and he recounts how “I’d see her every weekend and we would always talk about what was going on in the world. She just had a great knowledge of everything.”
His father was a floor sander who “worked hard, and he played hard.” Murray remembers his Dad would switch from wanting his sons to follow in his footsteps, to dreaming of them being dentists; “it just depended on which Dad you got for the night.”
One thing on which both his parents were united was that their children should complete their education. “My parents would have been horrified if any of us didn’t finish year 12, absolutely horrified.”
When it comes to mentors on the business front – those he actually learned from and talked to – they were relatively unknown people who understood how to be successful in business.
Avco Finance, where Murray initially worked “were fantastic at building people up and giving you responsibility at an early age. They had a structured program so you would start as a junior and at some point, if you were any good, they would push you to run a branch. but if you didn’t, you would drop out of the system, because they were relentlessly intense in what they expected of you. I was 25, which was not exceptional.”
When he later worked for AMP selling insurance, Murray realised the value of integrity as a selling tool. “The guy who recruited me was an amazingly persuasive and intelligent guy in the art of sales, but he had a not so great streak, and there were a lot of lessons there on what not to do.”
During his time with AMP, Murray also accidentally encountered another mentor. “He showed me how you could do the whole thing with absolute integrity and with care for the client. He was an amazing influence. He doesn’t know how significant he was for me. He showed me you could do this really, really well and be very successful.”
With the value of hindsight, Murray admits he could have been more deliberate in seeking mentorship and would advise young, prospective entrepreneurs to be proactive in that area.
“I think today that there’s so much you can get online. There are amazing bloggers and people who are doing really, really good material you can now access too, and that wasn’t available when we started up.”
Further thoughts with the benefit of hindsight include; “Definitely get some key relationships and hold them close to you. Sometimes it’s not about giving you the answer, it’s just someone to listen to you and what you’re feeling; just to be able to download all the stuff that’s going on. If I had my time again I’d have sought more formal mentoring arrangements in my early days.”
Proper mentoring helps navigate that road less travelled, especially when you come across road blocks or even a roundabout with multiple exits.
School years passed relatively painlessly for Murray. “I was lucky enough to be able to do school pretty comfortably, pretty easily. I remember, in what we called form six, so many people gave up their footy and cricket to study. I didn’t bother, I just said ‘I’m going to play footy and cricket all year and just do the exams’. I did fine. I didn’t struggle at all but didn’t do any studying for the whole year.”
Early in his teens, Murray realised he had a good memory for dates, facts and numbers; an ability which made exams a little easier and he utilised that strength right through high school. The drawback came later; “It bites you, because when it gets tougher and you don’t have the study habits, it’s not such a good thing.”
Murray knew early on what he wanted to do. “I knew exactly what I was going to do from the age of probably 14. I wanted to be a Phys Ed teacher, and it was simple as that. I had no other career aspirations whatsoever.”
Going to University instead put Murray on the career roundabout in his first year! Studying for his dream job, there was a detour he just had to take. “I got married at the end of first year.”
“We were madly in love. We were two 18-year-old kids who had met at Uni and everything was great. My mum and dad were horrified. I rang them when they were on holidays to tell them, but they didn’t try and stop us. We moved in together and I remember the rent on the place being 38 bucks a week or something – a one bedroom flat in Oakleigh.”
Suddenly the priorities changed; a part-time lawn mowing job turned into a full-time lawn mowing job, then a second job working as a trainer and salesman in a gym, and by the time they were 20 there was another mouth to feed.
“Marie-Anne fell pregnant and my eldest son Michael was born just before my 21st birthday. So at that stage, things started to get a little bit harder and I gave up the study”.
Pragmatically, Murray believes, “I think it’s your life so you do what happens. I didn’t feel there was any stress or pressure at all. I was happy to be a dad with this beautiful little baby boy and it was all good.”
A looming crash needed to be avoided; Murray found himself heading down the same path as his father. Although not playing hard, he was working hard; working hard at a job that wasn’t heading in the direction he wanted.
“At 23 I applied for two jobs; one with Budget Rent-A-Car and one with Avco Finance and I got accepted for both.” Another fork in the road had appeared. Had Murray taken the Budget path, maybe today we’d be talking to the CEO of Australia’s largest rental car company.
“Avco offered me a job first so I took that. A case of sliding doors perhaps…. I actually preferred that job because it meant I didn’t have to work weekends. I could still play cricket and footy and do all those things.”
The Avco path laid what was eventually the foundation for Connective, and Murray soaked it up. The L plates were replaced by the P plates fairly quickly and then came the call into his manager’s office to take his full licence test.
This conversation was again, another turning point. “I got called in and they said they’d like to offer me a promotion; we’d like you to go to Launceston. I’d never been to Tasmania before. The guy said, ‘why don’t you take your time and think about it? I know your wife works in the City, why don’t you go and have lunch with her and let me know by 2 o’clock. It’s 9 o’clock in the morning, let me know by 2’! So at 2 o’clock I said I wanted to go.”
For the next few years, Murray was on the highway to success with just a few bends to give him the experience he needed to take the correct turn at the next intersection.
One of Murray’s roles was as a repossessor, which had its good and bad times. Helping a young woman who had mortgaged her house so her boyfriend could buy a boat was one of the tough times. Murray recalls, “He shot through and she was left with the debt. I had to go to the auction and put my hand up and say ‘yep we’re happy with that price, we’re going to sell her up’ and we cleared the debt. I’ll never forget her, she was really, really nice to me.”
Another positive experience from that time was “this one guy who had a really nice yellow SLR Torana. We pretty much ambushed him in the car park but he had his mates there as well. It became more or less a standoff. I said ‘well, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. You either hand over the keys now or I go to the police station.’ His mates all put their hand in their pockets and made a payment.”
Times have changed considerably though. “Things allowed in those days are totally different from what’s allowed today and rightly so. It’s so much better now from a consumer point of view.”
Those days were very much part of a formative period for Murray. The lessons learned then became the building blocks for Connective.
“The first lesson was that if you wrote poor quality business, you’d have to collect it yourself, so you understood credit. Like mortgage lending, which is the area we’re involved in now, it’s pretty simple; here’s the income, the expenditure, the loan-to-value ratio. I could teach a 15-year-old how to do that inside a day.” Valuable lessons learned at an early age and not forgotten.
Another lesson was about risk. “Risk is one of those things we shouldn’t avoid, but you’ve also got to make sure that it’s not foolish risk. I’m an optimist by nature and that’s why it’s great within the business as we each have different ways of thinking. Having three owners of the business brings the checks and balances.”
Inevitably there would be another intersection on the way to Connective.
“I thought my career at Avco ended badly, I got sacked at the start of the ‘recession we had to have’ and I thought, no one will ever sack me again, I’ll never work for anyone else in my life and I haven’t in around 24 years.” That departure from Avco led to Murray joining forces with AMP and the rest, as they say, is history.
Getting Connective off the ground was tough; it took five years, between 2003 and 2008, to gain credibility, but seeing an almost off-the-cuff idea develop into the biggest aggregator in the country has made it all worthwhile.
Overall, Murray feels very privileged “to have amazing relationships with so many different brokers and lenders around Australia. As the owners of the business, Mark Haron, Glenn and myself, are able to go to any capital city around the country, and know there’s a whole bunch of guys out there who’d be happy to catch up with you, just to have a chat, and talk about how things are going in their business, is the best thing of all.”
Success for Murray isn’t just about money, it’s also about the impact you have on those around you. “It’s about thinking: is what I’m doing having a positive impact on the people I influence?”
What are Murray’s thoughts on failure? “I like to think you create an environment whereby people can take risks within a range of possibilities, so I’m not worried about someone failing. What I’m worried about is them not trying.”
As Murray Lees looks ahead to a bright future for Connective, he has no regrets about any of the paths he’s decided to take, believing that first one when he was five, was probably the toughest.
“I love being a Collingwood supporter. If you ask me at 2 o’clock on a Saturday, I’ll say that it’s the most important thing in the world. It gives you a balance actually, to be involved in something you have no control or influence over. You go along, cheer your heart out and what happens, happens.”
“I’ve been involved for 14 years now. I remember at school there were always kids who couldn’t go on the excursion, didn’t have new shoes, or didn’t have new books. In supporting them, you can have an impact by helping someone just get through those years not feeling different. That’s the key, helping them feel they belong, as part of the school, like everyone else, rather than being the outsiders.”
- “No one will ever sack me again.”
- “Why not just start a group ourselves. It was about as sophisticated as that.”
- “Is what I’m doing having a positive impact on the people I influence?”
Murray Lees relishes the cut and thrust of business and, as a die-hard Collingwood fan, he’s experienced first-hand the ups and downs of competition. Twelve years ago he and his brother founded what has become Australia’s largest mortgage aggregator, Connective, which now services 2,500 mortgage brokers and processes billions of dollars monthly.