From billion dollar business to tragedy, and back

Wendy Higgins is a retired mortgage broker from Nora Creina in South Australia, whose story we are highlighting for March and International Women’s Day. Wendy is one of Mortgage Choice’s most successful brokers, she was the inaugural inductee into their Hall of Fame, and during her career built one of the biggest mortgage books in the market. She is extremely generous in providing advice to other women about what it takes to run a successful business, demonstrates resilience and vulnerability in bucketloads and has an incredible message about the importance of perspective and recovering from adversity and setbacks. I hope you enjoy the read. — By Jane Counsel

Wendy Higgins

By Wendy Higgins

Thinking back over my early career, I was the token female in a male orientated office. I started work at the age of 17, as a ledger machinist at the Bank of Adelaide (now ANZ) and worked my way up to Branch Manager over 24 years. I was expected to run around after the men who ruled the office. It was a world away from growing up on an egalitarian dairy farm, trapping rabbits to help feed our family. In both cases I worked long hours and always took work home, but it was mostly rewarding.

When I received a promotion I didn’t want from ANZ, I made the jump to mortgage broking. I had always wanted my own business, either in real estate or finance, and once I looked at the Mortgage Choice model I was sold.

Early challenges were working out the systems and procedures needed to run an efficient business, and working from home while managing a work-life balance. That balance was hard as the business grew and there was too much to do. But I always tried to remain positive and I genuinely cared for and empathised with my clients, staff, and especially family. I’m sure this helped us go from strength to strength.

It truly was a family business. My husband Dean sold his retail business and became our accountant, and became the primary carer for our daughter. Both came to conferences and Mortgage Choice events with me.

We became the top franchise in sales and settlements for many years, hitting the billion dollar loan milestone. With hindsight, my own self belief, determination, and focus on clear goals and priorities were fundamental to our success.

With business success, we set our sights on adventure. We weren’t to know this would lead to tragedy for our family.

We had trekked in Nepal with friends and loved the experience. When those friends suggested we climb Everest base camp on the Tibetan side, we jumped at the opportunity.

Our Tibet trip involved several days of acclimatising and driving to the trek start. We eventually set off on what was a nine day trip in a circle up, down and around mountains, arriving back at the spot where we started. The weather was perfect for the first seven days but turned bleak as we headed up the highest mountain pass. We were encouraged to keep going as the snow fell, even though we didn’t have the correct wet weather clothing.

We lost the three local yak herders up ahead and didn’t know where we were. There was the guide, the cook and the assistant with the four of us. We found a track and we followed that and eventually we were found by the yak herders. We were wet through and cold, but still relieved at this stage. We quickly got into our tent and slept, not realising it was in danger of collapse from the falling snow.

Dean woke me in the morning and I found our tent mostly squashed from above. I yelled for help and then, out of nowhere, the avalanche hit us. We had no air and I was sure I was dying. Somehow, Dean got air into the pocket of space that our trekking bags had made and we were alive. Dean dug upwards for the next six hours until a circle of light shone through and he could get out.

The local herders had all died. Our friends, who were nearby, thought we had also perished. The four of us huddled together to try to keep warm as the three others had gone down the mountains to get help. They came back with men dressed in army gear and we were helped down the mountain.

My friend Sue and I walked out first and Sue’s husband Barry was carried as he had no boots. Dean was last to leave and we were told later that he walked halfway before he needed to be carried. It was a nightmare walking down, snow still falling so heavily we were falling over constantly. Eventually Sue and I were taken to a concrete building and a fire was lit in the floor to warm us up. We kept asking where the boys were and it was a long while after that they arrived.

Barry was ok but Dean’s eyes were like glass and he was only just alive. We were put into a bed and I talked to him and tried to warm him up. I knew he was still alive only by the sound of his breath. When that sound stopped, I screamed for help. Barry performed CPR for an hour but it was no good. I just couldn’t believe my beloved Dean had passed away.

I’ve always been one not to dwell on the past but rather focus on the options for moving forward. In the case of losing my husband, this was difficult but that drive has helped me get on with, and appreciate, life. All four of us could have died, but didn’t. It was a freak natural event that no one fore-sore nor can be blamed for. My husband saved my life. These are the thoughts that help me keep perspective.

Wendy Higgins

I retired four years ago, and now spend most of my time at Nora Creina, SA, which is a holiday place I have gone to all my life. Many friends are also retiring and spending more time there and we all look after each other. I head north in winter and the rest of my time is spent with my daughter Sara, her husband Matt and my two gorgeous grandchildren Chelsea and Dean.

The future I hope will be much the same: family time, treasured relationships, and catching fish and crays with wonderful friends.

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