Yellow Folder Interview Series: James Kelly, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Lifestyle Communities

 

Given the challenges we’ve all experienced during 2020 and now in 2021, Yellow Folder wanted to reach out to a number of executives to understand how COVID-19 has impacted their businesses, their teams, and their ways of working.

In this sixth interview, we spoke with James Kelly, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Lifestyle Communities, which is now an AU$2 billion organisation, to understand how he has led the company through continued change and uncertainty.

 

Question (Yellow Folder): What changes have you and your leadership team made to the business to cope with COVID-19 and situations like these long lockdowns?

Answer (James Kelly): “Going into lockdown has been an interesting journey, we have whiplash from the constant changes, but we also have some muscle memory from previous experiences. We have been very mindful of the customers who are buying our homes, as we know that they want to be able to look at our homes and really feel the brand. This has always been an important part of their experience, so as a company we have put a lot of collateral, video, and support behind providing virtual inspections. The really good news is that in lockdown six we have sold more homes virtually than ever before, some of them sight unseen. We’re really pleased because this means customers are trusting us and leaning into our brand.

Also, to mix things up and keep everyone engaged and hopeful, we do little initiatives for our homeowners like sending around drink carts and sweets. We have 4,000 homeowners in our communities, and we have been reaching out to them as both a shoulder to cry on and a voice of counsel. Most homeowners say that our communities are the best place to be in lockdown because they have companionship and company. This is particularly true for single people, as otherwise lockdown can be a lonely time when you only have one person in your bubble and are otherwise isolating. Our homeowners have said they feel blessed not to have experienced this isolation, which has turned out to be a point of difference and point of referral for us. Every time we come out of a lockdown, we get a huge updraft of enquiries.”

Q: What have been your biggest successes during the pandemic?

A: “We created a project called Project Bulletproof. When COVID-19 first hit, our goal was to survive through the pandemic, to never lose a person, to never cut wages and most of all, to look after our homeowners. Our biggest success is that we have ticked all of these boxes.

Another success is that we led with kindness through this period; it’s my favourite leadership trait and is very embedded in our culture. Everything we did was kind. We had various initiatives internally. We tried to think differently in lockdowns regarding how to keep people engaged. There has been lots of kindness.”

Q: What have been the key messages and feedback you’ve received from customers during the pandemic? Has any of this surprised you?

A: “We are dealing with a lot of frustration from our communities, and we’ve had to manage our teams very carefully during this period. We had to shut our community facilities and make sure we did this with a lot of understanding and kindness. We had to put ourselves in our homeowners’ shoes to get a sense of what they’re going through to understand their level of frustration and feelings of disempowerment. We’re used to having highly empowered communities, so when they were disempowered by the government, it came as a flashpoint for them. They went from being in control to having no control. I felt we did this well, there were lots of landmines we didn’t tread on. We ran different initiatives every week to boost morale and ran virtual wellness classes. We got positive feedback including comments on what a fantastic job we were doing looking after our homeowners.”

 Q: Lifestyle Communities is known for its experience-focused culture, how have you been able to maintain this during the pandemic, given changes to ways of working?

A: “Wow, what a challenge for any organisation! Continuing to create great experiences for our staff, homeowners, and customers whilst in lockdown has been a huge focus for us and something I think we’ve done really well. We have been able to keep our culture strong as we recruit very carefully. There is sometimes a temptation to get someone into the business as quickly as possible for urgent roles, but our People & Culture team is absolutely determined, rigid and disciplined around making sure we don’t vary on what we recruit to in terms of culture and the values and behaviours that we need people to have. There are key behavioural attributes that we recruit to and that we look for before we decide to bring someone into the business. Over the last two years, we’re more recruiting to culture and then training for skill. We’re prepared to look outside of the box for the skills that we need, and we will train them to be the best in the business.”

Q: What about other challenges you’ve had to overcome?

A: “Our biggest challenge has been communication. We have 120 people in our team, and initially scheduled weekly meetings with everyone joining in on the Zoom. It was the best thing we did, as one of the challenges during something like this is that there is a lot of potential for misinformation and miscommunication. We’re doing these meetings fortnightly now, and keeping everyone up to speed and up to date.

During a crisis, the best thing to do is communicate more and also to be transparent. You have to be so honest and so open with your team with everything that’s going on and just say it as it is.”

Q: We noted that Lifestyle Communities is gearing up for growth through an expanded debt facility and land acquisition program. How challenging has been the decision to pursue growth given the recent uncertainty?

A: “We have come out stronger from COVID-19, so pursuing growth hasn’t been a challenging decision. What we have seen is a massive reprioritisation from the baby boomer generation. The pandemic bought mortality to light and consequently the market has strengthened. COVID-19 has been a disruptor, people are wanting to seize the moment and downsize to a different lifestyle. This has given us confidence and we picked up two sites in the middle of COVID-19. We raised $50 million and more recently $100 million, which gave us the firepower to go after opportunities.”

Q: What are your other priorities for the next 6 – 12 months and what are you most excited to do when everything opens up again?

A: “Our priorities are to keep all our homeowners and staff well and safe and to come out of this stronger than ever. Mental health issues during the pandemic have and continue to be huge, so we’re reaching out to everyone and over the next 12 months we’re being incredibly mindful to check in and make sure that nothing falls off the rails and support is provided. For me personally, I want to stay focused and ensure that we are doing everything in the best way we can to maximise opportunities during lockdown.”

 

The Yellow Folder team would like to thank James very much for his insights, and wish Lifestyle Communities much continued success as Melbourne begins its journey out of lockdown.