A PERSONAL INTERVIEW WITH NEIL JENMAN



Disclosure: Neil Jenman's daughter, Ruth, completed a Diploma in Journalism in 2007. She is currently in her second year at University studying social science. She was one of the main people who urged her father to allow this 'fight back' web site to be created.

Here is an [unashamedly biased] interview by Ruth with her father, Neil Jenman. Ruth hopes it will show some more of the personal side of the man she loves.

As you will see, it's not entirely biased, because many of the questions Ruth asks are questions that people often ask her about her father. They are also questions that are often asked directly of Neil.

Please note: If you have any personal questions you'd like to know about Neil Jenman, please contact Ruth Jenman by clicking here.

[Note to spruikers: We know you will twist this interview concept, but we don't care. As Neil's favourite writer, W Somerset Maugham once said, "I write for the public not for the critics."]

Why do you help consumers,
especially when it pays nothing?

Because I love helping people, especially nice people. Also, I do it because I can do it.

A lot of people, especially business people, say they like to help people. But I often wonder if they would still like to help people if they were not getting paid.

I think the real test of whether or not you really want to help people is how often you help people when you get no financial reward.

As you know, there is virtually no financial reward in what I do. But there is huge personal reward.

Does it bother you when people say bad things about you?

Well, I know it bothers you. But, then, when I tell you that the people who say bad things about me are usually bad people, it doesn't bother you as much, does it?

Indeed, the fact that bad people don't like me is a good thing. Imagine if I was exposing spruikers and they all liked me. It wouldn't make sense, would it?

It would only bother me if good people said bad things about me.

Have you ever done the wrong thing by good people?

Never on purpose. Of course, like everyone, I slip-up at times. If I ever do the wrong thing by a good person, I am quick to apologise. But "wrong thing" is only ever something mild. It's not like what the spruikers do - rip people off. I have never ripped anyone off.

Did you always want to be a real estate salesman?

No, I always wanted to be a writer.

So, why did you go into real estate?

Because I was not prepared to starve as a writer. I wanted to be financially secure before I tried writing. And, yes, I often think that I placed my financial security before my art. Sometimes, it makes me feel badly about myself. It's why I admire struggling artists so much.

If you had your time over again would you still have gone into real estate?

Although I'd like to say no, I'd probably still have done the same thing. Real estate as a career or a business is one of the best financial investments. If I could have been certain of succeeding as a writer, I would, of course, have chosen writing. But real estate seemed the better financial option.

You earned a lot of money through real estate. Why give it all up?

Because I read about a principle called 'The Doctrine of Enough'. I learned that most people never put a limit on how much money they earn or on the size of their net worth. I worked out what I wanted to be worth and then, once I achieved it, I decided to do what I wanted to do personally.

But you don't just write books, you also do consumer work. Explain that.

If it wasn't for the consumers who placed their trust in me when I had a real estate office, I would never have succeeded financially. I really like the ordinary Aussie folks and, given what I know about the property industry, I decided to "tell all", first via my books and then via my web site. This led to requests for help and I responded. It just took off from there.

What's the hardest thing about being a consumer advocate?

Not having the financial or human resources to do all that I would like to do. It makes me smile when I hear the bosses of some government departments saying they are under-staffed and under-funded. They ought to try doing what I do and then they'd know all about being in need of more money and more staff to protect more consumers.

There's something else that's very hard about consumer advocacy - and that's meeting the victims of scams. It's heartbreaking to see such misery. Many times it affects me emotionally.

What's the worst case you've ever seen?

It's hard to name one case. To each person who is ripped off, their case is always the worst event in their lives. One case that haunts me, though, was an elderly couple (in their late 70s) who had lost their life's savings in the collapse of a finance company. They were on the verge of placing plastic bags over their heads. I spent hours with them and came home quite distressed. I told my wife that I am not trained for counselling work. A lot of people who have been caught in finance scams are in urgent need of emotional counselling.

Some people say that those who get ripped off are either stupid or greedy. Do you agree?

Few things make me as angry as the 'blame the victim' mentality. Most of the elderly folk who get ripped off are not greedy. On the contrary, they think they are getting a safe and modest return. Admittedly, some of the young people who get caught have fallen for the 'get-rich-quick' trap. But, even if people are stupid or greedy, I do not like to mention it too much because, really, I don't think it's relevant.

Just because someone is stupid, it does not give someone else the right to rip them off. Just as lust is not an excuse for sexual assault, I do not believe greed is an excuse for financial assault.

As for stupidity, well, we all have stupid moments. We can't all be smart in all areas. I am often stupid when I am in unfamiliar territory. I joke that many of my friends are stupid; but that does not mean they are not honest and decent people. There are different types of intelligence and many people are just not financially intelligent. These people need to be protected from spruikers.

Have you ever been ripped off?

No, at least nothing too serious. I have, however, lost money trying to help people who have been ripped off. In some cases, I have lost more money trying to recover people's money than the amount of money they lost in the first place. My wife says I am a sucker for a sob story and that I chase too many lost causes. I just don't like to give in without giving something my very best shot. If I take on someone's case, I always fight hard.

What makes you decide whether or not to take a case?

The first point I consider is the likelihood of success. The second is the circumstances of the victims. The older they are and the more money involved, the more inclined I am to take their case.

What percentage of your cases are successful?

The majority of cases I take on are successful to some extent. Often, of course, this may mean that I only recover part of the money lost or that I help the people to reduce or stop their losses. I would say, to some degree, almost every case is a success, even if it means that I have been of some emotional support to the victims, many of whom feel lost and abandoned.

Why don't you charge people to recover their losses?

My first thought is always about the victims' welfare. And my great joy is when I get their money back. I am starting to realise, however, that I should charge a recovery fee of sorts. My wife is fed up with me working for nothing. I say it's not "nothing" as I get personal satisfaction from my work. Of course, personal satisfaction does not pay bills. So, yes, in the future (soon, I hope), I do intend to ask for a small recovery fee. At the very least, it will give more funding for the fights. Sometimes, though, people make a contribution to our fighting fund. And that's always appreciated, no matter how small.

Where do you get most of your funding?

From two sources. My personal finances and the Jenman APPROVED offices. These offices contribute several thousand dollars a year to our Protection Fund. Although they do not ask for it, I know that many consumers choose these offices because they see the 'Jenman' badge.

So, can any agent have the Jenman 'badge' if they financially support your consumer cause?

No, not at all. These agents also promise to uphold strict ethical standards. And, in the event of a dispute with a customer, they agree to abide by my decision.

Do you get many complaints from consumers about your Jenman APPROVED agents?

No, not many. From 37 offices, I doubt that there would be 37 complaints in a year.

How are most complaints resolved?

Probably about 80% in favour of the consumer. In these cases, the agent agrees to abide by our decision.

Can you give me an example of a complaint that did not go in favour of a consumer?

Yes, sure. I give my personal guarantee that if an honest consumer is not satisfied with the service from one of the Jenman APPROVED agents and if they can show me that the agent did the wrong thing, I will instruct the agent to refund the commission; or, I'll personally refund the commission.

Every now and again (and it's very rare), a seller may say, "I am not happy and I want the commission refunded." But the reason will be something silly, such as one case where the agent showed someone through a house without first telephoning the sellers. The house had already been sold for a wonderful price but the owners virtually said, "Ah-ha gotcha, now we want to pay no commission." In that case, I told the sellers to get lost. Well, actually, I said that their demand was "unreasonable in the extreme". Sort of like going to a restaurant, eating five courses and then saying that the food was no good. Or, like a shoplifter expecting a refund on stolen goods. The guarantee is for honest consumers only.

As I said, in most cases, we rule in favour of the consumer. Most consumers are honest.

Your critics say you are trying to get more agents and that's the real reason for your consumer advocacy work. What do you say to that claim?

Well, if that's true, I am not very successful. I only have 37 Jenman APPROVED offices and it's a number that has remained virtually unchanged for years. I assure you that blowing the whistle on the agents' tricks is not a way to get more agents to support me.

Why don't you try to get hundreds of Jenman APPROVED offices?

Because it's too darned hard. Trying to get agents to support consumer protection - especially when it is often not in the agents' best interest - is almost impossible. There was a time when I wanted to have hundreds of agents all offering a first-class ethical system. The sort of agents who would invoke instant trust and respect in the community. It nearly killed me from exhaustion.

And then, one day, the obvious occurred to me - instead of speaking to agents, I would speak to consumers. The difference was remarkable. Whereas most agents opposed me, most consumers accepted me. And why wouldn't they when my whole focus was on protecting their interests?

So, how do you protect consumers if you only have 37 offices?

Well, firstly, through the Jenman web site and, secondly, by offering millions of people free access to many of my publications and articles. Often, I give away copies of my books. I wish I could afford to give every property seller in Australia my book. I am trying to figure out how to do it!

One of the best ways that we protect home-sellers is through Real Estate Monitors. Anyone who wants to sell can have free support and assistance from my team.

How does Real Estate Monitors work?
When property sellers decide to sell they have access to a team of people led by my wife, Reiden Jenman.

It works in five steps…

First, the sellers contact Real Estate Monitors saying they have plans to sell.

Second, Real Estate Monitors finds an agent in their area who agrees to abide by strict consumer protection conditions.

Third, Real Estate Monitors refers the sellers to an agent.

Fourth, Real Estate Monitors then monitors and oversees the sale process.

Fifth, when the property sells, the agent pays a percentage of the fee to Real Estate Monitors.

So, effectively, the sellers pay nothing to have Neil Jenman's team protecting them. Indeed, it's the agent who pays Real Estate Monitors (to protect the sellers from the agent). This concept, which started in 2006, is very popular with sellers.

I would like every seller in Australia to contact Real Estate Monitors before they sell. (Of course, the agents and the spruikers wouldn't like it! But, then, we are not in business to help agents and spruikers).

Yes, but aren't you just trying to give business to your APPROVED agents?

Well, of course, if we think the APPROVED agent is the best agent, we want that agent to have the business. However - and this is a big point - if we refer the sellers to an agent who is not part of our APPROVED network, we receive a larger referral fee.

I will always do what I have always done in business - ever since I opened my own real estate office back in 1984 or, indeed, ever since I started working for an old-fashioned agent back in 1973 - and that is this: I will always place the needs of my customer first. My needs come second to the needs of my customer. I am happy to be tested on this philosophy anytime.

You often talk and write about people you don't like or trust. Who do you like and trust?

I could write a book about the many people whom I like and trust. In the property and finance industry, there are many trustworthy people. Of course, I trust the agents who carry the Jenman badge; but, contrary to what my critics say, I do believe there are many agents who can be trusted. The true test, of course, is what the agent is prepared to do for the customer. Watch what people do not what they say - that's how you figure out who can be trusted.

Who inspires you?

Lots of people, especially those who work hard on behalf of others. Contrary to what many people believe, I think many politicians have good motives. I am inspired by people such as nurses and teachers who work hard for low wages. I am inspired by journalists who expose scams and write stories that dodgy people don't want written, stories that make our world better. You inspire me.

Do you have any specific heroes?

Lots. My heroes are not the common heroes that people usually mention. When I was a small child, I fell in love with the character of El Cid (played by Charlton Heston in the movie of the same name). I wanted to grow up and be just like El Cid (even though I realise there is much myth in his story). When I was a teenager, I read a book about Frank Serpico, the New York cop who blew the whistle on police corruption. His story had a profound effect on me.

I am very interested in American Presidents and their worlds. Harry Truman and George Marshall are two men I greatly admire from history. And, while I may be jumping on the bandwagon, I have admired Barack Obama since I saw his 2004 speech for John Kerry. I think (and hope) that he is one of the great heroes of the new century.

The most heroic people in our society, however, are almost always anonymous. They are the wives who battle to raise families under harsh conditions - often with mean husbands and in poverty. I love and admire such people.

Do you do any charity work?

If there's one thing I loathe, it's business people who chest-thump about their charity work or how much money they donate. It makes me sick to see people who are worth millions boasting about giving away a few thousand, while millions of ordinary folk donate regularly to charities. On a percentage of wealth basis, the average battler probably does more for charity than the big-noting millionaires. People who give money for recognition are not givers, they are poseurs.

I do have some input into a women's refuge centre in Sydney, but my financial contribution is minor compared to the contribution of those who work daily in the centre.

Are you religious?

Something else I loathe is business people who make a big deal about being Christians. I call these people hypo-Christians. I see a lot of people ripped off in the name of God. I think religion, like charity, should mostly be kept private.

What are your personal hobbies?

After my work and my family, there is not time for much else; however, I do love to read. I seldom go anywhere without a book. Literature and philosophy are of great interest to me.

What's the best book you have ever read?

In fiction, it'd be two books - The Razor's Edge by W Somerset Maugham; and Martin Eden by Jack London. In non-fiction, it'd be Truman by David McCullouch or The Gift of Pain by Paul Brand and Philip Yancey.

If you ask me the same question again tomorrow, I may give different answers because I have read so many wonderful books. I just finished reading a novel called Soul Catcher by Michael White. I told my wife, "This could be the best book I've ever read," to which she replied, "You say that about some book every month." True.

What sort of car do you drive?

A Holden Ute - 2002 model. My mother also left me her 2007 Yaris which I have been driving a lot lately.

What's your favourite movie?

Probably The End of the Affair. I can watch that movie a dozen times and find something new in it each time. I just loved the moral issues faced by the heroine. As a child, I loved El Cid, The Great Escape, Taras Bulba, How the West was Won and Zulu.

Do you have a favourite restaurant?

Yes, Basil's at North Ryde in Sydney. I am not one for fine dining, but I have been going to Basil's for about 20 years. I love it - and the hosts Emmanuel and Maggie are wonderful people. I can't recommend it highly enough.

What's your favourite place in the world?

Central Queensland - the people in those bush towns are so decently genuine. Of all the places I have travelled, however, two hold a special place in my heart - Tasmania and New Zealand, both because of how well treated I was by the locals. Every time I meet a Kiwi in Australia, I want to know why they would leave such a beautiful place. I have only been to New Zealand a handful of times and yet I find myself missing it. I get homesick and it's not even my home. I also love the mountains and valleys west of Coffs Harbour. I love lots of places, but, probably, I love Central Queensland the most.

Do you have a motto that you live by?

I have lots of sayings that circulate in my mind; however, if I had to choose one motto that I try to live by it would be, 'Make the world a better place'.

Do you have any regrets?

Yes, I wish I could have warned more people about many of the scams in which tens of millions of dollars have been lost.

Do you worry about your safety?

Yes, sometimes, but I try not to dwell on that violent evil and nasty side of human behaviour.

You can't stop all the spruikers, so why keep going?

Because I can stop some of them. And that's much better than doing nothing.

If you could change something, what would that change be? And why would you change it?

I would make it illegal for unsophisticated investors to enter into certain types of investments without first getting independent financial and legal advice. For example, I would make it illegal for investors to buy certain types of investment properties without getting an independent valuation from a trusted valuation company. Such valuation companies could be selected by a trusted panel of independent experts or consumer advocates appointed by the government.

What is the best solution for consumers to protect themselves?

Stay close to me. I am serious. But, if they don't want to (or can't) stay close to me, then remember my slogan - Don't Sign Anything! - at least until you are sure that you are safe. And always ask yourself the most important question of all BEFORE you invest any money in anything: "What's the worst that can happen to me?" Make sure you know the answer to that question before you sign anything and before you part with any money.

What will you be doing in ten years from now?

Spending lots of time with my family and friends; writing books; protecting consumers and enjoying life - hopefully. Which, really, is almost exactly what I am doing today. And being proud of my eldest daughter in her journalism career.