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Hospitality | Sydney
Meet the charming, rick-taking and seriously ambitious young Australian entrepreneur who has created a billion-dollar empire of Sydney’s most cutting-edge hotel, restaurant, nightlife and entertainment establishments.
Recognised as the man who has changed the face of Sydney's hotel, restaurant and nightlife scene, entrepreneur Justin Hemmes is the leader of one of Australia's most respected hospitality groups, Merivale – a family company he runs with his parents. With the drive and the ambition to achieve the seemingly unachievable, we find out more about the man who is the expert on ensuring that people are having a really, really good time ...
RV: Your family’s company, Merivale, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. How did the Merivale story begin?
JH: My father was actually an immigrant to Australia – he's Dutch-Indonesian. He met my mother on a boat trip to England, and two weeks later, they were married! They came back to live in Australia, and they started their own business selling hats out of their own little retail shop. This was around the mid-1950s. They expanded into fashion and our family’s business, Merivale – which was named after my mother – started that way. A lot of famous people such as Barry White, the Supremes and Mick Jagger would come to Australia and buy their clothing range. My parents are very ahead of their time, they're both very colourful and incredibly talented people. Over the decades, they continued to expand the business throughout Australia over the next forty years, until the mid-1990s. Even while they had the fashion business, my father was very much into property.
RV: How did you first get involved in your family’s business?
JH: We're a very close family and I spent a lot of time with my parents and my older sister when I was growing up. There were always parties at the house with amazing music, and we’d go out on our boat a lot. It was a beautiful upbringing. One of the property developments my father did when I was a teenager was building a restaurant. I was about 15 years old at the time, and I used to help there. My dad had me working as a kitchen hand for a while, and as a barista. I loved the interaction with people. Even during university, my father used to make me work seven days a week on different aspects of the business, while my friends would be out partying on the weekends. I finished university, then went to work as a labourer on one of my father's construction sites.
You'd work carrying and shovelling sand, making cement, etc. You're the lowest rung on the ladder. We were building a multi-level bar, which my mother had designed and I helped her with. During the construction period, the tenant got cold feet and pulled out of the lease. We were halfway through building the site for them as a hotel, so we decided to continue building it and to ultimately run it ourselves. When it was up and running, my father wanted me to oversee things – it was called Hotel CBD. That was my first real job in a hotel. It was hugely successful, as it was the first venue of its kind in Sydney. Prior to that, bars were quite male dominated, and the food was usually quite average. However, this bar attracted a great mix of men and women, and the staff were really beautiful. We had DJs playing music; everyone would love to dance. I hired a great chef to prepare fantastic food. We also created a cocktail lounge bar on the third floor with a piano and a gorgeous singer. There was also a two‑level nightclub with international DJs playing there. It was really forward, new and exciting for Sydney at that time.
RV: When did you decide to build Establishment, one of your biggest Sydney projects to date?
JH: Following the success of Hotel CBD, and another project we did called the Slip Inn, I wanted to take it to the next level and launch a new project that would revolutionise the industry and place Sydney in the same register as New York, London and Paris. The only hotels we had in Sydney at the time were four‑ and five‑star hotels which were usually quite boring, so I decided to build Establishment Hotel. I bought the building in 1998 and it took two years to build. I opened it in 2000, two days before the Olympics. I also created a beautiful lounge and cocktail bar, and an amazing restaurant called Est. We also built a huge nightclub called Tank over two levels of the basement, which could hold two-and-a-half thousand people. It was a huge risk, as it cost $10 million to buy the property and $50 million to build, which was a lot of money back then. I really struggled to get the financing to build that project, but luckily, one person at one bank believed in my crazy idea. I’m extremely proud of Establishment because I was only 25 at the time, so I was quite young. It was something very ground breaking for Sydney, and 15 years on, it's more successful than ever, which is quite remarkable.
RV: As the Merivale group now has a portfolio of 52 very successful venues in Sydney, how did the company continue to expand over the years?
JH: After that, we started to build a portfolio of hotels in Sydney. I bought a few other hotels in the city, but all quite small ones. Then, I decided to launch Ivy. Ivy was really a continuation of Establishment, but with an emphasis on being this oasis of outdoor fun and festivities within Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD). I thought it would complement Establishment, but on a much larger scale. I wanted to build a swimming pool on the rooftop where people could drink, eat and party throughout the daytime and late into the night. I wanted to build this amazing, two‑level outdoor nightclub that would hold thousands of people. I wanted to build these projects to add more interest and excitement to the CBD, because I thought they would then prosper my other venues. That's why I was concentrating everything around the same area. Ivy is certainly the most challenging and difficult development I've ever done in my life. It almost broke me. It almost didn't get up, and I would have lost a lot of money. There was a change of local governments, and the project was rejected, and the police were against it. It was a huge gamble. It was a very difficult process, and it took a long time to complete. It was a tough, tough, tough one. The banks had never seen anything of that scale, but we got through it, and it's an incredible property and business now. Of course, there was a lot of doubters, but as they say: If you build it, they will come. Luckily, they are still coming. Eight years on, it’s now doing better than ever.
RV: You also went on to launch one of the biggest music festivals in Australia, Good Vibrations…
JH: Yes, it’s not running any more but that went for 10 years. That was a lot of fun. I started it as a small festival because I love music and I love entertaining. I was basically building my ideal venue for the future, bringing all of these amazing artists together, but I only wanted it to be for a maximum of 20,000 people. After four years though, we had 160,000 people coming. It became a huge operation and a business in its own right. I was so busy with the hotels, I couldn't focus on it as much as I wanted to. That was a wonderful time though, I have so many amazing memories. We put on the last James Brown show before he passed away, and he got me up on stage to dance next to him – I looked like a white man who can't really dance though!
RV: Why have you focused all your projects in Sydney?
JH: For a number of reasons. I've always been looking overseas, but I guess the right opportunity hasn't come up. The reason we are successful at what we do is because I know our demographics so well, and I know the city so well. We have a pretty good idea of what will work and what won't. I like to travel for pleasure, not for business. Once you open in another state or another country, it changes the style of your business. That's not to say we won't do it, but at this stage, it's just been convenient as we know the market here. If we get to a point where there's nothing else to do here, we'll definitely have to go look overseas!
RV: What is your latest Merivale project?
JH: That would be Coogee Pavilion. It has such a beautiful location and it’s a great property. The feedback and response that we've had from the customers about it has been more positive than anything I've ever done before. We've really tapped into the local community there and they're very grateful. They're loving the experience, so that's very rewarding.
RV: How would you describe Sydney?
JH: For me, Sydney is such an exciting city. It's all about the outdoors and people really love life here. They love being happy; they love nature; they love swimming; they love the ocean. They love to have a good time; they love eating and drinking. They really embrace life here. We have beautiful weather; we have beautiful women; men don’t take themselves too seriously. We're generally very easy going.
RV: What are some of the biggest challenges in running the Merivale group?
JH: One of the most challenging things is trying to maintain the quality and the standards that I expect when you're employing so many staff. Our whole business is about staff. We have almost 2,500 customer-facing staff members. I can deliver an amazing meal in a beautiful surrounding, fantastic cocktails or a beautiful bottle of wine, but if the staff member is rude, everything is destroyed. The challenge is to ensure that every single staff member that works for us delivers to our expectations, to the level of customer service that we expect and strive for. We have amazing people working for us though, and we get a lot of reward and satisfaction out of it.
RV: What would be your advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs?
JH: The most important thing is that you have to love what you do, and to genuinely love it. You have to live and breathe it, because otherwise, there's no point in doing it. For me, my work and my business is a pleasure. I love to do this and I wake up every morning and get so excited to go to work, because I get to create something new, something that's going to hopefully improve people's lives in some way, or make their lives more exciting. I'm very fortunate the industry I'm in is an exciting place to be. People come to our venues because they want to have fun. They're not coming to us because they need legal advice, because their wife's leaving them, or their business partner has done the wrong thing by them. They're coming to us to celebrate, to have a good time and to feel good about themselves. The end goal is that I'll see our customers having the best time, and saying, or even thinking, "I've had a fabulous night tonight. I've had a beautiful meal; I've met a wonderful person; I've had a great drink; or I've had a great time with my friends." Tenacity is one of the most important characteristics that you can have. Life is one big hurdle. Sometimes you fall over, but you've got to pick yourself up and keep running. You just have to keep pushing. You've got to finish that race.
Interview: Enrique Nalda & Kimberley McLoughlin
Photography: Courtesy of Merivale
Interview first published in RedVisitor Magazine: Issue Two - Purchase Now
M O R E I N T E R V I E W S . . .