August 28, 2015

The time of my life

Former shopping centre developer, grazier, entrepreneur and now magazine owner, Peter Howarth, explains how his personal passions drove the success of his enterprises.

Former shopping centre developer, grazier, entrepreneur and now magazine owner, Peter Howarth, explains to Anna Fenech how his personal passions drove the success of his enterprises. Peter became a client of NAB Private Wealth in 2012. He was previously an NAB Agri client in Tamworth, NSW, for more than 20 years when he ran a cattle grazing enterprise including a leading Black Simmental Stud.

What were the highlights of your career in shopping centre development?

As a 21 year old in the 1960s, I was lucky enough to work as the right hand man for Jim Deger. He was an American who Dick Dusseldorf from Lend Lease had brought to Australia to get the company involved in shopping centres. My first project was to amalgamate 114 residential properties on which now stands Bankstown Square. At the same time I was leasing all the shops in the first air conditioned shopping centre in Australia, Monaro Mall in Canberra (now called the Canberra Centre). That was a tough job because retailers then did not want to lease shops off the street, and percentage rent and full outgoing recovery were first introduced.

After Lend Lease, the Coote Estate and AMP employed me to oversee the planning, leasing and management of Centrepoint Tower in Sydney. That was a great opportunity which involved being flown around the world to look at shopping centres and observation towers. After that, I contracted with the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority to undertake the planning and leasing of The Rocks redevelopment. My retail real estate company was known as Peter Howarth & Associates which I operated in partnership with Dennis O’Brien.

I also undertook commercial property developments in my own right including some smaller shopping centres and offices in Parramatta, The Carousel refurbishment in Bondi Junction and offices at Railway Square in George St, Sydney.

The challenge in developing commercial property was managing my way through many ups and downs in the economy. Not letting the banks (who I was borrowing money from) know how financially stretched I was became a special skill but I did gain more knowledge and experience.

By the early 1990s, I felt I had ‘done’ the shopping centre, property development and real estate agency stint and was ready for something new.

How did you make the move from city-based commercial property to agriculture?

My interest in agriculture started around 1971 when I purchased a small property in the Dooralong Valley, near Wyong. I had an idea to operate a hobby farm which would give my young children a taste of country life.

Owning Dooralong resulted in my becoming interested in cattle breeding. About 1980 I bought a property in Nundle, near Tamworth, and then bought others there and in Quirindi, until I had about 30,000 acres running 10,000 head of cattle.

In 1992, I moved to Nundle with my second wife Judy where we lived for the next 16 years. We had tried living half the time in Sydney and half in Nundle while running my cattle breeding operation but it didn’t work.

Would you consider yourself an early stage greenie?

I definitely became very interested in how to manage land, in terms of how to improve productivity. I also started following the ideas of ecologist Allan Savory, the man behind Holistic Management, as a way of managing land and animals.

I’m still involved in The Mulloon Institute which in Australia promotes the importance of clean earth, air and water. It is all just common sense if you are involved in agriculture and respect your health.

What were some of the challenges and highlights of running a commercial cattle operation?

I got very interested in genetics because I was trying to breed cattle which grew quickly with good meat quality. This was achieved by crossing Black Simmentals with Angus. Selecting the right bulls for our commercial cattle breeder clients was a primary objective which was both challenging and rewarding.

Earlier I built the largest polled Simmental herd in Australia and then purchased Wombramurra, the largest Devon stud in the world. We then developed a composite breed incorporating Simmental Angus and Devons.

Between 2005 and 2007, I sold down 27,000 acres of my land. I kept 3000 acres to run my Black Simmental Stud which is now one of the most successful cattle studs in Australia.

The Black Simmentals remain a special interest and several times a week I talk to my manager/partner and I also visit Nundle five or six times a year.

When we sold the land in Nundle, we thought we’d be moving back to Sydney but pollution and traffic had only got worse. So in 2008, we moved to Leura (in the Blue Mountains) and redeveloped an old garage and several shops in Leura Mall. We sold that commercial development recently but my son still leases the Leura Garage which is now a very successful restaurant.

Soon, I found I was travelling from the mountains to Sydney three times a week on business, so we finally returned to Sydney to live in 2013.

What was your other successful Nundle project?

Outside cattle breeding, our key project in Nundle was to see if Judy and I could make a small country town sustainable. We had to set up businesses that would create jobs and bring families back into a town where technology had taken over a lot of farming work and fewer farm workers were needed. We built the Nundle Woollen Mill to produce knitting wool using original and historic machinery. We also converted an old bank into a guesthouse and restaurant and took over the garage, general store, café and motel and spent capital to revitalise those businesses. The Nundle community has continued with the redevelopment we instigated and Nundle has become an important tourist destination in NSW.

I was also instrumental in Nundle being amalgamated with Tamworth rather than Quirindi which has proven to be the right decision.

Why did you buy Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine last year?

Judy Sarris, the Editor, had been saying to me for some time that “someone should buy that magazine because it is a great brand”.

I was very aware of her reputation as a most successful editor. The magazine had been a very small publication in the Bauer Media Group and Judy said there were many things we could do with it if it was independently owned.

So, after she had asked me five or six times, I made an offer which was accepted.

Gourmet Traveller Wine focuses on wine and food and is the leading wine magazine in Australia. Judy was right and many new ideas are currently being implemented making it an even better publication.

What are your plans for the magazine?

There has been a worldwide decline in print media which has stabilised but there’s also been an upsurge in digital media. We are about to launch a digital issue and a new website.

I’m also very keen to give wine growers a bigger voice in an industry now dominated by big marketers of wine.

We’re looking at other ways we can increase magazine revenue, by leveraging the brand. In particular, we organise quality wine-related events for big corporations and sporting bodies for their key supporters.

You have made a lot of money by investing in early stage businesses. How?

I have engaged a company called TDM Asset Management, a private investment firm, to invest my capital in early maturity businesses in Australia and the United States. The latest example was a dental business Pacific Smiles Group (PacSmiles) which was a recent initial public offer and extremely successful. It came on the market in November 2014 and listed at $1.30. In April, 2015 the shares were $2.45. Baby Bunting is another which will list later this year.

TDM has very competently managed the millions of dollars I have given them to invest over the last eight years. The returns are more than 20% per annum! The key was to have confidence in the right young people and recognise that they can invest better than I can. TDM is consistently searching for and finding new businesses. They then introduce the capital, management and marketing skills which they possess so these businesses can grow into extremely successful companies.

You founded a charity which helps the disabled. What was your involvement?

The Primary Club provides sporting and recreation facilities for the disabled. I got the idea to start it in Australia when I was playing cricket in England in the early 1970s. The club has raised more than $6 million and supported everything from wheelchair sports to building hydrotherapy pools and riding arenas for Riding for the Disabled.

Which endeavours have you enjoyed the most and why?

Founding the Primary Club and being instrumental with Judy in making a small country town like Nundle sustainable and its amalgamation with Tamworth, stand out. As they say ‘you can’t take it with you’ but you can give something back whilst you are here.

Do you have any advice from your time in business?

One saying that always sticks in my mind is that there are three types of people: people who make things happen; people who watch things happen and people who wonder what happened. I like to be in the first category!

This article was first published in Private Word magazine (Winter 2015).

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