The adage of ‘doing the right thing' is what's important to South African-born Mark Jewell, and it's a wise message that has proven its worth for listed property development company Sunland Group, for which Mark is the chief operating officer for Australia.
Having grown up in Durban North, Mark qualified as a chartered accountant and became a partner in an accounting practice in Durban. But property development was in his blood. His father was a builder and small developer with projects in the Umhlanga Rocks area. Mark remembers being aged about six and walking development sites with his dad. “I knew every house that he had built.”
Mark subsequently went into the building industry, and was in his early 30's when he and his wife decided to immigrate to Australia. “We had two young children and were concerned about the future in South Africa, but we viewed the move as a way to see new places and discover another part of the world,” says Mark.
Acting on a suggestion from an army friend, they headed to the Gold Coast, arriving in 1988 when the area was in the middle of a high rise boom. Japanese investors, in particular, were pouring money into the Gold Coast, and Mark got a job with PRD Realty, which was at the centre of real estate development on the Gold Coast.
It was the beginning of what Mark calls his “good fortune” in Australia. PRD Realty was involved in marketing high rise developments, and was a great training ground for young property professionals. Within three years, Mark was appointed general manager of PRD on the Gold Coast.
It was during Mark's time there that, in 1990, the market collapsed.
The big developers, or, in Mark's words, “the kings of the town”, had thought that the boom time would never end. In fact, says Mark, “the developers that you would almost bow to during the top of the boom, all went bankrupt”.
In 1996, Mark left PRD to join Sunland, which was one of the only surviving developers on the Gold Coast. Mark joined as general manager and became director within a short period. “I was lucky in a way that I got in on the ground level with a reputable, forward-looking company,” he says.
Mark describes how Sunland was started by Iranian-born Soheil Abedian, who qualified as an architect in Austria and immigrated to Australia in the early 1980s. He settled on the Gold Coast as a result of the development underway in the area. It's from Soheil that Mark's wise philosophy comes.
“His attitude to life is about doing the right thing. If you build the right product, one that is well designed, of good quality, and fairly priced you will be successful,” says Mark.
Sunland had been listed on the Stock Exchange in 1994, but was still relatively small when Mark joined the company.
Sunland's big breakthrough came when Soheil and his son Sahba came up with the idea of doing a hotel and condominium in the theme of an international clothing brand. After Soheil convinced Santo Versace, the Palazzo Versace, which opened on the Gold Coast in 2000, became the first fashion-branded hotel experience in the world.
“Condos were sold at $12,000/m2 – about four times the going price on the Gold Coast at the time – and they were all sold before construction was completed” says Mark.
Land owners were fascinated by what Sunland had achieved with Palazzo Versace, and as a result other opportunities emerged. Out of one of those opportunities came the Q1 in Surfers Paradise. Standing 80 levels tall Q1 is the world's tallest purely residential tower. “We were lucky at the time of the launch in 2001 as it was the start of the property boom,” Mark says.
When the global financial crisis hit in 2008 Sunland was in the fortunate position of being well cashed up and having a very low level of debt. As in 1990, Sunland was one of the only local developers that was able to survive the massive downturn.
Sunland currently has about $1,5billion worth of projects on the go in Australia, and sold about 900 properties for about $300million last year. Sunland is also the second largest listed development company with its head office in Queensland.
The company's current focus includes a number of golfing estates and other residential developments. “As we were able to buy these sites at a low cost, we have been able to offer products that are especially affordable for the particular areas,” says Mark.
Appreciative of his good fortune in Australia, Mark says that this country has been fantastic to him and his family, and that the Gold Coast is a great place to bring up a young family.
Mark acknowledges that the current economic situation can make it difficult for new migrants to find jobs. “Don't be scared to take a step back when you arrive,” he says. “If you take a position that is offered even if it doesn't match your previous experience, you'll find that your skills will come through. The longer that you wait before accepting work the harder it gets to find something.”
Also encouraging new migrants to be patient, Mark says that it takes time to get your roots down and to make contacts in a new place. “You can't force it to happen, but it does happen eventually,” he says.