Australian Property King Iwan Sunito Returns to Indonesia

Iwan Sunito, founder and chief executive of Crown Group. (Photo courtesy of Crown Group)

By : Sarah Yuniarni | on 10:50 PM June 19, 2018
Category : Business, Corporate News, Profile

Jakarta. Iwan Sunito left Indonesia nearly three decades ago to become one of Australia's top property developers.

In 1994, he founded the Crown Group, which is known for numerous landmark apartment projects in Sydney and Melbourne. By 2020, it is going to invest Rp 23.5 trillion ($1.66 billion) in Australia, Indonesia and the United States.

The group has been present in Indonesia since 2013. In early May, it joined forces with Jakarta-based resorts operator Pembangunan Jaya Ancol to develop a Rp 7 trillion apartment complex in North Jakarta, which will be one of Crown's largest projects.

For the developer, the waterfront apartment is not just a homecoming project.

Iwan went to Australia to study. Soon he decided to start a property business and embarked on an exceptionally successful career. When he visited Indonesia in May, he shared his story with the Jakarta Globe.

What was your childhood like?

I think I've been quite blessed that I had an opportunity to grow up in places like Kalimantan, in a remote town, in Pangkalan Bun. It's a jungle over there and in the back of our house was a tropical rainforest. Once in a while, like when I was 10 years, flood waters would cover the house. As we were kids at that time, we just enjoyed swimming, even though the house was flooded.

My mom came from Surabaya (East Java) and dad studied in Surabaya. We tried to build a business in Surabaya, but it did not go well, so we went back to Kalimantan and my dad started working with somebody else, selling timber for roofs.

That's how he started his business. Mom and dad at that time wanted their kids to go to Surabaya. As they were still running the business in Pangkalan Bun, I grew up with my maternal grandfather.

There I finished my junior high school and almost finished high school, but I failed one year. It was very embarrassing.

But then I finished it and went to Sydney to study. After I received a bachelor's in architecture, I continued to study construction management. It was really good. I love architecture, because it teaches design excellence. The master's course in construction management from the University of New South Wales taught me about building sites, economics, feasibility studies.

When I graduated, I had these two skills, which helped me to be where I am today. I have always wanted to be an architect as much as a property developer, because this way I can control the design, the quality, the way I want it to be.

Have you ever tried other businesses?

Of course, I started as an architect. The first year was really, really tough. But I didn't venture into anything other than building management.

When I later did, it was more of a joint venture with other people, and I learnt I didn't want to do any business that I didn't understand.

It was a computer business and we lost the investment. And then another friend of mine invited us to a restaurant business. Again, it didn't work.

From there on, rather than trying to do too many things, I thought that focusing on one business is far more powerful than trying to do everything. It's like what Warren Buffet said: "Never invest in a business you cannot understand."

What was the key to your success?

I've never dreamed to be where I am today ... never really had that sort of ambition. The only thing that I'm passionate about is actually producing good buildings, better buildings, better designs, better architecture.

But I think entrepreneurship has always been in my blood. I like to be creative, but I'm a person who is not ambitious in setting up goals, for if you don't achieve them, you get disappointed. I don't, I simply just work for it. Do what you can, with what you have.

When people stand in front of a mountain, they see the summit, but they forget there is the mountain to climb. For me it is more like a journey, climbing and stopping sometimes to rest, to get my strength back, to acclimatize myself and then to climb up again, make the next step.

How did you survive the 2008 global economic crisis? How did Blue Ocean Strategy help you?

It was actually in 2004, the housing recession. At that time, when I was in despair, a friend and mentor of mine, Robbi Djohan, former chairman of Garuda Indonesia, gave me a book titled "Blue Ocean Strategy."

And I laughed because the book talks about how you create your own product and position yourself so as to have no competitors.

That time I thought about the best building. If you own the best building, you don't have to compete with anyone else.

We did that in 2004, we introduced an urban resort (a five-star apartment building). We sold the apartments, before it was complete. Our company reached a balance not long after that.

The business was growing and in 2008, during the global financial crisis, it continued to grow. We started to gain public recognition. After that, we got another one, a 2 billion dollar project. We had to move our office, because it became too small. It now has $5 billion in the pipeline. During 10 years the business has grown five-fold.

Do you have any dream projects?

If you look at the earlier days, when I was establishing the business, it was building the first house, the second... Of course, my dream then was to build 50 development projects. And later I saw people who were doing 400 to 500 units and asked myself how can they do that? Then I got to know and befriend other people, like Ciputra (the founder of property developer Ciputra Group), who designed and built a city. That became an inspiration for me.

My dream is to design a city in Indonesia. I hope the dream is not too far away.

There have been rumors you will be listing your company this year. Is this still on the table?

No, more likely in three years. There's a thought about listing the company in several countries. The first one is, of course, Australia, then Singapore. But to me this thing is not required for the company, because I want to make sure we fully understand what we are doing before we list it.

The company does not need to have an initial public offering for the sake of growing its business. To list it would be for our legacy, to allow the next generation to continue the business.

How much are you planning to raise?

I don't know the number yet, but I have something in my head. I'll let you know.

Are you looking for projects in other countries?

We want to focus on Australia, the United States and, of course, Indonesia.

How do you see the Indonesian market?

Indonesia is a big market for me, it is still an undiscovered country, and it has a huge young population, quite tech-savvy, with a capacity to grow digital.

There is also a great political progress, democracy. In fact, it is the third largest democratic country in the world. Friends that I meet, people who invest in China, Japan and some parts of Europe, are actually looking at Indonesia. I'm seeing a big shift, that's why we are here.

Are you planing any other projects in Indonesia, beside the Jakarta one?

Not at the moment. I want to start with Jakarta first. Thereis an offer in Surabaya, and I'm looking into it, but I'm not confident enough. I think Jakarta is a good place to start.

It's not only about developing a property project, I want to be part of Indonesia's development, participate in developing education, accelerating and revolutionizing the country.

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