FIRST ACT: Chris gray
Traditionally, the first act establishes character, relationships and setting; it’s where the first plot point happens. This series collects the ‘first act’ jobs, careers or businesses of entrepreneurs.
“I was just good with numbers, even at school,” explains Chris Gray. “I'm not a great technical accountant, but I just understand numbers.” He’s wearing shorts, sneakers and a sports jacket like he’s about to run a few casual errands or jump on a boat, his only plans are to go to dinner this evening. It’s Monday.
This isn’t the typical life of someone who starts out as an accountant. And it’s probably a fair distance from a would-be accountant’s life as most would imagine. Gray is a property buyer’s agent and presenter of a property segment on Sky News Business Channel. A big part of winning clients over is, as he puts it, “living the dream”. That’s acting the bon vivant – all travel, cars, boats and choppers – as well as being a maker of astute financial decisions.
So how do you get to man of leisure via an accounting career?
“At school I wasn't bad, but I was lazy. I did the minimum amount of work just to get by.” His first taste of ‘grown-up’ work was off-putting: “I did a week’s work experience in a bank. I couldn't stand it. It was so boring just sitting at a desk, just being in an office.”
But between school and university he found himself in Australia. He was working seven days a week to pay off debts he’d taken on from partying in London. He’d stumbled into accounting full-time and on weekends he was pumping petrol. Despite the hours, he fell in love with the Australian lifestyle, dividing each day into eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep and eight hours partying or being at the beach. But he knew had to return home to lay the foundations that would ensure he could come back to Australia.
Back in the UK he was confronted by living with his parents again: his mother instituted a midnight curfew. “I said, ‘Mom I’ve managed to come back from Australia, surely I can get back from the local pub.’ But she said, ‘It's my house, my rules and that's the way it is.’”
Gray went looking for his own place.
He only had enough to buy a small studio in an undesirable area of town but – not one for limitations – he went looking further afield. He stumbled on a great three-bedroom house in a more cosmopolitan area and did the sums, as any young accountant would.
Rents in the UK were incredibly high at the time, so even though his mortgage would be ten times his income (a multiple of three was normal at the time) it was possible to rent out the other two bedrooms and live for free. He went to his father to check the math. Once it seemed clear that it was a relatively safe bet, Gray had a guarantor for his much higher-than-expected loan.
He was only 22, and still pursuing accounting. Why? Because he’d grown up believing that careers were for life. Then two things changed his mind.
It was years later and he was in his late 20s, back in Sydney working for the accounting firm Deloitte. He’d amassed a property portfolio that was already earning him $600,000 a year – far more than his salary. But he persisted with accounting because it was sensible.
In his role, he found himself interviewing Chief Financial Officers constantly. Here he realised: he didn’t want to be like them. “I thought, they've got two kids at private school, they've got two brand new cars. They go overseas once or twice a year, business class, and yet they’ve got no money. Why do I want to aspire to be at the top when the people at the top haven't got what I want?”
The other event to change his mind was reuniting with a friend who had sold a business and had come to Australia for a new venture. They’d hang out together in his friend’s penthouse, on boats and driving Ferraris – all while Gray was maintaining his role at Deloitte.
“We might get in at two or three in the morning. I'd turn up to work at eight, and the receptionist could smell me coming up in the lift,” he says. “I used to go back to penthouse between 12 and two for a nap because I couldn't get through the whole day. That's when I realised, that if I can't get through a nine to five without going for an afternoon sleep, maybe it's time to give up work.” Again, like any reasonable accountant, he did the sums.
He promptly retired at 31, crediting his entrepreneurial friend and his lifestyle with the decision.
The problem with retiring young is that Gray had too much time on his hands. He started looking at jobs out of curiosity. That’s how he found himself as an extra on TV sets and advertising shoots. On set, he would chat and get to know the other extras and give them property advice.
It turned into a lead role on commercial television network as a presenter and property expert, fuelled by the fact that he was viewed as independent, without vested interests. That led to hosting Your Property Empire on Sky News Business Channel and the kind of exposure that forced him out of retirement and into building a business.
It’s not a bad trajectory for someone who never imagined that he’d be anything but an accountant: “I was always going to be an employee for life. I never wanted to be self-employed. I never wanted the emotional ups and downs.”
Chris Gray is the founder of Your Empire, a real estate buyer’s agency, renovation and property management consultancy. He is an author, advice columnist and host of the Sky News Business show Your Property Empire. He is also a member of Entrepreneur's Organisation, a global community of successful entrepreneurs, who inspire & support each other through sharing experiences