A century of selling dreams

One hundred years of dreams. Meet the Melbourne real estate family who’ve been selling South Yarra since 1919.

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If you’d fetched up in South Yarra back in 1878 looking for a place to call home, it’s likely you’d have found yourself looking at the listings at local real estate agency Williams and Co.

Fast-forward 142 years and that’s still the case. Williams and Co. was acquired by William Lugton Cook in 1919 for 300 pounds and, in 2019, the agency remains in his family. Renamed Williams Batters in 2004, it’s headed by Cook’s great nephew, Bill Cook, who joined the business in 1969.

The part played by Bill and his ancestors in South Yarra’s real estate history isn’t the only thing that’s endured for more than 100 years. Williams Batters is one of a number of NAB business customers that have partnered with the bank for a century or longer.

To celebrate the centenary, Bill opened the family album and shared some memories from the past 100 years with Business View.

It was William (Bill) Lugton Cook’s girlfriend, later to become his wife, who spotted the agency was up for sale back in 1919. Cook was selling real estate in Carlton at the time and, according to his great nephew, recognised an opportunity when he saw one.

“Uncle Bill had a good eye for a spot,” Bill says. “South Yarra was an older, reasonably established suburb that had become attractive to wealthier people looking to escape the squalor of the city centre. It was the most expensive part of Melbourne back then, and it’s among the most expensive parts today.”

Sadly, William’s Cook’s only child, a daughter, did not survive to adulthood and, in the late 1930s, he began to look around the family for an apprentice and eventual heir.

“My father was studying architecture at Melbourne University in 1937 when he had a tap on the shoulder,” Bill says. “Dad decided to take up the opportunity but then went off to war a couple of years afterwards. He returned to the business in 1947, took over from Uncle Bill when he retired in the mid 1950s, and stayed on himself until 2001 – I couldn’t get rid of him!”

Bill came on board in 1969 as an office boy, rent collector and general support. Fifty years later, he has no regrets about his decision to build a career at the family firm. “Real estate is a very consuming business; once you’re passionate about it, it’s hard to let it go.”

Housed in a single-fronted office back in the day, the agency has expanded into an adjoining, heritage-listed building. Built in 1854, it has long been a Toorak Road landmark.

“Everyone knows where we are, just up from South Yarra station,” Bill says. “Williams Batters is part of the fabric of the local area.”

While many things have changed since this picture of the agency was taken back in the 1930s, one thing that’s still the same is the old-fashioned welcome customers receive from Williams Batters’ team of 25 sales and administration staff.

“We’ve managed to join the digital age without compromising on our traditional service,” Bill says. “The real estate industry has experienced plenty of disruption and we’ve tried to stay at the forefront of that while still providing our clients with the personal attention they expect.”

Real estate is the ultimate ‘people business’ and Williams Batters has always prided itself on doing the right thing by all who come through its doors, whether they’re sellers, buyers, landlords or renters.

“My great uncle and [my] dad were men of very high integrity and I think that’s part of the secret of a business lasting as long as this one has,” Bill says. “When I took over the agency, I inherited a large number of clients – families who’d been with us for more than 50 years, buying, selling and investing. That provides a great deal of satisfaction and reward.”

Williams Batters began partnering with NAB in 1919. Item six of the purchase document for the agency states that its bankers would be the National Bank of Australasia. A century on, that’s still the case.

“We’ve always had a very strong relationship with NAB,” Bill says. “And the service we’ve required has always come through.”