Looking back at Colliers' 30-year history in New Zealand
This year, Colliers International celebrates 30 years in New Zealand – a milestone that would have been almost impossible to imagine during the tumultuous climate of the company’s early days.
Colliers first opened its doors on April 1, 1989, less than two years after the Black Monday share market crash wiped almost 60 per cent off New Zealand share prices. While the rest of the world slowly recovered, New Zealand was plunged into a recession that prompted corporate high-fliers to dump their property assets or flee the market altogether.
“It was absolute carnage,” recalls Mark Synnott, Colliers International’s New Zealand Chief Executive. “The early years were a constant battle for survival. We couldn’t even afford the New Zealand Herald. I’m not talking about advertising – we couldn’t even afford a subscription to the paper.”
Despite the inauspicious timing of the launch, Colliers survived the tough times to emerge as New Zealand’s leading commercial property company. It now employs more than 600 staff in 23 locations throughout the country, offering a full range of property services including sales and leasing, project management, valuation, property management, research and strategic advisory. Last year, the company opened three new offices, received nine industry awards and brought in record revenue.
“Looking back, I’m astounded at how far we’ve come,” says Synnott. “From humble beginnings, we’ve built a truly great New Zealand company with unbeatable global reach.”
Establishment and survival: 1989 to 1999
The Colliers brand was born in Australia in 1976 and entered the international market five years later. It remains the only global property company to have emerged from the Australasian market.
Various attempts to establish Colliers in New Zealand had met little success until the Australian parent company partnered with three young leasing agents from Realty Brokers in 1989.
Synnott recalls how there were only two main players in New Zealand’s commercial property market at the time – Bayleys, which was then solely a commercial agency, and Realty Brokers.
“The global agencies were barely established in New Zealand. JLL emerged from its association with local company HG Livingstone in 1985, and CBRE opened its doors in New Zealand in 1987. Their businesses were small, but the competition was intense.”
What set Colliers apart was its strategy of hiring talented young people from a range of backgrounds, rather than relying solely on established industry stalwarts. It’s a point of difference the company maintains to this day.
Driving this strategy was Roger Cook, one of the founders of Colliers in Australia, who helped establish both the Wellington and Auckland offices. Among his first hires were Synnott, who’d worked for IBM before launching his property career with Realty Brokers, and former police officer Paul Dyson, now an Auckland Leasing Director and a ‘half-lifer’ at Colliers, who’s spent 30 years working for the company.
Colliers was quick to branch out from sales and leasing, adding a property management team and acquiring valuation firm Eyles Purdy in 1989. Valuers Nigel Dean and Jack Charters remain with Colliers to this day.
Colliers established its Auckland headquarters in 1989 within the brand-new Fay Richwhite building at 151 Queen Street, widely known as the Big Pinky. The company had only three staff in Auckland, but with ambitious plans for growth it leased the entirety of Level 23.
Colliers scraped through its first year thanks to the sheer grit and relentless work ethic of its tenacious young team. Its first major transaction was the $12 million sale of Swanson Towers on Hobson Street in Auckland.
By 1990, Colliers had grown and appointed its first Managing Director, Trevor Bolland, formerly of Realty Brokers. A year later the company rebranded as Colliers Jardine, when the Australasian business merged with Asia-based property firm Jardine Matheson. Charles Cooper, who was later to become the Auckland Managing Director, joined the team late that year as an industrial agent.
The company expanded in 1992 when Hamish Doig established a new Christchurch office. By 1993, Colliers Jardine had grown into a business of almost 100 people, with 65 staff in Auckland and some 35 staff in Wellington and Christchurch. A new Managing Director, Bruce Cotterill, was appointed to grow the business further.
As Colliers celebrated its fifth birthday in New Zealand, Cotterill left to become the Chief Executive of Colliers Australasia. He was replaced by Synnott, then 34 years’ old, who has now held the top role for 25 years.
The Colliers brand as we know it today began to take shape in 1997, when Colliers Macaulay Nicolls, the largest member of the global group, purchased a 50 per cent stake in Colliers Jardine. The Canadian company purchased Colliers Jardine outright in 2001, rebranding the company as Colliers International and shifting its global headquarters to Vancouver.
A new motto, Building Relationships, became the company’s mission as it entered its second decade. More than a clever play on words, the motto underpins Colliers’ commitment to forming and fostering lasting client relations – a business model that persists to this day.
Consolidation and growth: 1999 to 2009
By the mid-1990s, New Zealand’s economy was growing again and the property market had rebounded. But there were still tough times ahead. The 1998 power crisis plunged Auckland’s CBD into darkness for five weeks, sending Colliers’ property management team into overdrive. At the same time, the New Zealand economy dipped back into recession as the shockwaves of the Asian financial crisis rippled through the market.
Synnott had an unambiguous message as the business entered its second decade: “We are not participating in the recession!” He gathered a group of senior leaders – including Cooper, Doig, Peter Herdson, John Goddard, Alan McMahon and Peter Hebert – for a pivotal planning session at Opito Bay. They emerged with a plan to greatly expand the business.
In 2000, the company opened a second Auckland office on the North Shore, founded by former Bayleys agent Andrew Hiskens, and later led by Jimmy O’Brien. A South Auckland industrial office, headed by Greg Goldfinch, followed in 2008.
Colliers also invested in brand-new headquarters at 151 Queen Street. Completed in 2004, the streamlined new open work environment, now located on Level 27, featured collaborative work spaces and a cafe and bar area for staff and clients. At the same time, Colliers became the first corporate in New Zealand to partner with Vodafone on a ‘wireless office’ that replaced landlines and desktops with mobile phones and laptops. These steps towards flexible working put the company ahead of the curve.
Colliers expanded its North Island reach in 1999 by merging with Harcourts’ commercial property business in Wellington, dominating the local market overnight. New offices followed in Palmerston North and Hamilton in 2000, Tauranga in 2002 and Hawke’s Bay in 2004. In the South Island, the company expanded beyond Christchurch with new offices in Queenstown and Nelson in 2008.
In 2007, Colliers expanded its professional services by finalising the acquisition of Livingstone’s valuation and property management businesses, the latter of which was repositioned as Colliers Real Estate Management. The team now has more than 90 staff and manages the largest portfolio of shopping centres in New Zealand.
By the end of its second decade, Colliers had grown from three offices to more than a dozen, with well over 300 staff.
Acceleration: 2009 to 2019
The global financial crisis of 2008-2009 plunged New Zealand back into recession, and many companies responded with deep cuts. Colliers took a different approach. Synnott recalls how his experience of the last downturn shaped the company’s response.
“By now, we had a template for growing market share during tough times. We continued to invest in our business and our people, which enabled us to shrink less and grow more than our competitors. We expanded our professional services, launched new business lines and made a conscious effort to promote collaboration and referrals within the business.
“There were trying times as transaction volumes slumped, but our efforts paid off as the economy rebounded. Our revenue and market share grew throughout the decade. It’s been a period of huge acceleration – and we’re now stronger than ever.”
The new decade brought a rebrand with a streamlined new logo and a new motto, Accelerating Success, which continues to underpin the Colliers business model of accelerating the success of both staff and clients.
In 2009, Colliers established a new Dunedin office headed by Dean Collins. It also launched a new Corporate Solutions service line, recruiting Don Smith and eight staff from property consultancy firm DTZ, which was struggling in the depths of the global financial crisis. The team initially haemorrhaged money but began turning a profit by its third year. It is now the leading occupier services provider in New Zealand, counting BNZ and Vodafone among its major corporate clients.
The Canterbury earthquake of February 2011 created major issues across the region’s property market. Colliers staff in Christchurch rose to the challenge by providing timely and professional property management, leasing and ‘as is where is’ sales services in the days and months that followed.
A dedicated Residential Project Marketing team was launched in 2014. The groundwork for the team was initially laid in 1994, when Roger Seavill marketed Auckland’s first purpose-built apartment tower; he sold 23 units at the Seaview Apartments for about $10 million over a single weekend in Hong Kong. The residential division, now led by Pete Evans and Jeff Davidson, has since expanded and has been involved in numerous successful apartment projects, including Botanica in Mount Eden and Fabric of Onehunga.
In 2015, Colliers established a West Auckland office to service the fast-growing northwestern suburbs. The team is now led by Josh Coburn, who also runs a specialist Site Sales team. In the same year, Colliers also entered the Rural and Agribusiness market with offices initially in Christchurch and Hawke’s Bay. The team is headed by Hadley Brown in the North Island and Ruth Hodges in the South Island. A dedicated Forestry Sales division, led by top forestry broker Warwick Searle, followed in 2018.
Colliers has also greatly expanded its geographic reach over the last decade. The proliferation of new offices includes Rotorua, Gisborne, Waipukurau, New Plymouth, Kapiti, Richmond and Wanaka. The company also continues to expand its capabilities, with new business lines launched in recent years including Property Syndication, Business Sales, Strategic Consulting, Building Consultancy and, most recently, Project Management.
Colliers has continued to deliver through challenging times. When the Kaikoura earthquake struck in late 2016, the property management and leasing teams in Wellington worked relentlessly to assess assets and find leasing solutions for displaced clients in a period of historically low vacancies.
Into the future
Synnott says the future is looking bright. Next year, the company will move its headquarters from 151 Queen Street for the first time in its history – to a brand-new, Warren and Mahoney-designed office with expansive harbour views at 188 Quay Street, Auckland.
“It’s a return to our roots, in a way – we’ll be occupying the entirety of Level 23, as we did when we first opened in our current building. But it’s also a leap into the future. Our new office will be mainly activity-based, with break-out zones, flexible meeting spaces and minimal fixed desks. It will be an office that reflects what makes Colliers unique – the attitude of a start-up, the strength of a global giant and the warmth of a family run business.”
Synnott says Colliers has grown massively over the last 30 years, but has never lost sight of its roots.
“We know how much dedication and expertise it takes to build a successful business from the ground up, and we’ve learned to thrive through diversity with sheer grit and hard work. Our history forms our values to this day – it keeps us humble and drives our commitment to delivering New Zealand’s best full-service property solutions.
“Of course, we wouldn’t have arrived here at all without our great clients – many of whom have been with us from the start. For that, we are enormously grateful.”