In the family - Dion Bisa from East Hotel
Canberra can be a transient city. However, there are plenty of people who have arrived in the region to put down roots that have achieved great success.
One such story is that of the Bisas. The owner/operators of East Hotel in Kingston have come a long way since leaving northern Italy in the ’60s to work, like so many Europeans, on the Snowy Mountains Hydro project.
Dion and her older brother Dan, represent the third generation of the Bisa family, and the tradition of building remains with Dan running a successful property development company from Canberra. The Shaker sat down with Dion to discuss the Bisa’s time in the Capital and what it means to be part of a family business.
Dion describes her memories of her father growing up as ‘brief’ (to say the least…).
I think my first memory of him might be from when I was about 16! Well, while that’s a bit of an exaggeration. He was a very hard worker, so he really wasn’t home very often.
One thing I remember was that when it rained he came home grumpy… rain isn’t very good for builders. Years later, I had a boyfriend who was a farmer, and he seemed a lot happier to see gathering clouds. It was all very confusing!
Dad worked seven-days-a-week as a builder. In 1971 he created a company with my maternal grandfather, G&G Constructions. Both were named ‘Giuseppe’ although, of course, were known as ‘Joe’.
Dad wasn't always builder. In fact, he graduated with an economics degree from ANU and was working for the Department of Trade. They bought their first block of land, built a house and then sold it in order to buy two more blocks and go again.
My grandfather settled in Jindabyne–in the old town that’s now at the bottom of the lake–to work on the Snowy Mountains Scheme. It was an interesting time. In those post-war years a lot of the immigrants arrived with their tools to work. But for resident Australians, equipment was still very hard to come by.
There’s a photo of my (paternal) grandfather up a post with all his tools while all the ‘Aussies’ watch on empty-handed. It's in a book about the Snowy scheme and the chapter is called Wogs in Wombat-land.
Anyway, they had the business for 40 years, and developed some really key parts of Canberra in the suburbs of the inner-north and south.
It didn’t take long for G&G Constructions to see a gap in the market for a town that brings in people from all over Australia to support the Federal Government.
The business was certainly growing, and the scale of the business moved well beyond the first plot of land that they bought. Just near Garran shops is about half a suburb that dad built – there are 360 apartments in there!
Now, when dad looks at my brother, Dan, pursuing a development in Sydney of only four apartments he thinks Dan is crazy to take such a risk. He seems to have forgotten the scale of his operation when it was at a peak twenty years ago!
While those big developments were really important to his success, the idea to bring the idea of serviced apartments to Canberra was a big change for the business.
The first tranche was a site containing 36 apartments in Kingston – known as Kingston Court. Every apartment had their own strata-title, but we kept them to ourselves to ensure we had access to the stock needed to run that part of the business.
We then built another 43 down at a development called Kingston Terrace, and a smaller collection of about 20 titles at ‘Broadway’ on Canberra Avenue. All up it was about 120 serviced apartments and we ran them for years as a successful business.
Where did the idea for East Hotel come from?
As good as the serviced apartments were, the idea of a hotel meant that we could consolidate our efforts down to one site.
They looked for a site for a long time. There were a few that suited the idea of what Dad and Dan could do. The company had changed its name to Bisa Property Group when Dan left his job as a futures trader in Sydney. He’s had enough of that career, and really liked the idea of working with Dad.
They decided it should be a serviced apartment hotel. The three groups of serviced apartments were all due for a refurbishment, so a decision had to be made as to whether to do another decade with them, or sell off the individual strata titles and use the capital for East Hotel.
Obviously, it was the latter that won out in the end. The properties went quickly – they were at a good price and the market was still running hot in 2009. With that done, it was time to build the hotel!
So, how did you get involved?
The family business had turned 40 years old, and mum told me come to an anniversary dinner which was taking place on a Tuesday. At the time, I was in Sydney with my partner, Cath, and my two young sons. Cath and I had successful psychology practices… the idea of heading on a Tuesday seemed too much, but she insisted.
It was a great night. I sat next to Dan, and knew he was working on the hotel, and on the way home the next day thought to myself, “I want to run that thing!” It seemed the perfect way for me to contribute to the family business.
...and the successful psyche decided to become a hotelier!
Pretty much! And I know how crazy it sounds.
For some reason, Cath agreed that it was a good idea, and it was done. To my surprise, Dan was really excited about the idea, and the deal was done! Then I had to speak to Dad, and told him my plan that had been tacitly agreed to by my brother. Not one to say much, Dad simply said, “Well, you’re just going to nail it, aren’t you?”
Thankfully, we employed Todd Handy as the General Manager (Dion is 2IC) to get us up and running… and he’s still here after four years! It was largely his experiecne in great hotels that got use across the line. The early days were madness... we had to listen and learn so much from Todd, but the great thing was that everyone pitched in and helped get the doors open regardless of their position in the hotel…
I guess that enhanced the idea that this was a family business – that no matter what it took we wouldn’t let each other down and we were all determined to succeed.
As you look back, what qualities do you think you’ve inherited from your parents?
Dad was always a perfectionist. He takes great care in everything he does. That was something that came through in building the hotel. If you look around the foyer or the rooms, there is an incredible attention to detail, and we’ve been careful to work with people who can deliver the quality of finish that meets our standard.
When we built Joe’s Bar–named in honour of Dad–we wanted to bring through the history of the family into the space, but keep it nice and grounded… he’s a practical person who wouldn’t appreciate anything too flashy. I can certainly appreciate that.
He’s 73 now, and still works in the garden. I love that he sees work as a virtue and will keep going as long as his bad back will let him.
That’s something to be admired, and I know his kids would be proud to be like that.