INSIDERS REVEAL: Dying days of Unique Estates
AN AGENT who managed the Sydney office for embattled luxury real estate agency Unique Estates has told how he was asked to take a 50 per cent pay cut two weeks before the company collapsed.
When he refused, veteran real estate agent Simon Platt said he was told "do not come back tomorrow".
Mr Platt led the company's Sydney office for the last 14 months and claimed he was owed $40,000 in entitlements.
The company went into overnight administration last month allegedly leaving up to 40 staff and a row of creditors unpaid, with Ms van Wijngaarden reportedly sending a personal email to staff saying bank accounts were frozen and there were no funds.
Mr Platt said Ms Wijngaarden's behaviour was increasingly erratic in the last few months, pushing agents to get buyer deposits into the company's trust account.
"Once they had a sniff of interest in a property she was on their back non-stop to get the deposit into the trust account," he said.
He noted that all trust accounting for the business was handled centrally in Byron Bay and none of the other offices ran trust accounts.
On February 9, only days before the offices closed, a new company, Unique Luxury Pty Ltd, was registered with Ms van Wijngaarden's husband, Andrew Crawley, as the director, according to an Australian Securities and Investment Commission search.
The registration lists Potterton Pty Ltd as a shareholder, with ASIC records showing that Ms van Wijngaarden and Mr Crawley were co-directors.
Ironically, weeks before the business went into administration, a new licensee was also appointed to a Noosa office.
Insolvency firm McGrathNicol and the Department of Fair Trading said the matter was an active investigation. But in a statement they said there were "insufficient funds to continue trading on the company's operations.
"We are in the process of reconciling the company's trust account to determine monies outstanding to property owners. Regrettably there are insufficient funds to pay amounts outstanding and in these circumstances there is a statutory compensation fund that may cover your outstanding claims."
The Northern Star has also confirmed that S+P Lawyers Ballina are actively trying to recover clients' funds from Unique Estates.
Agent Grant Dale, also based at Unique's Sydney office, alleges he had seen up to $70,000 of his entitlements and commissions disappear.
He and other agents working at the company's offices in Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast were completely in the dark about the alleged mismanagement of the company, he said.
"There was absolutely not any signs of illegal practices - if there was, I would have left the business immediately," he said. "Were there signs that the business may have been suffering from financial pressure? Yes."
Mr Dale said he believed Ms Wijngaarden had shown a "blatant disregard" for what was most people's biggest asset in their lives - their home. "She's affected a tonne of people. I know categorically that people have been tied up in situations where deposits have been unpaid," he said.
Another source said it was "all about keeping up appearances". "It was complete excess in everything... except running a proper business," the person said.
A search of real estate licences by The Northern Star revealed a licence for Unique Estates Australia Pty Ltd expired on December 2, 2017.
Ms Wijngaarden did not return calls from The Northern Star.
It is not the first time a Byron Bay agent has been caught up in a scandal. In 2011, trust accounts held by the now defunct Byron Bay real estate agency Belle Property were found to be missing more than half a million dollars.
Disciplinary action was taken against the licensee individually and a corporation for breaches of the Property Stock and Business Agents Act 2002 and Regulation 2003.
These breaches involved the misuse of trust funds, failure to properly supervise the real estate business, breaches of the rules of conduct, involving honesty and fairness and fiduciary obligations as well as provisions involving acting unlawfully, improperly and unfairly, according to the Department of Fair Trading.
In November 2011, the licensee was disqualified from holding a real estate licence in NSW for 15 years.