It was the year I got married. The year Heath Ledger died and the year Barack Obama would become the first ever African American president. Also in 2008, Corey Passey opened his very first business, Smith & Sons Renovations and Extensions, a franchise which carried the hopes of two of this country’s most trusted housing industry names.
Within seven months a recession not seen since the 1930s would throw the world into complete disarray. Stock markets crashed, housing industries collapsed, federal governments were bailing out reputable international banking houses and the words ‘eviction’, ‘foreclosure’ and ‘unemployment’ quickly became a staple in headlines and everyday conversation.
Most of those who survived the worst of the GFC toast to the fact they simply still stand, but Corey and his team have barely taken a breath to let their staggering triumph sink in. Four years on there are now more than 60 Smith & Sons franchises operating in 55 locations in Australia and New Zealand.
How did this 36-year-old Alexandra Headland summer-only surfer do what so many others couldn’t? “It hasn’t been easy, so many builders were just packing up and going out to the mines,” Corey says, taking a rare break from another Sydney franchise meeting for this telephone interview and a coffee. “We believed in our model and product and we talked to a lot of builders. We had good growth in our first six months prior to the GFC. We had sold two master franchises in New Zealand and other franchises in Queensland and New South Wales.”
Though he jokes that it helped having younger brother, Ben, as the “guinea pig”, being the first franchise owner in Maroochydore. But it would seem the joke is on anyone but Ben as the rewards for franchisees only multiply as frustrated and out-of-work builders turn their attentions to the growing fascination of home renovations. There is also the bonus of having a safety net by being part of a larger brand promise and reputation, according to Corey.
“The housing market had crashed because more people were stepping back from massive outlays of money and opting for safer and more manageable investments in renovating projects with property they already owned,” he says.
The clearly driven yet surprisingly laidback husband and father of three laughs when I ask him just what would the 17-year-old uninspired version of himself think of his success, which includes being at the helm of the second fastest growing franchise in Australia.
“One week after I finished school I’d signed up for a builder’s apprenticeship with my father. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and building sites was all I knew and seemed a good last resort,” Corey explains, adding that his motivation lacked any palpable enthusiasm. It was no stroke of luck the Sunshine Coast born and bred Corey was handpicked to lead the operation by GJ Gardner Homes creator and fellow Coaster Greg Gardner.
Corey put in the hard yards with the company for 10 years in New Zealand before Greg and CEO Darren Wallis approached him about the possibility of returning to his home town with a new project. And so Smith & Sons was born. “I think they [Greg and Darren] knew that I was still quite young [30 at the time] and able to relate to the younger generation of builders working out there.”
Corey has just completed his own restoration project on the family’s 40-year-old Alexandra Headland home, readily admitting home renos are not for the faint-hearted. But he welcomes its newfound popularity, even if it is generated by a television show he confesses to having rarely watched. “I don’t watch The Block, I don’t watch much television at all, though I do like The Voice,” reveals Corey, with a chuckle.
There is unmistakable joy for this company director in watching the walks of life from which inspired renovators come. Most recently, that includes an Olympic gold medallist. “Duncan Armstrong has started his building apprenticeship and we signed him up for a franchise in Paddington with his father-in-law and brother-in-law just this week.”
While there is little chance that wife of 16 years Talitha, or daughters Eliza, Isabelle or Charlotte will step into Corey’s work boots any time soon, this Coast entrepreneur is simply happy that a 17-year-old, all grown up, has finally found his dream. “Passion is what I have found now, growing this business and the day-to-day running of it, I love what I do and that is all any of us can hope for.”