A national crisis in the 1980s was the catalyst for the birth of one of Canberra’s most enduring property businesses.
A young Barry Morris was keeping himself busy with a diversified portfolio, including four motels, six petrol stations, three wholesale fuel depots and a video shop. The motels, in particular, were ticking over nicely.
Then the Ansett Australia pilots’ dispute hit, knocking the wind out of Australia’s tourism industry and decimating motel occupancy rates.
Barry, an ANU economics graduate, needed a solution, and began converting his once-thriving motels into serviced apartments.
The James Court Apartment Hotel in Braddon would be the first project completed by what is today Morris Property Group (MPG), a fully integrated development company with a footprint spanning Australia’s eastern seaboard.
The ability to roll with the punches has served Morris well during the decades since.
As well as the pilots’ strike, the 63-year-old cites the Canberra real estate slump of the mid-1990s and the 2007-2009 global financial crisis as events that sorely tested business.
However, each time he bounced back, and so did the property sector.
Barry is adamant there will be light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, too.
“Coronavirus is a worldwide event, like many others before it,” he says. “But businesses will adapt and the economy will recover. There will be opportunities again to rise to the surface for those brave enough to take the risk.”
He now runs MPG with eldest son James overseeing development and construction activities, while youngest son Michael is a founding member of the new project sales and marketing team. Daughter Louise was an MPG director for seven years, before starting her own legal practice.
The key, says Barry, is to remain nimble and ready to change.
“When obstacles present themselves, we look for the opportunities that are certain to be sitting in the shadows. The variety of businesses my family and I ran in those early days taught us the value of cash flow, low level of borrowings and focusing on the detail.
“Our 40-plus year history has placed us in a sound financial position, with the ability to withstand the economic shocks that inevitably face business from time to time.”
Barry believes strong economic foundations and the ability to make the right decision, no matter how difficult, are what will see Morris Property Group through this latest challenge.
“From 1988 onwards, we’ve run a much trimmer and more focused business,” he says. “Today, everything we do is in the property space – ownership, development, management, right down to construction. We find the block of land, get the development approvals, market the property, build the property, settle the property, and stand behind that property all the way through the cycle. We stick to our knitting.”
MPG has successfully delivered more than 65 residential and commercial projects across Canberra, the Gold Coast, Brisbane and Geelong, and has benefited from a strategy of acquiring sites in sought-after blue chip locations.
Just days ago, MPG gained DA approval for Renaissance, a landmark new residential complex in the retail and entertainment hub of Manuka in Canberra’s inner south, and construction is well under way on the group’s 184-apartment Park Avenue, in a premium CBD location.
The two projects will deliver nearly 600 apartments to the Canberra market during the next few years.
Excavation on the group’s One City Hill development in the CBD will finish in four weeks, at which time Barry will put the project into hibernation for three months to redouble efforts at Renaissance and Park Avenue.
He has no doubt that despite the current impact of COVID-19, Canberra property buyers will fare better than most in the long term.
“Canberra will bounce back faster than anywhere,” he says.
“The city has always had very low residential vacancy rates. It also has some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, and the highest median wages. With interest rates at their lowest on record, it’s actually a very good time to be thinking seriously about investment with the longer term in mind.
“And buying off the plan is one of the safest ways to do it. You can secure a property now at a good price, have time to save a bigger deposit and avoid the price increases that are likely to happen in a couple of years’ time due to supply constraints created by COVID-19.”
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