With 40 years of experience under its belt, there's no doubt that Rockend is one of Australia's most trusted real estate software provider. But getting to where it is now was not without challenges, as what founder Tony and son Alister Maple-Brown have experienced.
As we celebrate Rockend's Ruby anniversary, we take a look on the years of innovation as told by the father and son duo, sharing their Rockend journey and talking about spotting a niche that transformed the real estate industry.
The early years
The early days of Rockend is very different to what it is now. In fact, it had nothing to do with real estate but in selling desktop computers.
If you visit Rockend’s headquarters in St Leonards, New South Wales, you’ll see a vintage Durango F-85, the world’s first integrated desktop computer, pride of place in the boardroom. While it may seem like a relic now, when founder and former CEO Tony Maple-Brown began importing the 20-kilogram machine from the US back in 1979, it was a remarkably forward-thinking move.
The Durango distribution deal was offered to him while working in the US, after a stint working as a sales engineer in Europe. Hopping on a plane back to Australia, he set up shop at 7 Cable Street, Wollstonecraft, naming the business Rockend after the Gladesville home of his great-great-grandmother, Emily Mary Barton.
But selling the Durangos weren’t easy. “In the first year I only sold 20 or so,” Maple-Brown recalls, so the powers that be thought they could do better and took the master distributorship away from me and gave it to someone else. I was still able to buy the equipment, but on slightly less favourable terms.”
Turning it around with property management software
Despite this minor setback, Maple-Brown will eventually win the deal back again, this time determined to streamline the business, fine-tuning it in a way that worked for everyone.
The first attempt was loading the Durangos with standard accounting software and modifying each unit for customers as diverse as Kennards Hire to Harris Farm Markets, which,“quickly proved to be a bit of a nightmare,” according to Maple-Brown. With these challenges, Maple-Brown then hit on the idea of identifying an industry where he could sell the same software to more than one client, eventually settling on real estate property management software.
The move proved to be genius when Rockend started to adapt software originally developed for Wang computers and made their first sale to PAL Real Estate in Naremburn in 1980.
“Real estate agents had to manage other people’s money judiciously, and the nature of property management is that there were a lot of transactions that weren’t worth very much to them in those early days. Somebody would be paying $10 a week rent and they had to keep meticulous records because of trust account legislation, so they had to get efficient.”
It was a transformative move, and the market was wildly impressed with just how much easier Rockend’s offering made business.
New generation, new innovation
That innovative drive has stood the business in good stead, building a trusted national presence in a complicated industry where legislation varies wildly state-by-state in order to build a suite of products accessed by north of 50,000 users daily, servicing some 55 percent of Australian rental properties and 40 percent of strata lots.
A huge part of that success has been derived from savvy acquisitions, like Aussie Made Software in 2009, boosting the strata management user base, but even more important has been the embracing of digital innovation through cloud technology, most notably with Rockend’s Property Tree offering.
That was the brainchild of current CEO Alister Maple-Brown, who took on the day-to-day running of the company in 2012, after an eight-year stewardship by John Goddard that saw offices opened in Melbourne and Brisbane, and annual sales boosted almost fivefold. An innovative man, Maple-Brown junior has Rockend in his blood.
“I was five when Dad started the company, so for the first 10 years I really didn’t have a clue about it, apart from pretty much all of our family holidays were road trips north, south or west of Sydney and they always included stop-ins at real estate agents on the way,” he says with a laugh.
Studying for an arts degree at the University of New South Wales, majoring in history and politics, he joined the business part-time in his third year. “I started selling some software we had bought that was around gymnasium management, so nothing to do with our initial and current customers,” Alister adds. “It was an outlier and I was in my very early 20s, selling it, supporting it, training it, marketing it, doing everything, almost like a tiny start-up business. If you’ve got clever people around you that can do all the technical stuff, then you can bridge the gap between the customer and the business.”
The communication aspect was great training, as was the freedom to experiment and innovate offered by that start-up approach.
The succeeding years will see Maple-Brown junior further expanding his experience in varied sectors – working for a US-based politician, then a brief stint in a sales role in Rockend, before working in a Silicon Valley start-up at the height of the dotcom bubble. It is his experience with a start-up where he would be inspired by the forward-thinking environment, where innovation was not only encouraged but actively expected. He also greatly appreciated an environment that revered sales.
However, Alister was unsatisfied by the ungainliness of the suite of desktop client server software he had to deploy around a global network. Turning to salesforce.com in its early days, Alister was able to transform the way he and his colleagues communicated with each other and with their customers. “I shared the account with people that I was working with on the other side of the country and within a day we were all up and running on a piece of software, sharing data, and they could see what I was doing. I thought it was awesome, and that for me was a real turning point.”
Walking on clouds
When the dotcom bubble burst in 2001, Alister returned to his father’s side undaunted, bringing that digital innovation streak with him, though, frustratingly, he had to bide his time until Australia caught up. “There wasn’t the same acceptance of the internet, full stop,” he recalls. “No one used salesforce.com, so no software was online. There was barely any banking being done online, so to start building it then would have been to go out on a limb, but I knew that it was going to happen eventually.”
Waiting for his moment, he began building what would become the cloud-based property management tool Property Tree in 2008, after a visit to Xero in New Zealand. “They’d been operating for about a year and I thought, ‘Great, there’s the business leading the charge in the online accounting space; now is the right time for us,’ and that was a real validation.”
Observing MYOB’s rocky path navigating both legacy and innovation, Alister decided it was best to clear the path by creating a new company with a new team unburdened by what had gone before in “a sort of skunkworks environment, with people that had no networks with the mothership”.
It’s been a transformational ride ever since. Embracing new income streams including Property Tree’s cloud offering, Alister has overseen major shifts in the way the business runs.
The future of Rockend
Cognisant of the constant need to embrace new technology, adapt and innovate, he’s quietly optimistic about the future. “There is still so much to do,” he says. “I hate the idea of resting on your laurels.”
He is proud of his father’s achievements, though. “He has been there since the day dot and should be really proud of taking the business from zero to leading the space. He has an amazing ability to step back and to trust, and his involvement with me is nothing but supportive and complimentary. I think that’s indicative of his future focus, and complete lack of ego.”
Tony is similarly opposed to laurel-resting, but is hugely proud of the massive growth Alister, and John before him, have overseen. “People are the most important part of any business, just as valuable as the software and clients we have acquired along the way,” he says. “Alister has brought a completely new perspective to the business. He understands the platform he’s trying to develop innately, always placing the customers at the centre of everything he does. I know he’ll continue to navigate Rockend successfully through the 21st century.”