Crosby: As we look out over the water from the recently opened Fabric Café at Hobsonville Point, tell me about your involvement with this new community? I mean it’s come a long way since I first drove through in 2011. Just a vision and some pictures. Now we have done, how many homes here?
Kennedy: Well over 500 have been settled, including mine. So along with analysing superlots for purchase from AVJennings/HLC…
Crosby: Another Universal employee with a Universal home. I’ve lost count how many now! Sorry for interrupting.
Kennedy: Yes, the business development team is and has been almost constantly reviewing opportunities at Hobsonville from AVJennings, one of the land development partners for HLC [Homes, Land, Communities —formally Hobsonville Land Company.] We do the research, negotiate the land price and get the opportunity approved through our board. Months later, that turns into new homes.
Crosby: And before Universal, tell us a little about your background?
Kennedy: I grew up in Hunan, China, actually from Mao Zedong’s home town. I came to New Zealand in 2002, firstly Massey High School followed by a Bachelor of Property degree from University of Auckland.
Crosby: Well that makes two of us, fantastic degree!
Kennedy: All acquisition officers in my team have a property degree. It’s become one of my first ‘go-tos’ when recruiting. I completed my MBA degree from AUT whilst at my previous job. Afterwards I decided to give working in China a go.
Crosby: What made you decide you wanted to work in China? Did you want to work where you grew up?
Kennedy: Not really, and I only got as far as Shenzhen anyway. Shenzhen is on the coast just up from Hong Kong and Hunan is a three-hour high speed train ride again from there. That train goes about 300km per hour, so I ended up almost 1000 kms from home. The real reason was China was booming and I wanted to get into property development, with few opportunities available in New Zealand in 2011.
Crosby: I can vouch for that, as I got back to NZ in late 2010 and the GFC had wounded many developers, some fatally.
Kennedy: Yeah, so China was booming and almost straight away I got a great opportunity to work on a new cruise terminal development, in Shekou, a suburb in Shenzhen. Shekou was the first free trade zone in modern China. Everything that exists there was developed by China Merchants Group and still is 40 years later. So, I got to visit several ports along the Chinese eastern seaboard to get the best ideas. My role was to market the port to both retail and cruise lines.
Crosby: Yes, that’s an awesome development. I was lucky enough to see it with you earlier in the year. It is spectacular. Especially with all the works currently going on activating the waterfront. Imagine if Auckland had something like this on the current port land.
Kennedy: It should! and I know just the company who can pull it all together.
Then a few years later I came back to New Zealand. You could say I was homesick in China and just wanted to get back to be a Kiwi. Plus, an opportunity was presented for me to work at Universal.
Crosby: But, what did you learn on the Chinese projects?
Kennedy: It was very complex. It was truly mixed use and I had to deal with Customs, traffic flows (ships, trucks, cars, people...). A lot of different stakeholders. A mix of let’s get it designed, consented, built and operational quickly and no obstacle was immovable.
But back to New Zealand and…
Chris Aitken HLC: Hi Andrew and Kennedy… [our interview pleasantly and politely interrupted by the chief of HLC —one of Universal’s key development partners/clients— also taking in Fabric Café. Small talk ensues…]
Kennedy: So, I started off assisting our Sales Manager at Universal Homes but soon moved to the Business Development Department.
Crosby: How many in your team?
Kennedy: It was a team of one. Since then we have grown to five. That reflects Universal’s growth after the GFC and our continued growth plans, backed by our parent company of course. We made some pretty big investments and look to do plenty more. There’s quite a bit of work analysing sites, undertaking financial feasibilities, working out the optimal product mix, analysing the risks, negotiating the deals, before putting it altogether for our board approval. The bigger the site, or investment the more people power it takes.
Crosby: And your team does a very thorough job. Something else I can vouch for. So, tell me about West Hills, that was a big investment for us, and a big win for you and the team. I recall a very sizable cheque changed hands, a nine-figure land acquisition deal.
Kennedy: There’s a Chinese saying which translates as “perfect timing, perfect location, perfect relationship”. That typifies West Hills. It was a bunch of land owners, nine of them who together had 42 hectares, that we had to work with, for over a year. It took a lot of work, a lot of relationship building starting with one of our directors at the time. But we were convinced of the opportunity and managed to see the deal through to the end. Right across the road from both NorthWest and Westgate shopping centres. Directly in the line of fire for council and government infrastructure spending. In a growing and rapidly improving area. Perfect for housing, now and for the next decade. We might end up with 1,200 homes there - 20 minutes to the CBD.
Crosby: Traffic pending of course! I guess you could ride your bike along the cycleway.
Kennedy: Well they are increasing the size of the motorway as we speak, and the government have announced light rail, 28 minutes to the CBD, rush hour or not, so that’s something else perfect about it.
Crosby: So, what’s the future Mr Tan?
Kennedy: Two things. Firstly, we are out there looking for land, for development opportunities, across Auckland. We don’t depend on pre-sales to start construction, so we are a very active buyer. We will always look at green-fields, but with the Unitary Plan, we are looking for infill sites as well. There is a tonne of experience at Universal ready to build urban products that supplement our existing portfolio. Terraces yes, but also apartments at the lower height range. Not only do we want to be Auckland’s leading housing developer, we are all for partnering up with the best in the business to develop together. Partnerships are extremely important. We have great partners. Todd Property, Fulton Hogan, Hugh Green, AVJennings, HLC, Classic. And it’s more than just buying land off them. It’s about securing a pipeline of homes to build for the future. Plus, we want to support our partners as much as possible, deliver top quality homes at reasonable prices and in line with our partners’ expectations for design and branding. We aim to be their best partner. For some builders out there it’s a race to the bottom, but we want to stand out for maintaining good product at good quality, real value for home buyers in that beginning to middle market, across Auckland.
Crosby: Sounds like a great plan to me.
Kennedy: Secondly - Everyone in the team to grow. I am just a facilitator. You have to appreciate everyone is different, works differently, has different skillsets, different areas to upskill or learn. So, if I can help them look outside of the box, provide some inspiration, motivation, whatever then great outcomes will result.