Twenty-one is a big deal.
On a personal level, most reading this post would have celebrated the milestone themselves. Some of you may have even watched your children or grandchildren pass the post.
And if you reflect back and consider how much is achieved from one’s birth through to the moment they turn 21… it’s huge. From birth, you learn to crawl. You start to talk, walk and run. Gain the ability to read and write and to make friends. You grow. You try new things. Experience successes. And failures. It’s a continual adventure filled with stories along the way.
For a company, the 21st milestone is equally momentous. It’s an occasion that begs you to pause, reflect and celebrate the journey that has been.
Peter Davis, founder and Chairman of Astra Apartments shares his story.
Life before Astra
My first business was a business college, specialising in marketing, PR and business skills. We managed to articulate our courses into a Bachelor’s degree at university which was a solid indicator of the college’s quality. I sold the college after 11 successful years to explore new opportunities.
At the time, the Internet was just beginning to surface. So when the chance to join one of the first search engine companies presented itself, I couldn’t refuse. In this exciting and fast-paced role, I was responsible for sales in Japan and Korea. Whilst I learned an incredible amount in this time, I wasn’t sure if I could work for other people but the turning point on leaving was this…
I walked into my boss’s office, and he was on a website I hadn’t seen before. Always curious, I asked what it was. His response. I’m no longer using our search engine. Because this one is better. This is Google.
It was the catalyst for change.
Within the business, I was always interacting with people that were flown into Sydney from Asia, the US, and Europe. They would stay in hotels, but after a week, all of them had the same complaint.
The small space and lifestyle of a hotel was wearing them down.
So when I left the search engine business, it was with the intent of solving the problem for this group of business travellers.
From idea to start-up
When I first started Astra Apartments, it was a pretty simple business. I took on two 1 bedroom apartments in North Sydney. I chose this location because of its proximity to the commercial centre. The rents were good and it was somewhere I could easily get to and from.
I knew there was a demand, and I now had a product. The next step was to market it.
I literally started walking the streets of North Sydney, approaching all the corporate offices. I would meet the receptionists, who in those days were responsible for booking accommodation, and then I would tell them what I had.
The apartments filled up straight away.
It was the proof of concept I needed.
Whilst I had a steady flow of business in those early days, the first real breakthrough was with an IT company in North Sydney. I had invited them to look at the apartments and it was exactly what they wanted. They immediately booked 12 people in for 3 months.
Building a presence
From the start, I was busy on the ground, growing apartments and marketing the business. In those days, the way to advertise was to pick up the phone, knock on doors, use direct mail and list your business in the Yellow Pages – which you could only update the ad once each year.
Marketing was essentially one-to-one and the focus was on supplying a great product and building strong relationships.
Whilst our marketing efforts have evolved since then, that same focus remains a critical part of our strategy 21 years down the track.
No one was doing what I did. And I was doing it well.
In that first year, I scaled to 15 apartments in North Sydney plus I started to take a few apartments in Sydney CBD.
As a sole trader wearing all the hats, it was getting really busy.
Around that time, I bumped into a friend. He previously owned the cafe where I bought my coffee and had a strong background in hospitality. He was a personable character with a strong work ethic… so I floated the idea of him joining my business. He came on to test it out – and turned out to be really good at it. Glen Sewell, together with his brother Tony still runs Astra Apartments Sydney CBD today.
Then, someone asked if we had apartments in Melbourne.
At this stage, I reached out to a schoolmate who was interested to look at new ideas. And Astra expanded into its second state.
One of the areas we had to consider, is how we take on the big guys without having tens of millions of dollars, huge offices and expenses.
Our path to growth was giving the manager of each location a stake in the business. We believed (and still do) that this is the best way for people to offer the ultimate service for guests and corporate bookers.
Now with 3 locations running, we needed a system that allowed us to seamlessly work together.
In 2002, because we were all working from home, we commissioned an IT professional to develop a booking chart that lived on the web (remembering, the internet was still pretty new back then). We were putting our business on the cloud (before it had a name) without knowing it. This allowed us to all work together no matter where we were. It was game-changing and paved the way for us to scale up.
With 3 territories humming along – others in my network started to notice the growth. They saw it was a business they could get involved in and take ownership of, and build scale and value. So they started to join. With a lot of hard work, the business grew to 12 locations in the first ten years.
Train & Trust
We were growing quickly. Whilst I was proud of where we were, I recognised that the business was getting too big to be managed by an ideas man. We needed systems and procedures in place to ensure we could stand the test of time.
At this stage, Tom Jeavons-Fellows had joined the group and was running one of the locations. Meticulous in his work, and with a strong background in engineering, he was exactly what we needed to future-proof the brand. He built out the processes and infrastructure and then ran the network for an extended period. Today Tom is the Chief Executive and keeps our business running smoothly.
I believe part of the reason we are still here and performing strongly, is we always realise we need to keep refreshing at the top with new ideas. In 2019, Duncan Adams who was running our Canberra territory came on board as Managing Director. His business acumen and leadership skills has taken us again to a new level and he continues to lead and inspire the team today.
We also have built an incredible culture across the group. We don’t believe in micro-management – instead, we train our people well, set clear parameters, and then trust them to do the job. ‘Train and Trust’. Our people are a wide-ranging mix of backgrounds which we love, as everyone brings a new perspective. Past lives include cafe owners, investment bankers, financial controllers, Australian sporting representatives, and tennis pros, to name a few. All have the same goal of providing a better long-stay accommodation experience for corporates.
We are never idle in our search for the right people to join us.
The biggest challenge
Undoubtedly the pandemic.
Astra Apartments had enjoyed 18 years of year-on-year growth – then when Covid hit – and the borders were slammed shut, our world was turned on it’s head.
The hardest part during this period was not knowing how long it would last. How to keep people motivated when the market is closed indefinitely? The key driver of our business is people working away from their home town. We need people in planes!
We set out to make sure everyone came through, no matter how long it lasted.
The biggest achievement
I’m extremely proud that we have a strong and recognised brand after 21 years – for those that have run their own businesses, it’s not easy.
Where we are today is a strong testament to our great business owners that are committed to helping our clients by solving their accommodation needs. As such, we’ve grown the business in 21 different locations. Many of our owners have been with us for over 10 years, with the longest sharing the journey for in excess of 15 years.
Also to think, this niche “long-stay corporate accommodation “ sector has now become a critical piece of the portfolio for some of the world’s biggest hotel brands. Now that’s proof of concept!
The current market is strong and the challenge is keeping up with demand from our corporate clients, whilst operating in a tight real estate market.
Nonetheless, we remain focused on finding the right apartments, and not settling for less.
We plan to scale to 1000 apartments by 2025. We know what our bookers and corporate travelers need, and through the right product, digital innovation and strong relationships, we plan to continue with our invaluable partnerships for many years to come.
For now, we are 21 years, and across 21 locations. Happy Birthday, Astra Apartments.