Talk to international real estate company Harcourts International about the future and they’ll tell you that they not only have a vision for the next 20 years, but they even have an acronym for it – BHAG.
“Which,” explains Chief Information Officer Jason Wills, “is our Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal, and that is to be recognised as the No. 1 real estate franchise in the world.” For some, it might sound akin to a brag, but Harcourts International has made a habit of making good on big dreams.
From its beginnings in 1888 in a single shop in New Zealand’s Wellington, Harcourts International has grown to become the largest real estate brand in its home country and the third biggest network in Australia. Now it boasts more than 790 offices and over 5,200 sales consultants in eight countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Fiji, China, Hong Kong, South Africa and USA.
The plan over the next two decades is to be operating in 100 countries, and for that sort of expansion Harcourts International realised it needed technology able to cope with the massive transition.
“We needed to meet customers’ needs by innovating more quickly and finding new ways of doing business – and we needed new platforms to do that”
The status quo wasn’t coping, with the company finding that clients and internal users were changing from desktop to mobile usage, while email usage was growing at a tremendous rate, with photographs and large graphics causing file sizes to expand enormously.
“The cost of management of our existing email systems; that is becoming quite significant. With the lack of storage available we are constantly pushing the boundaries of our current system. We are getting so large, especially in New Zealand and Australia, there is so much data that’s on the email server that we can’t even back up any more,” Mr Wills said.
“The major changes in the industry have really been around the mobilisation of our clients, in particular, their demand for timely information has really just gone through the roof in recent years, and so have the demands on our sales consultants and all our people in general. That’s all changed for the clients that we’re dealing with, whether you’re Y generation, X generation and baby-boomers.
“We needed to meet customers’ needs by innovating more quickly and finding new ways of doing business – and we needed new platforms to do that.”
In late 2014, the company turned to CloudFirst, a CSP partner which specialises in franchising, and Microsoft to introduce the most advanced collaboration platform available to Harcourts International business owners, with an expected rollout date of 1 June 2015.
The privately-owned company prides itself on innovation. “Innovation to us is huge,” Mr Wills said. “We’ve been first to market with a lot of technology products in particular over the years, and for us it’s a huge recruiter for us. We recruit a lot of our team members by using innovation, but also just the public as well, our clients.
“We were looking at the different options out there and it’s quite tricky for us because we are a large franchise network and we had to find partners that understood how franchises work and that can work with us in collaboration with how to roll out those systems to our offices.”
“So we partnered up with the CloudFirst team, and they’ve been great. Microsoft, it’s a well-known brand, its best of breed, and that’s how we look at software, we try and partner with the best of breed companies.” Mr Wills admits that the decision to go with Office 365 has come with unexpected benefits.
“It’s funny because when we started this journey we thought, well, let’s just focus on Exchange Online – that’s been the primary mission – and then start spreading it out to the other applications – Word, Excel and so on – that we can share with our teams.
“We make a promise to our clients that we will deliver information in a timely fashion and do the basics brilliantly. Our technology empowers our people to deliver on that promise.”
“But then you get the calendar and the collaboration you can have with our sales force teams using the calendar options. Then I got a message yesterday from our CEO from one of our State offices and he said: ‘Hey, look, I’ve heard about Yammer, could that be any good for us?’ I didn’t realise that Office 365 has social tools like Yammer, I didn’t realise that was part of it, so I can see so much more potential.
SharePoint is going to be really valuable to us, and as we start thinking deeper we are going to find other ways for applying some of the tools that are in there.” When fully operational, franchisees will be able to save on travel costs by using Lync for video conferencing, potentially using it as part of websites to chat online to clients, while Wills believes “one of the things that’s really cool is the Office 365 video.”
“For us, the opportunity to train our people that are in such remote locations around Australia, to be able to set up a training channel for us will be wonderful. It’s going to save us a lot of money and time, and also just make us look more efficient when we deliver our message out to our people.”
Franchisees will also have the ability to access unlimited file storage in OneDrive for Business on any device and will be able to take up the latest version of Microsoft Office – enabling their offices to access Office on their iPhone, iPad, Android Phone, Windows Phone and on their PCs 24/7 with or without an internet connection.
“From Harcourts International’ point of view, it’s helped us achieve our business goals by just making us more responsive to our clients’ needs. We have a promise that we make to our clients that we will deliver information to them in a timely fashion, that we’ll do the basics brilliantly and the technology empowers our people to do that. It’s a huge focus for us and it’s really helped us over the last 12 months in particular,” Mr Wills said.
The change has also enabled Harcourts International’ sales teams to be more productive out of their offices. “We want to make sure that they are out in the field doing what they do best, and that’s communicating and negotiating with clients, so to mobilise them and give them all the information that they need at their fingertips, it’s just so essential to them now,” he said.
“That’s what we’ve been working with Microsoft and CloudFirst on, to come up with some system, an Office 365 package, that would give our clients exactly what they need, give them the email, the instant messaging and also access to all their documentation.”
OneDrive is also providing a huge benefit to Harcourts International, with sales people being able sit down with clients off site and negotiate and ratify contract changes on the spot.
“Typically, in the past you’d have to go back to the office and then go out and visit the other side, the buyer side, and see what the changes are,” Mr Wills said.
“The turnaround for that sort of thing could be an hour to two hours, or sometimes days in some cases. Now with OneDrive we can actually make changes to that document, send it straight back to the office. The changes can be made at the office, that information then just gets sent straight back to our sales consultant who is onsite with the client, so that alone is just huge for us.
“We’ve currently got physical servers set up in Johannesburg, Sydney, Christchurch, Chicago, Hong Kong and China…as the old physical servers start to get dated we will just retire those and put everything up into the Azure cloud.”
Harcourts International intend using Microsoft Azure for the company’s entry into the world of the cloud. “We’ve currently got physical servers set up in Johannesburg, Sydney, Christchurch, Chicago, Hong Kong and China, but we’re actually just in the process of moving to Microsoft Azure in the USA,” Mr Wills said. “So they’ll be the first country that we push our infrastructure to the cloud, then as the old physical servers start to get dated we will just retire those and put everything up into the Azure cloud.”
Harcourts International has a vision and a ‘Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal’. Microsoft and CloudFirst are helping that ambition be realised.