Anna Basson Properties: From the ground up

Continuing her mother’s legacy, Mari Basson-Carstens has developed Anna Basson Properties into a major force in the Stellenbosch property market. She gives Elmari Rautenbach a brief rundown of the company’s 50-year history.

Mari Basson-Carstens with son Herman in the reception area.

Her first property sales was a house in Dalsig, the residential address in 1970s’ Stellenbosch. Surprisingly, at the time most homes in Mostertsdrift were regarded as too old to be fashionable, real estate guru Anna Basson told Stellenbosch Visio in 2017.

Today, of course, the opposite is true. Mostertsdrift boasts some of the town’s most exclusive homes, sought after locally and internationally and with eye-watering price tags. Mari Basson-Carstens, Anna’s daughter who now runs Anna Basson Properties, says she has sold several houses in Mostertsdrift in the past few months for top-end prices.

Anna pointed to the 1980s as a turning point when property prices started to rise. The upward trend continued into the ’90s, when Stellenbosch became no longer just a university town but a popular destination for business leaders. She argued that the property value in Stellenbosch was about far more than business interests; the town also had a lifestyle appeal, with the natural beauty and serenity of the surrounding winelands. Her words would prove to be prophetic in the years to come.

Left: The original front door at the 33 Plein Street office. Right: The original front door is still intact.

The name Anna Basson is synonymous with Stellenbosch real estate. As a young wife and mother of five, she decided to try her hand at selling property after hearing a Pretoria woman on the radio saying that she was a real estate agent. “My mother’s attitude was pretty much, ‘If she can do it, I can do it’,” Mari says with a smile.

One of 12 siblings and the youngest to start her own business, Anna showed the same grit when she decided that real estate would be her way to ensure that each of her five children got a university education. Mari says that her mother, who did not have a tertiary qualification, calculated that if she were to sell just one house a year, all her children could graduate. “True to her word, she retired when my youngest brother got his degree.”
The earliest trace of Anna entering the industry as a business owner is a yellowed clipping of a newspaper advertisement on behalf of ‘Mev. Basson’, trading as Stellenoord Edms. Bpk., that dates to 11 August 1972.

“My mother only changed to trading under her name when a developer bought the Stellenoord name for a retirement village he was planning,” explains Mari. “She consulted with Piet Marais, a local lawyer and later minister of education, and in 1985 she officially became the owner of Anna Basson Eiendomme.”

It has been three years since Anna passed away and five since the death of her husband and Mari’s father, August Basson.

August, too, left a significant mark. After retiring from the financial division at Stellenbosch municipality, he established the rental division of Anna’s company and put a sound economic structure in place. He was also instrumental in renovating the iconic head office on the corner of Plein and Andringa Streets.

Mari remembers how he came home, exhausted, after his first day at the office and asked if it was always as hectic. “I told him it was one of our less busy days.”

The front door of Anna Basson Properties is the original, its wooden frame oiled to a golden gleam. Also intact is the plaque at the top of the frame that bears the name BT Perl, M.P.S, F.I.O. (Member of the Pharmaceutical Society, Fellow of the Institute of Opticians) in slightly raised brass letters. “Oom Bennie Perl established Perl se Apteek on the north-western side of the newly built Cuthberts Building in the late 1920s,” Mari explains. “The owner’s iconic shoe shop, Cuthberts Shoes, was next door on Plein Street.”

However, these were modern times compared to the previous buildings housed on the site. “Stellenbosch’s first church was built here in 1682. Simon van der Stel even attended its inauguration. The churchyard stretched from Plein Street to De Kleine Kerkstraat (Church Street) and from Andringa to De Groote Kerkstraat (Ryneveld).

“Hermien Vermaas, one of my colleagues and a co-director from 1998 to 2008, alerted my parents to the fact that the premises were on the market. At that stage, our head office was in De Wet Centre. Initially my mom was a little hesitant, but in 1994 my parents bought the building. I still remember how a crane had to lift our furniture out of the old office.

“My dad – we always said he was a frustrated developer – created a second storey for our Plein Street offices, storeroom and boardroom. He also came up with the idea of turning the connecting staircase into a design feature by making it loop upwards and combining black wrought iron and the wood from the old floorboards. And the white Art Deco gable echoes the Cape Dutch one that became part of our web logo in 1989.”

That was also the year Mari joined her mother in the business – not that real estate was her career choice. “I was a young mom with a degree in Home Economics and wanted to open a decor and craft shop. But my mom said, ‘Start small, join me, work two or three hours a day and see where it takes you.’ She had the foresight to know the cost of combining motherhood and a business. She also believed in not turning your hobby into your career.”

Informally elegant in a tiered blue dress teamed with a pair of funky white tackies when we meet, Mari hides a smile as she divulges what her first job entailed. “Cleaning the plants in the office. My mother believed in starting from the bottom and working your way up. When I ‘graduated’ to selling property, she clarified that if she had to choose between another agent and me, I would get the short end of the stick. No soft landings for her daughter!”

When Mari bought the company from Anna in 1998 with Hermien and another co-director (he left shortly afterwards), her priorities were manifold. “I had to steer our digital development, learn to read financial statements and update myself on all the changes concerning property law. I read every financial publication I could lay my hands on – another lesson from my mother.

“My mom also believed in a small workforce. Her magic number was five sales agents. It’s like a ball, she said. That way, you could keep your hand on the business. Today we have our conveniently located head office in Stellenbosch and another in Welgevonden, but we still have a small staff. They’re energetic and loyal, and of the 16, eight are sales and four are rental agents. “The rental division is tricky because of the quick turnover of university staff and students. However, my youngest son, Herman, turned it into a very successful part of our company during 10 years of working with me. He recently joined our board of directors.”

The parapetted Art Deco building with cut-away corner.

Herman, a lanky 33-year-old, cut his teeth in the business the same way his mother had done: thrown into the deep end. He looks at Mari.

“When she gave me the rental division, she said I had to build my portfolio. My first idea was to approach my grandparents. They had a beautiful apartment in a block of flats in De Waterkant that my grandfather owned. Spending most of their time in Vleesbaai, though, my grandparents could get an excellent price renting out their apartment, and that was my proposal. The arrangement was so profitable that I soon managed the entire property.”

He adds that it was a valuable learning school – also in experiencing how his grandfather conducted business. “I often was with him when he negotiated with tenants in trouble. He laid down the terms, but he had a soft heart too and sometimes he’d even write off someone’s debt.”

Herman is no stranger to Stellenbosch. He grew up here with his two older brothers, went to school and roamed the streets and the valley. He plays golf, runs, hikes and cycles the mountains around Stellenbosch. He knows the town and its surroundings inside-out and says the search to find the perfect fit between a property and a prospective client will always excite him. Anna used to say that Stellenbosch property prices didn’t fall during an economic crisis; they plateaued. “I saw that during the global financial crisis of 2008 and the recent Covid-19 pandemic,” her daughter says.

Mari didn’t sit at home during the so-called hard lockdown in 2020. “I came in daily and sorted out the office. We also developed our state-of-the-art website, and in August that year all our staff returned.”

She believes that in times of turmoil, it’s best to focus on the basics: the business’s strong and weak points, available stock and gaps in the market. This strategy stood her in good stead while navigating the past two years. From August 2020 to August 2021, the residential sales team clocked a record year.

“Homeowners wanted to either downscale or upscale to something that offered more workspace. City dwellers were looking for something more rural but with the amenities and perks that a city provides. And we have everything. I always say, Stellenbosch is like a giant shopping mall without a roof. There is the natural beauty, a vibrant cultural life, a world-class university and some of the top schools in the country. But at the same time, international buyers identify with the continental atmosphere created by the bustling pavement cafés and wine bars.”

She mentions Nooitgedacht as an area on its way up, Herman reminds her of the exciting development planned for the Adam Tas Corridor, and Jamestown is becoming trendy.
Walking along the corridor upstairs, Mari stops at a giant map of Stellenbosch that covers one wall. The name of every suburb, area and street appears on it and, added in pencil, the number of every individual house or premises.

Pointing to the location of Villa de Reville, one of Stellenbosch’s grand old homes from the 1940s, she tells how they sold the property over several years to a few of its recent owners. “Our best form of marketing remains personal referrals and repeat business. Yet what Covid proved is that no matter how advanced technology is, nothing beats a client’s first spatial experience of a home. And if a property is well cared for and correctly priced, it sells instantly.”

Anna Basson Properties celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. While Anna and August Basson are no longer there, the legacy of this couple, woven into the very fabric of Stellenbosch history, guided their daughter and grandson in taking the company forward.

And Mari believes that the foundation her mother laid – the non-negotiable values of integrity, loyalty and professional service that are synonymous with the Anna Basson name – is what gives it its edge.