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Madison shooting to the top as young gun of management rights

Exclusive interview: Madison Lee has the management rights industry in her DNA, Grantlee Kieza talks with the Gold Coast accommodation industry superstar

At just 29 the marvellous Madison Lee is already a management rights veteran and is inspiring others in the industry with her dynamic energy at properties including Sovereign on the Gold Coast.

She spoke with Grantlee Kieza for an article originally published in Resort News – subscribe HERE

You were virtually born into the management rights business?

You could say that – it feels like it’s part of my DNA. My stepdad Russell Leary has been heavily involved in management rights on the Gold Coast for over 35 years. Originally a bricklayer in Tasmania and as the story goes, came to the Gold Coast for a holiday and had a poor experience with a hotel operator, and felt he could do a far better job.

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Later that year he relocated to the Gold Coast and purchased his first management rights, and the rest is history. Fast forward 35 years he has now owned and operated more than 50 buildings and has applied the same principles throughout each one – ensuring owners, bodies corporate committees, strata managers and the onsite managers were on the same page, working toward a common and united goal.

This is really where I was born into the industry, I saw firsthand every aspect of being involved in the management rights business from the initial negotiations right through to the pool and garden maintenance, often having to help when needed with the rest of my siblings.

After spending some time outside of the family business I was eager to re-enter the management rights industry, inspired by the reputation Russ had built as being one of the best operators on the Gold Coast. As a family business, I felt motivated to carry this on and add to it in my own way. 

You grew up living in management rights properties?

Correct – I remember bouncing from one building to the next. The family would initially live onsite in the manager’s unit to get a feel for the complex and its issues. We would run the building until we found the correct managers to take over. I drive through Broadbeach now and it’s very nostalgic – filled with buildings we lived in.

When did you start work in the industry?

Age 14 – we had a resort in Currumbin at the time that I would ride my bike to on Sunday morning to help in housecleaning, making beds, and cleaning rooms. I’d work a full day for $20, which I’d spend immediately at the local lolly store. At the time I thought I was so rich. During my teen years I was fortunate to help in many capacities around the resorts Russ owned at the time, ranging from basic housekeeping through to front desk and back-end administration. 

During those earlier years, one of Russ’s business partners at the time (Jenny Fulton) took me under her wing – she was very passionate about the industry and a hard taskmaster. She taught me a lot about the industry and how to run a building. 

Fast forward 15 years and it is only now that I realise how privileged I was to learn about management rights at such a young age from such seasoned managers and owners. It has paid dividends over the past few years, helping me navigate the running of Sovereign. 

Why did you step away from the industry for a while?

Like a lot of young people, I wanted to make my own way in the world and gain some personal experience before circling back to the family business. I always had a passion for property and travel, so I initially moved to Sydney and worked for a large real estate agency down there. I then caught the travel bug and moved to Aspen where I worked in property and then onto Thailand where I worked in one of the largest international chain of resorts, Club Med.

Then COVID hit, and I was forced to relocate back to Australia.

You came home and what happened next?

I relocated to Noosa because of COVID-19 and decided that it was time for me to put my skills to work in the family business. I initially partnered with Russ on a consolidated project he had in Noosa at the time with a couple of recently purchased buildings and rent rolls.

Not too long afterward I decided to move back to the Gold Coast with both Russ and I identifying that it was a far bigger market we could collectively tackle. Together we started searching for our first project to find a building that was big enough, showed great opportunity but needed a little bit of love. It was daunting at the time taking on a building in the middle of COVID, but we had faith it would be short-term and that it was a good time to buy.

That’s when Sovereign On The Gold Coast came up?

Yes – it was exactly the building we were looking for. It was a little run down, there was animosity between existing management and owners and the committee had little trust.

Essentially it just needed love, which is what we pride ourselves on. Despite the issues and being up against it, we saw the potential. We agreed to purchase it, took the gamble, and settled in March 2021.

Sovereign On The Gold Coast

Our mantra going into the building was hard work, knowing that if we didn’t work hard, the gamble wouldn’t pay off, we wouldn’t unite the owners and committee and we certainly wouldn’t get the opportunity to get a top-up to continue managing the building. There was a real possibility that if we didn’t get it right the committee was going to run the agreements out and manage it themselves.

When I say we were up against it, we really were. At the time of settlement, the neighbouring property had around 70 of Sovereign’s keys and was gaining access through the fire escapes – what a mess! Russ was living in Noosa, and I was on the ground running the building mostly solo. Looking back most people would have struggled to see the opportunity, but I am glad we persevered.

It was a great building to cut my teeth on initially, everything that could have gone wrong did. I guess from my perspective, I was brought back down to earth very quickly on how difficult this industry can be and the reminder that a bit of hard work and love can go a long way.

At the same time as you were snowed under with work, you had a personal disaster?

My younger sister Alexa fell off her bike training for the Noosa Triathlon going 70km an hour down a hill. She was airlifted from Noosa to Brisbane and initially feared she might not make the trip to the hospital.  She was in hospital for over a year, underwent multiple brain surgeries and we were told that there was a chance she would never walk or talk again.

It certainly was a difficult and trying time, but I am so grateful that she is here with us today. It taught me to not sweat the small stuff and that you can’t control every situation.

Alexa now lives on the Gold Coast and is on track to compete in the Paralympics for swimming. She is one of the most resilient and determined people I know.

You’ve overseen big changes at Sovereign?

We certainly have. We now have a refreshed and united committee working with us and the owners on improving the building. Our letting pool has increased from 45 to 180. Many of the units have undergone full renovations as owners now have confidence in the building, and we have renewed our agreements to a new 25-year term.

What advice would you give to management rights buyers?

I struggle to give advice because each building will be different. I can only say what has and continues to work for us.

We leave the pride and ego at the door and set out to align ourselves with the owners and the committee. There are no right or wrong decisions, opinions, or people. We understand that there will always be differing opinions, big and small personalities, much like my own family dynamic given I have seven siblings.

We work out what needs to be done and systematically work through this in terms of priority with a real sense of urgency.

Owners want to feel like you share the same passion they do for the building and that you are in their corner fighting to get the best returns for them, not just collecting a clip of their rent.

While doing all of this, we always prioritise regular and consistent communications with owners – we want to tell them how we are tracking with improvements and wins along the way, while also keeping it personal so they can get to know us and the team.

Don’t become insular, think about what you would want to see if you were an owner. This perspective always allows me to get outside of my own bubble and keep my priorities aligned.  If ever in doubt, I always ask myself the same question; “what is best for the scheme?” This simple question has helped me navigate many decisions.

What’s the future of management rights?

I think great operators will continue to see wins, and poor operators will struggle. For the most part, I think we have great operators and hopefully the management rights community can come together to continue to improve and demonstrate why we are such an integral part of the industry.  

You’re a director of the Gold Coast Resort Group. What’s that?

Gold Coast Resort Group is the brand we are looking to unite all our Gold Coast buildings under.  We have added an additional building to the portfolio (The Reserve in Varsity Lakes) two months ago with several others we are currently in negotiations with. We are actively looking to add to this quite aggressively over the next few years. Our preference is larger buildings with more than 150 keys but open to all opportunities that come up.

Madison Lee with sister and Co-Director Ashtyn Leary

What do you do away from work?

It can seem a bit all-consuming at times, therefore I am a big believer in a healthy work-life balance. I have an amazing partner Jesse, who runs a couple of his own businesses in the accountancy and finance industry. It’s great to have someone with a similar work ethic to bounce ideas and problems off. Together we have a beautiful dog named Ned, he’s a Cavoodle and my first son. He keeps us busy with long walks on the beach and at the park.

I have a big family, as there are seven of us. We spend as much time together as we can. I also like to balance my weeks out with staying healthy at the gym and catching up with close friends over coffee at weekends.

I’ve heard you’re a great singer too?

No, I’m a terrible singer! I’m borderline tone-deaf. At the recent Resly Gala, they had a band, which was awesome and a couple of us thought we would get on stage and sing a few songs. I was terrible. I think I hurt everyone’s ears, so I’m sorry about that!

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