Saturday August 4, 2012
Your 10 questions asnwers by Maha Sinnathamby
This month, Malaysian-born Maha Sinnathamby, 72, will be celebrating 20 years of building an entire city from the ground up Greater Springfield on the outskirts of Brisbane in Australia. Established in 1991, it is home to over 23,000 residents.
Only 13% of the acreage, which he and his business partner Bob Sharpless bought for just A$7.2mil in the early 1990s, has been developed.
Once completed, the investment, less than 30km from Brisbane is calculated to be worth over A$23bil. Australian magazine Business Review Weekly's recently lists him as having A$820mil, close to joining Australia's Billionaire's Club.
The challenges and lessons learned from this remarkable vision to create Australia's best master-planned community are the focus of a biography, Stop Not Till the Goal is Reached, which is being launched to coincide with the 20th anniversary.
In 2010, Maha and his team at Greater Springfield received global recognition for the quality of their development when they received the FIABCI Prix D'Excellence Award for the World's Best Master Planned Community.
What made you remain in Australia instead of returning to Malaysia?
I actually did return to Malaysia after finishing my civil engineering degree and worked there for four-and-a-half years as a civil engineer. Although my extended family was in Malaysia, I returned to Australia where I was trained as a civil engineer. I think, even then, my genuine love for land and the potential it has to change residents' lives was beginning.
What did you do after completing your engineering degree in Sydney?
I finished my engineering degree in 1965, and immediately started work in Malaysia for a UK firm that looked after major development assignments with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Having migrated, I then worked with the Metropolitan Water Board in Perth as a civil engineer for four years. I then resigned to start my own company in 1976.
How did you end up buying 2,860 ha in the state of Queensland?
My business partner Bob Sharpless and I were aware that to create the type of master-planned community we desired, we needed a unique piece of real estate. The opportunity arose and we purchased this land because it was 28km from the Brisbane central business district (CBD). Purchasing land of this size under one owner is no longer possible outside any of our capital cities.
What prompted you to buy such a huge land bank 20 years ago and what was your goal when you made that purchase?
This was both a huge challenge and a great opportunity to create a world-leading city. I could see such great potential in turning the land into a city. It was in a region that had tremendous opportunities, and by creating a city we could ensure the land was uplifted to its highest and best use for the benefit of the entire region.
What were the initial challenges after having bought into that huge land bank?
There were three main challenges. First, it was in an area that was economically and socially disadvantaged. Second, the lifeblood of the entire project was the need for a major freeway come through the project, which everyone said was impossible to achieve. In today's dollars, an investment of this size would amount to nearly RM200mil. And finally, only 10% of the land could be developed and the balance 90% needed a considerable amount of rezoning and support from the local council and the state government.
No one believed that these challenges could be overcome not anyone in the council, not anyone in the Queensland government and not anyone in the corporate sector. I strongly believed we could overcome the challenges and over the past 20 years, that is what we have done. This is what my book is all about.
Why and how did you coin that name Greater Springfield?
Greater Springfield was named because at the southern end of Springfield, there is a mountain called Spring Mountain covering 2500 ha and so we felt the name Springfield was appropriate for land there. The project was so large we had to plan ahead for six suburbs, and so Greater Springfield was defined as the name to cover all of them.
Have your Malaysian roots helped in any way to shape your vision and your goals while you were in Australia?
Of course, my Malaysian roots did help me, particularly my early upbringing in Rantau. It was an area that was socially and economically depressed. I had a very difficult time going to school, having to travel 36km to school and back. But I had a great time as a student under these very difficult conditions and having to survive under considerable hardships. This made me realise that life was one that you really had to fight your way through, so you should make the most of it.
My father's own experience as a prisoner of war and the effect that had on me as a young child was very influential, too. It taught all of my family, not just me, about survival and my father's remarkable survival personified the phrase, “survival of the fittest”. He was greatly inspirational.
My life in a small town also gave me a great insight into the power of positive thinking and lifting aspirations. My father and mother had big dreams for all their children and this gave me the opportunity to have a tertiary education in Australia.
Some of Greater Springfield reflects these early lessons particularly its emphasis on the importance of quality, accessible education.
You're now at an age when other people think of retirement. Is that vision and initial fire of entrepreneurship still burning or has your focus moved to other areas?
I feel whatever age I am is immaterial. I am very strongly committed to creating the most unique city in this country. When it is at its full size, Greater Springfield will incorporate a CBD that will be double the size of the CBD of Brisbane and Sydney.
The opportunity to create a world-leading city is not an impossible dream, and having this opportunity is one that drives me consistently to create this unique city.
What were your strategies when you embarked on this plan to build Greater Springfield?
My strategy was very simple. I surrounded myself with very talented individuals. We had an outstanding team of four individuals who were absolutely committed to ensuring we could achieve whatever we wanted. We were determined not to ever give up. Our only asset was our intellectual property and our determination to succeed against all odds. We never accepted no for an answer and we were rejected many, many times but we persisted. Persistence and self-belief are the only ways one can be successful.
What would you say were the top three ingredients for your success in Australia?
I think the first two ingredients are universal, wherever you choose to work. First, you have to have the right people around you. I have been very fortunate but also very intentional in working with people who complement my skills and share my vision. Secondly, it is of the utmost importance that you work with very high integrity. If you want to succeed, your credibility and reputation have to be unquestionable.
Of specific relevance to Australia, you need to understand you'll be working with three levels of government so while my vision was extraordinary, it still had to be practical and accepted by these government levels.