Humans of Aura
Nanette Lilley: the first lady of Brisbane real estate
Born Nanette Stephens, I started life on a cattle property at Darlington on the head of the Albert River adjoining the Lamington National Park. My grandfather Edgar Stephens and his wife Mary (nee Grenier) had pioneered the property in the late 1880s and developed it into a very successful enterprise. The Stephens were well known in Brisbane as were the Greniers and my great-grandfather John and his brother Thomas had been very involved in the early days of the city. Edgar established a dairy farm at Oxley and then moved to Darlington. He and Mary had 10 children, my father, his three brothers and two unmarried sisters all lived on the property. Uncle Alf was killed on the Somme and three sisters married and moved away. Our house was ‘Tantallon’ named after a castle in Scotland and my parents Archie and Mavis went on to have six children, I was the eldest.
We were very self-contained in the valley in those days with lots of uncles, aunts, cousins and neighbours. We all worked together as a firm but made our own fun with tennis parties, picnics by the river and other activities. It was a happy and reasonably carefree life and I was lucky to have the most wonderful parents. My father was a leader in every way, very community minded with very strong values. My mother, a trained nurse, taught me so much. She firmly believed in treating people equally and was very strict regarding good manners and speech. She encouraged me in skin care and to wear lipstick even while out mustering cattle! I still will not walk out the door without lipstick. She also insisted that I be well educated to senior standard.
Together with my brothers and cousins we rode our ponies to the one-teacher Darlington State School, five miles from home. Following Year 7 I attended The Glennie School at Toowoomba as a boarder. It was very cold at The Glennie, and we had to be tough when the fog came swirling into the classrooms. While there my best friend was killed by lightening in a freak accident while riding and my parents then decided to send me to St Hilda’s at Southport for my final year. While at St Hilda’s I met fellow Kingsford Terrace resident Beverley St George. We were good tennis players and now we are both here. Amazing, isn’t it? Both schools were very strict but they set me up for life and I will always be grateful to my parents for giving me that wonderful opportunity.
Not long after I left school I met the love of my love, Angus Lilley, a young farmer from Canungra. I made my debut at the church ball in Beaudesert and Angus was there. He was 16 and I was 17 and when he saw me, he asked ‘who is that?’ His friend replied ‘that’s Nanette Stephens from the head of the river’ and Angus said ‘wow’. Angus told that story forever and we were married for 60 years.
We did not get together until later, but it was love at first sight. It was difficult to court then as he lived on his family’s dairy farm at Canungra and I was an hour away over relatively poor roads. Angus persevered and we met occasionally at different events. One night there was a dance at our local Kerry Hall and quite by chance a friend suggested that he should attend. As luck would have it, I had just parted from a young man with whom I had had a brief relationship and Angus invited me to supper. We went from there to have supper together for the rest of our lives.
We had the most wonderful romance and married in 1957 in Beaudesert and moved to Croppa Creek, a major wheat siding in the Moree district of NSW. Angus’s father managed a property ‘Buckie’ where they grew wheat with share farmers and he thought it would give us a great opportunity as were very young when we married – 21 and 22. However, we faced a huge run of bad seasons, droughts, floods, locust plagues and we lost many crops. During this time our sons, Angus Jnr and Douglas, were born which was a huge bonus. We had also established a transport business and worked hard, seven days a week. Things were not going well at all with the bad seasons and then there was a tragic truck accident. Angus hired this new but experienced driver and he was heading to Sydney following another of our semi-trailers both loaded with wheat. There was an accident and he went into a creek near Scone and was killed. The truck was wrecked and we were literally wiped out financially. It was devastating as we had put in so much, the boys loved the life and we had been very active in the community. I was the secretary of the Croppa Creek school P&C and we had just managed to acquire a bus to take students to the Moree High School. I was also president of the CWA and active in tennis.
We came to Brisbane in 1971 with nothing to show for the years we had invested. It was a terrible time, and I am glossing over it really but we even had to sell our car to have some cash. My mother was living at Indooroopilly and my father had died so she welcomed us into her home while we set about getting ourselves together. Her support was amazing as usual and she loved having us there. I managed to get a position selling office uniforms that came with a car so I travelled from Ipswich to Sandgate calling on any businesses who might want uniforms. I became so successful the company opened a little boutique for me in the Queens Arcade and from there I sold uniforms and sportswear. This was all very different from living in the bush and I don’t know how I did any of it back then. It is amazing what you can achieve when necessity calls. Angus also found work immediately and we settled the boys into schools.
I enjoyed my job, but the manufacturers were so unreliable I was always concerned about letting my customers down. One Sunday morning I was reading the newspaper and I noticed an ad for a salesperson at the new land estate Ridgewood Heights at Algester. Angus said 'get your gear on and we’ll go out there'. The manager wanted to employ me on the spot. There was one other woman employed by the company in sales which was highly unusual at the time. I gave notice to my employer, and I shall never forget what he said: ‘You’ll never make it in real estate.’ Famous last words.
The very day I began my real estate career the ability to obtain finance crashed. Previously the company had been busy selling land and houses but because it was impossible to get a loan, sales dried up. To keep staff the company paid us $100 a week which was very helpful as we were still getting back on our feet. After a successful two years at Ridgewood Heights, I moved to Upper Mt Gravatt to gain experience with other companies and met Noel Whittaker. He offered me a position with his real estate and building company at Rochedale and I began to thrive. I loved selling land and houses and Noel always handled the finance. Today, Noel is best known for his wonderfully helpful books on all things to do with money and tips for retirement.
I did well working beside Noel and he helped me to purchase my first house and then another. This was a time when women couldn’t get a loan unless guaranteed by their husbands, so I was indeed fortunate to have met Noel. He has been one of the most influential people in my life. Having sold 16 properties in one month I had an opportunity to go to America on a three-week real estate tour with 13 interstate agents. When I arrived in Honolulu I noted the number of women who owned their own agencies, something almost unheard of in Australia, and the seed was sown. I learnt so much on that tour and came home full of excitement about what the future may hold.
From the first few weeks in Brisbane I was introduced to motivational seminars, books and an organisation called SWAP. The latter was a breakfast club for salespeople introduced by Ron Brady who was a well-known ABC newsreader. I met and was inspired by successful people many of whom are friends today including Patrick Dixon and have had a lifetime interest in the power of learning and a positive approach to life. Noel was also a keen participator, and we shared this passion for learning which his son has now carried on.
I joined PRD Realty in the old gold AMP building on the 25th floor to gain experience in commercial property. The salespeople were all men and talked about selling multimillion-dollar properties. I started from scratch and had to get all my own listings and was selling all sorts of properties. One day a colleague said, ‘who do you think is selling the most here?’ I had no idea and he replied: ‘you are!’ It was a very satisfying moment.
Ten years had passed since we arrived penniless in Brisbane and Angus had started a small business in a little space on Honour Avenue, Graceville. On the ground floor was a vacant office and from there Nanette Lilley Realty was born. I was the first woman in Brisbane to open an office under their own name and there were very few women even selling real estate. I began with little money, a typewriter, a phone and my first listing came from a friend. Ron Brady came to work with me for six months and we walked the streets calling on every house in the area. Ron was well known and caused quite a lot of interest and we grew gradually from there.
I attracted women salespeople and many of them went on to have very successful careers with me. In those days we did not have the technology that agents work with today and we put up our own ‘for sale’ and ‘open house’ signs. I had some brilliant salespeople and at one stage we had almost half of the business in our local area for Chelmer to Corinda. Both our sons worked in the business at different times and have ended up in the real estate industry.
If you want to be a successful agent you must be caring and we were. I always wanted to run an honest business and do the right thing by people. Most of my agents were also mothers who really wanted a job and to make a career out of real estate, but they also genuinely cared about people. When you own a business with your name on it you have to be very conscious of protecting your reputation personally and professionally, so I had to be very careful with the people around me. I think I was good with my staff and well liked but we also had a tremendous amount of fun.
I often think how on earth did I go from a little girl riding her pony to her one-teacher school to being a successful real estate agent. But it did not come easily as we worked long and hard. I look at the successful women selling today and hope that they may appreciate the huge effort we contributed to what is now a much easier way of selling. We certainly paved the way. Now agents press a button and instantly get pages of information for comparable property sales. If we wanted to do a search we had to pay $5 for each search and it took hours. It is so much simpler and efficient today.
In 2018 after 36 years managing my own business I retired and sold the Nanette Lilley agency. I had many long-term people on my staff one of whom worked with me for 30 years and others from 10 to 25 years. I must have done something right. I am filled with gratitude for the love and loyalty I have received from so many people who have passed my way and I am now relaxing at Kingsford Terrace which my grandson Hugh described as living in a first-class hotel.
Space does not permit to tell Angus’s story, but we were happily married for 60 years and working together we managed to educate our sons at the Brisbane Grammar School and assist our sons to educate our five grandchildren at private schools. We are proud of our survival and prosperity after being wiped out in the bush. Sadly, Angus passed away in 2018 after a life well lived.
I love where I am living now at Kingsford Terrace and the people here. It is absolutely to my liking and I don’t have any worries. I have had a wonderful career and an interesting life.
At Aura Holdings we feel privileged to have so many wonderful residents living in our villages. A very big thank you to Nanette Lilley, a resident of Kingsford Terrace Corinda, for sharing the inspirational story of her highly successful real estate career.