In 1973 I entered what was then known as the Bachelor of Building (now Property and Construction). It was during the final year that I met guest lecturer Robert Milne, who offered me my first job with E.A. Watts in 1980.
E.A. Watts was one of Victoria’s largest general contractors and I was appointed to the estimating department, overseeing successful tenders through to completion. Three years of experience with Watts then led to an opportunity with the Costain Group as Senior Planning Manager. During this period I worked on a wide range of exciting tenders and projects, including the Como Project on the corner of Chapel Street and Toorak Road, South Yarra.
My experience in critical path analysis and construction techniques gave me the confidence to move to the property development sector and my first opportunity presented itself in 1987 with MacDow Properties as Construction Manager. MacDow was the perfect employer and these were boom years in the Australian property market.
Unfortunately the property industry soon entered recession, MacDow wound up, and I was left to find new employment. Finding work during a recession can certainly put one to the test, but in September 1989, I eventually accepted an exciting opportunity in Jakarta.
Indonesia was very exciting indeed. It was so different from what I had been used to in every respect. Most major projects in Jakarta at the time were on average twenty to twenty-five storeys high and built with very large labour forces but little equipment. Unfortunately safety was not high on the agenda for the workers. I recall projects losing many a young man who had dropped off the building or tried to sleep in the electrical boxes. Labour was cheap and plentiful. Unfortunately quality was scarce and the willingness to improve was even scarcer.
My first Indonesian employer was a property company developing commercial towers in Jakarta. The initial project was fifteen storeys high and was built in record time and to a quality that exceeded even the owner’s expectations. At completion, while there were other projects on the horizon, it was time to move on.
The opportunities for employment were plentiful at the time in Indonesia and I accepted a job as Development Manager with P.T. Pakuwon Jati, also a Jakarta-based developer and property owner. The company was about to embark on a mixed use project in Surabaya. I was to remain working on the project in Jakarta for the first eighteen months and then relocate to Surabaya. However, after three years of being settled in Jakarta both my wife and I realised that we wanted to stay.
I looked for alternative work before resigning from Pavulon Kati and accepted a job with P.T. Lip Poland. Their Lipo Village project was a residential development of approximately 2000-plus detached homes and an associated super mall, located about 20km outside Jakarta. Designed by the Jeered Group from Los Angeles, it involved some 200,000m² in gross building area and was completed on budget and in a record time of 19 months including fit-out and commissioning of 217 tenancies, some of which included Wal-Mart and other big name American stores. A peak labour force of 4000 men was employed on site and as could be imagined quality remained the greatest obstacle.
In December 1997 the super mall was fully operational and it was time for me to look for the next project. An opportunity emerged in Jakarta as Senior Development Manager with P.T. Arthra Graha Tama and Property Developer. The project was known as the Sudirman Central Business District. Land had been procured and roads and infrastructure already completed; the master plan included in excess of 30 sites to be developed over a six- to eight-year period. But then my first project within the development was about to move into design development when major recession hit Indonesia. The project was placed on hold in April 1998 due to the economic crisis and political uncertainty.
President Surharto was struggling to hold on to his power base and the city was very tense as student unrest frequently spilled out onto the streets of the capital. This culminated in large scale rioting over a three-day period in May 1998. After the most intense rioting ever witnessed in Jakarta, and news that the mobs would destroy anything left standing we (by this time we had started a family) decided to flee to Bali. Welcomed in Bali by my former Indonesian secretary we witnessed history in the making as Surharto stepped down and a calm swept over Jakarta. We were then able to return to the capital and I clearly remember the tanks on the streets and burnt buildings. Even the super mall had been the scene of intense looting and almost destroyed by the fire. The city was in chaos, the national economy had ground to a halt with the rupiah near on worthless, and all building work was of course at a standstill.
The boom times in Indonesia were over and it was time yet again to move on. Having made a decision to remain expatriate, where to go next was the position. Asia was out of contention as all the Asian economies were in crisis. Such did not apply to the Middle East however, with Dubai the most popular destination amongst the expatriate community in Jakarta. So, in June 1998, I boarded a plane to the United Arab Emirates and within two weeks accepted a job with Emaar Properties. The Dubai/Indonesia contrast could not have been more startling. The greenness of the tropical rainforests was now replaced with the treeless sand deserts of the Emirates. We had a six month wet season in Jakarta where, yes, it rained just about every day; in the Emirates we saw rain three times in two years. Our weekends were on Thursdays and Fridays which took some adjusting to, especially when conducting business with the outside world. And then there was the heat. From May until September, the temperatures hovered between 45 and 50 degrees every day. The nights stayed around 40 degrees and the humidity meant that any outdoor venture had you sweating profusely within seconds.
Emaar Properties was the vision of the Crown Prince of Dubai, his Excellency, Shiekh Mohommad. The company was listed publicly and owned solely by Emirate nationals. Emaar Properties was enormously successful with its portfolio of projects and was by far the largest developer in Dubai. Projects included West Side Marina and Emirates Lakes, both valued in the billion dollar range. The time at Emaar was rewarding but frustrating, as the political situation within the company was horrendous. While we enjoyed Dubai, the uncertainty was unsettling and in May 2000 I decided to take up an opportunity on the small island of Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf just off the coast of Saudi Arabia. I accepted a position with a medium sized architectural practice and property developer as Business Development Manager.
Like Dubai, the island of Bahrain was a fascinating place in which to live and work. The glitz and wealth were not present but the smaller expatriate community in Bahrain made us feel most welcome and we quickly settled into a more gentle life. The first year passed quickly and the prospects of an extended stay in Bahrain looked very favourable indeed. Unfortunately that was not to be.
In July 2001, after a routine mammogram during a family visit to Melbourne, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Our world was turned upside down and quick decisions had to be made. My wife was determined that life should remain as normal as possible for the family and chose to stay in Australia for treatment while the children and I headed back home to Bahrain and the plan was to continue the expat life. If our world was turned upside down by this event, the whole world was rocked, only a few months later, by the horror of September 11. Within months the work in Bahrain dried up and another change of country was eminent. With my wife still in Australia and employment possibilities few and far between, the logical step was to return to Australia at least until she was well again and, in late December 2001, I returned to Melbourne with our children. Fortunately for me, the Australian property industry was experiencing a prolonged boom and work opportunities were plentiful at home in Melbourne. Within weeks of returning to Australia I had accepted a position as General Manager of Development with the MAB Corporation. The position allowed me to quickly reacquaint myself with the local industry through MAB’s major projects in the Melbourne Docklands.
In 2003 I accepted the position of Development Manager for Divine Limited to deliver the Victoria Point Development in the Docklands. Now we are settled back in Melbourne, I have taken the opportunity to embark on my own personal building project. After much consideration and consultation the decision to build a new home rather than renovate the old was made. The last six months have seen me on site every weekend getting down and dirty, dawn until dusk, building what I know will be a fine French provincial-style home. It will be our first “real” home in 14 years and, yes, it will be home for at least a year or two. If you ask my wife, Indonesia is calling and on cold Melbourne nights, I have to say that sometimes I can hear it too.