Geocon's Nick Georgalis - Taking Canberra to new heights
In Canberra, one of the success stories of the last decade has been Geocon. The local construction company has quickly grown from a small builder into an ambitious developer with its eye on one of the largest projects the city has seen.
After spending an hour with Founder and Managing Director, Nick Georgalis, it’s difficult not to get swept up in his energy and excitement that has propelled the company to where it is today. However, there is a solid philosophical foundation to the business, as well as a deep love of Canberra that inspires him to build even bigger and better things.
You seem to move at a breakneck speed. Where does this come from? Building, selling, or showcasing?
(Laughs) Look, I’m a pretty energetic person I guess, but I’m also a really proud Canberran. I grew up here, went to school here (Ginninderra College) and, while I lived away for a little while this is now very much my home.
The business came into being after I left a full time job in 2006 , and Geocon was created the year after. We’ve had a lot of growth over the last decade, and now employ 180 people directly as part of the local construction industry and our hotels (the Abode Hotel Group) and there are more exciting things on the horizon.
The people we employ are the most important asset. I think that energy – the entrepreneurial spirit – attracts like-minded people, and it makes Geocon a pretty exciting place to work.
In a lot of businesses, the structure focusses on the administration of the business. Everyone here has an entrepreneurial spirit and is contributing new and exciting ways to push the business forward.
This means that we have grown to be an experienced company that is still inspired by innovation and a desire to do things no one has done before.
Infinity Towers (Geocon)
What was the moment that pushed you out of the comfort zone of full-time employment to build your own construction business?
Well, while I was still working for Lend Lease, my wife and I were building our family home. We decided to create our own partnership and, once I’d decided to leave Lend Lease, we had early success building homes and selling them. That pushed us to formalise our partnership as a business and that’s the moment that Geocon came into being.
In the early days – for us and for any other business – it’s important to recognise the importance of trial-and-error. Very little of the skills and knowledge that you will need to be successful can be taught. You simply need to try an idea and see if it works.
My experience of corporate governance through Lend Lease was certainly an advantage, but it was equally important to keep pushing and testing to see what the market was looking for.
Where we are today is very different to where Geocon was ten years ago. In 2017 we’re really focussed on building communities – developments that go beyond simply putting up apartments.
These are growing in scale with each step. While our next development will be the largest that we’ve built, we’re also improving the location of our developments, the quality of designers, and the technical expertise that we possess in-house.
Republic is an awesome example of that. Situated in the old Labor Club car park in Belconnen Town Centre, it’s a really exciting development that will hold over 1300 dwellings and a hotel with retail and a live performance theatre.
This year, we’ve really changed our focus towards not just building communities, but using our resources to support other businesses that are part of the Canberra community and build the culture of the city.
We’ve formed strategic partnerships with organisations such as Burgmann College to attract the next big pool of talent and get the brightest Canberrans working in the industry. Menslink is another group that we’re looking to actively support given that our industry is a male dominated one, so there’s a lot we can contribute in that space.
By supporting the community and really understanding its needs, means that our projects are a better fit for the people that will use them and their surrounding environments.
Section 200 concept (Geocon)
In the last 15 years – across the majority of the property boom – the percentage of homeowners has dropped from 57% to 51%. The proportion of households headed by a person aged 25 to 34 has fallen steadily since then from 60 per cent to 47 per cent.
What does this mean for Geocon and its developments?
It’s an interesting one, especially because the Canberra demographic is different to other cities. Immigration – particularly in Sydney and Melbourne skews those numbers significantly so we need to look at Canberra differently.
We really want to improve housing affordability. In projects such as Wayfarer, Southport and Infinity, one bedroom apartments started around $250,000 which means that almost anyone can enter the market. That’s $200 per week at current interest rates – less than renting for a couple. Two-bedroom apartments – situated 15 mins form the city centre are around $360,000. Sydney and Melbourne can’t compete with that sort of affordability.
Is it a deliberate strategy to keep the prices down?
Canberra is an affordable city, but we need to make sure that Geocon plays a part in keeping it that way. We have opportunities within the city centre, but to build there pushes prices beyond what we can offer in Belconnen, Tuggeranong and Gungahlin.
For us, this represents an enormous opportunity. To create an entire precinct in the city is just too expensive. It’s been done by NewActon – which is amazing – but the prices reflect the location and the amenities. We can achieve something that is much more democratic by shifting 10kms out of Civic.
Talk us through the design process for a new development. Where do you find inspiration?
For these sorts of projects, the planning starts years ahead. We ask ourselves lots of questions in the early stage. How will garbage trucks get in and out? How high should this be? What does the ground floor look like? This is important if you’re trying to build a community, because all those elements contribute to that feeling of community that we are aiming to achieve.
Observatory Living in Wright demonstrated this really well. By bringing in Jamie Durie at the design stage, we were able to make sure the green spaces in the development were intended for people to use, not just to look at.
It’s a space that will grow and change over time. It will be interesting to see how it all looks in a few years. In saying that I guess it shows that there is the process of building a structure, but we’re trying to build a vision and a brand that translates into the physical structures that arrive at the very end.
How is Geocon approaching a project of this scale? Canberra has set a high bar in recent years.
We certainly start from a position of trying to make Canberra better – partly because I’m a proud Canberran, but also because making Canberra better sells! This is what helps set the vision for the project, then we move into the design.
The really important part is working out who we’re going to collaborate with. There are people we could use because they are cheap or they are convenient, but that’s not what we’re about.
Our aim is to look across Australia to see who we can pull together to achieve our vision for Canberra. At the moment, we’re doing really great things with Sydney’s Oculus and Fender Katsilidis from Melbourne. These are the sort of partners that we believe can bring our vision to reality.
This collaborative process is essential to testing the accuracy of our vision. Sometimes our instinct is spot on and the project finishes as a representation of what we envisioned from the start. At other times, the physical result may be different to early sketches, but the original motive is still present. It doesn’t matter which of these outcomes are achieved, as our processes ensure the right result regardless.
To read Part II of our conversation with Nick Georgalis, click here.