Oral Histories of Phillip Island
Hello. I am Dr Andrea Cleland and today on Wednesday 29 September 2021 I am talking to David Jobe on Phillip Island in Victoria.
This interview is part of the Oral Histories of Phillip Island project, with the Phillip Island & District Historical Society.
A Andrea Cleland, interviewer
D: David Jobe, interviewee
[The interview was held in a meeting room at PICAL in Cowes due to COVID restrictions].
A ; Welcome David
D: Thank you Andrea
A: Just to start, can you just tell me when and where you were born and just a little bit about your early childhood and family?
D: I was born at Warley Hospital in Cowes, in 1970.
Mum and dad were very busy at the time running the Continental. My earliest memories are of living upstairs in the flat. It was a lovely spot upstairs on the Esplanade overlooking the bay. My little sister Jeni was two years younger and the two of us would spend a lot of time up there while mum and dad were working.
Probably the most significant thing that happened to us was in 1974 – mum and dad would have told you about the fire in their interview. My memory is of dad sitting down at the end of my bed and having a good long chat to me about how everything was going to be OK, which I think annoyed mum because she was running around trying to get all their possessions out of the flat. Later I remember standing on the Esplanade with mum and dad watching the flames and the fire fighters silhouetted on the upper level as they tried to put it out. That was a huge setback for the family.
A: Very traumatic. I had the privilege of interviewing your parents, Rhonda and Keith, and yes they spoke very much in the present about that particularly traumatic incident.
D: The smell of smoke still upsets mum.
A: And so you lived at the Conti, did you live elsewhere in Cowes afterwards?
D: After the fire, we moved between a few different places in Cowes until we came back to the flat after it was rebuilt in 1976. I went to Cowes Primary School. As I got older and the end of primary school approached, I remember dad told me he had enrolled me in boarding school, which I wasn’t too thrilled about, but Newhaven College opened up in 1980 and I went there in 1982.
D: What grade would that have been?
A: Year 7.
A: So you started high school out at the Old Boy’s Home Road?
D: Yes, Boys’ Home Road.
A: That would have been amazing to be in a new school.
D: Yes, it’s a testament to the community that the school was even there. It was run on a shoestring, little more than a few portables in a muddy paddock. My first classroom was a sixty-year-old portable which had been sourced from another school for the cost of removal.
There were just 180 students.Year 10 had to have their classes in the old Boys’ Home chapel because there was no room anywhere else. What it lacked in facilities though it made up for in other ways. At lunch time on hot days, one of our teachers would load as many of us as he could in the back of his brown station wagon and drive us all down the beach at Woolamai.
A: And you are now on the Board at Newhaven College, I believe?
D: Yes. Our children Harry and Kate are there. It’s nice how it turns full circle.
A: It’s amazing to see how it’s grown, even in the time my own child has been there.
So turning to talk more about business on Phillip Island. Can you tell me your memories of first becoming interested in the business community on Phillip Island?
David and sister Jeni check progress with mother Rhonda on the rebuild of the Continental after the fire
D: I really didn’t have any choice in the matter. I remember sitting down in the restaurant at the Conti with mum and dad, we were having our dinner. I think the receptionist had quit or something had happened, and mum and dad asked me if I would like to work in reception. I said no, not really, I would rather just concentrate on my homework. I started work that night.
Was it the old plug-in phone, I think your mum mentioned?
D: Yes, the old plug in phone. I can’t remember how old I was but we had a Sweda mechanical cash register there. I remember that I wasn’t as tall as it, I had to look up to reach the buttons. So, I couldn’t have been too old but it was a good experience, even though I wasn’t super excited about it at the beginning. I learnt a lot about relating with different people.
A: Did you see any early opportunities in the business with your parents as it was developing in the early days? Or did that come a bit later on?
D: The international tourism market was really beginning to take off and that was mainly group tourism. The coaches would come down every evening to watch the penguins, and that’s something that dad had been instrumental in the marketing of. I’m sure he told you lots of stories of that.
D: Including the penguins in New York, that was a great story.
D: That was really a time of change when the Conti was rebuilt after the fire. It was licenced for over 800 people on the two levels and sometimes we got to those numbers, it was a pretty hectic time.
A: You went off to the Air Force and then came back to more of a management role. Is that what happened at the Conti?
D: Yes, before that though I have to say thank you to the Rotary Club of Phillip Island. They sent me to Japan in 1988 on a youth exchange for 12 months which was a life-changing experience. I really appreciate that opportunity and I don’t often get to thank the Rotary Club so that was fantastic.
David’s Student identity card for Naruto High School in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, 1988
David's own collection
Also, the year prior the Rotary Club sent me off to Canberra to attend what is now called the National Youth Science Forum. That’s where I met my wife Jane when we were both 16. So, thank you Rotary.
A: Fantastic. So that helped shaped some of your ideas around business?
D: At that time, Japan’s economy was really ascendant and a lot of the group tourism that was coming down to the island was Japanese. They were really well-run, high-quality tours. Culturally, coming from the island, my year in Japan was a real eye-opener for me, in terms of experiencing such a different natural environment and a different way of thinking and doing things.
David as a Rotary Exchange Student in Japan, 1988
David's own collection
A: Fantastic. So you went on these trips and into the Air Force and then onto university?
D: In 1989, I joined the RAAF and went to the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra to study aerospace engineering as well as officer training. ADFA is a campus of the University of NSW and at that stage they didn’t offer the final years in aerospace engineering, so in 1991 I went to RAAF College at Point Cook and completed by degree at RMIT. That brought me back closer to the island and I was able to come down and catch up with mum and dad most weekends, so that was a nice time.
I also had the opportunity to do work experience over two summers at Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin) in Marietta, Georgia. Many years before, the then Charman of the board of Lockheed, Roy A. Anderson, was a guest in the Conti. I would have been about eight or nine at the time and I thought it would be a good idea to draw a picture of a Lockheed aircraft and give it to him. It must have made an impression because years later he remembered me and made my trips to the US possible.
I loved the aircraft and technology at Lockheed but my time in Georgia also made me realise though how lucky I was to be living in Australia.
In 1993, I was posted to RAAF Pearce in Western Australia for pilot training. We flew PC-9As, which were turbine-powered, two-seat aircraft and very nice to fly, and we got to do things like navigating while flying fast and low, formation flying and aerobatics. The course was very challenging, and I loved it, but it was also clear that I wasn’t the most naturally gifted pilot. The Chief Flying Instructor told me that he thought I flew like an engineer. I don’t believe he meant that as a compliment.
David in 2003 as a RAAF pilot, Pearce Base, Western Australia, standing in front of a PC9A aircraft he flew there.
David's own collection
After leaving Western Australia, I spent a short time in Canberra before coming back to the island in 1995 with Jane.
A: Were you married at the point?
A: When did you get married?
D: In 2002.
A: Fantastic. And how did you feel coming back to the island after being in the Air Force?
D: At that stage, the business was under stress so we were very busy. I didn’t have too much time to reflect. I spent huge number of hours in the business. Poor Jane was left a bit of an orphan sometimes. It was a pretty difficult time but it needed to be done.
A: Your dad and mum spoke about the economic crisis and the amount of debt, and how you helped really turned a lot of that around. Did you want to talk about what you contributed to the Conti at the point?
D: I learnt a lot working with dad and what I did was a continuation of what he was doing. We were working together at the time. I probably brought a bit more focus around the systems for the business and the reporting so we could understand exactly what was happening, and working on controlling costs and getting the business back to being profitable. It was never a highly profitable business; we were always sailing a bit close to the wind. But we always paid our entitlements and all our suppliers were fully paid.
One of the difficult things with running the business – the challenges – was the variation in demand. It was still very seasonal, and it was always very difficult to get enough good staff.
A: What are some of the key things that you did in your time at the Conti? How long were you managing the Conti.
D: From 1995 untilwe sold the lease in 2003.
One of the first things I ended up doing was to manage the design and construction of 15 new four-star guest rooms, overlooking the bay. These rooms replaced ten motel-style rooms mum and dad had built the year after they were married. Mum sees a nice symmetry here as the original ten rooms were critical in improving the business at the time, in response to changes in guest expectations. Now, 25-years later, we were doing the same thing again.
The new rooms increased accommodation income by around 50% the year they opened, mainly from domestic guests who were looking for a higher-end experience. This really improved the profitability of the business, and probably more importantly at that stage, our bank valuation.
Ferrari club booked into the Contiental
Trophies for the Ferrari club function at the Continental
The banks had been putting enormous pressure on dad, so getting a new bank valuation – it increased around 70% - meant that they were a lot more comfortable. Debt had been a huge issue since rebuilding after the fire, so this was a big step.
One of my other key roles was growing the conference business. We were able to grow that part of the business over 30% a year though the late 1990s. Conferences were much more profitable than serving meals and were really able to utilise the main Conti building to its full potential, which was what mum and dad had planned when they designed it twenty years before.
The Asian economic crisis of 1997 was a real challenge. Our international food and beverage income declined around 30% that year and continued to decline over the following years. The nature of the international group market was changing as well. What used to be a reasonably high-yield business had became more and more competitive and there was less and less margin in it.
The strategy of diversifying really became important at that time, with growth in the conference and domestic markets helping to offset what was happening with our international business.
By 1998, we must have been getting better at talking with banks because we were able to secure finance for a more ambitious refurbishment. We upgraded the façade, created an outdoor dining terrace on the Esplanade, expanded the conference centre and built a new upstairs lounge and bar with a fireplace overlooking the bay. We also refurbished most of the remaining guest rooms, which meant that we were also able to increase the Conti’s rating, which had been ‘two-and-a-half-stars’.
New façade of the Continental Hotel shortly after the refurbishment in 1998. David’s sister Jeni’s paintings can be seen on the walls of ‘Harry’s Restaurant’. David's own collection.
Promotional image from 1998 showing a table at ‘Harry’s Restaurant’ at the Continental with the beautiful view facing north across Western Port. David's own collection
At the end in 2001, mum and dad would have told you, we were recognised as the best four-star accommodation at the Victorian Tourism Awards.
A: Yes, they give me a copy of the article and they were very proud to show me their award. Was that a long journey for them to really reach a pinnacle?
D: It was and that was towards the end, two years before we sold the business and it was nice for mum and dad to have that bookend of all the years of work they put into the business.
A: What were some of the trends that you saw? We’ve spoken a little bit about it, and your parents talked about the earlier days of guests’ tea and coffee going into the rooms and instead of that social atmosphere, moving into guests wanting their own space. What were some of the things that you observed in your time around guests?
D: In terms of our domestic business, guest expectations were growing and changing, which was a challenge for us. We had a lot of work to do to bring the business and the guest rooms and the experience up to a point, that matched expectations as best we could. That was the start of the growth of online marketing and the Internet.I was hands-on tinkering and building websites and one of the earliest online booking systems, and that was all brand new and quite niche at that stage and now it’s all mainstream. So that was interesting to see where that began.
A: How did you learn about that? Was it trial and error, or was it through networking or through peers?
D: Actually Jane worked at Defence Communications at the time. She helped me code up a website for Netscape Navigator. It was all quite early days.
A: Fantastic. Did you want to talk about any of the international aspects that stood out in terms of engaging with the Penguin Parade or with the Grand Prix or any of that aspect?
D: At that time, the other emerging form of business – which is now quite common – was independent international travellers who would book their own experience. Before then, most of our internationals would come in a group because there was just no way they could book their own experience on Phillip Island from home. But with the rise of the internet, people were doing their own research and travelling independently. That was interesting and that was something that we could cater to.
We would work closely with Phillip Island Nature Parks and other local businesses at international trade shows.We recognised that to be successful we had to sell the island as a destination. Later, I was involved with Phillip Island and Gippsland Discovery Tourism which was created by Tourism Victoria to market the region.
A: Did you manage other hotels at the time or did you have other businesses?
D: I was flat out at the Conti. When we had big conferences, we worked collaboratively with the surrounding hotels. We had just over 50 four-star guest rooms but our conference space could seat more than 300. We would have some of our delegates accommodated in nearby hotels which was terrific for the island. We also worked with other local businesses, like the Grand Prix Circuit for drive day experiences for our corporate clients, and John Dickie at Bay Connections, now Wildlife Coast Cruises. Most of our conferences would end up on one of his boats at some stage.
A: Were there any particular incidents or challenges that stood out for you?
D: Staff was always difficult – to try and find enough motivated staff who were able to work. It was also difficult because a lot of our business was still international, focused on serving meals either before or after the Penguin Parade depending on the time of year. We had to gear up for a very high-level of activity over a short time window each evening. We didn’t have the continuity of work so that made it really difficult to give our staff enough hours so they could make a decent living, whilst still looking after our guests, and meeting their expectations, so that was always a challenge.
We also made the decision that we wouldn’t have Pokies. It was never questioned. Ethically, it’s not something we would do.
A: Do you have any good lobster dinner stories?
D: I can’t beat dad.
Asian style food sharing plate
A: Yes [laughs]. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about the Conti?
D: I’m really sure mum and dad have given you much better stories than I could (laughs).
A: Was it good to grow up in that environment looking back?
D: It was a very demanding business, so I probably didn’t see as much as mum and dad as perhaps they would have liked, and I would have liked. It was just how it was. It was a huge part of mum and dad’s life so I enjoyed working with them when I was older and learned a lot in the process.
A: Moving on to talking about your business that you developed – Southern Sustainable Developments (SSD). Can you tell me more about your business and how that came about including your focus on environmental sustainability?
D: I was working at the Conti and this was when in 1999, the median land value in Cowes was $32,000.
A: I wish it was that now.
D: In 2002, it increased to $75,500. That’s when we were approached about developing the farm. The farm was 48 hectares.
A: That’s at Seagrove.
D: At Seagrove, yes. It was within the town boundaries. It was zoned residential. So we had Greg Price, a local real estate agent – I work with him on the board now at Newhaven College – and a land development consultant come and sit down and explain how there was an opportunity. I think they were suggesting that perhaps the best way forward for the family was simply to sell the farm because we would have got a good price for it. But Jane and I thought about it a little bit and did some due diligence and reflected on it and thought: well that sounds a lot easier than running a hotel.
So we started a company, SSD. We entered into a development agreement with mum and dad. We borrowed money against our house that we just recently bought in Cowes to finance the company. It took us three years to get the planning permits.
A: Was it the Bass Coast Shire at the time?
D: Yes, it was the Bass Coast Shire.
A: Did you want to talk about that process, or what might have been good or bad points about that process?
D: It took a long time – three years – especially seeing as the land was already zoned residential. Dealing with local government always carries with it a degree of frustration.
A: Was it a relatively new type of project that you were trying to do, in terms of what the council was used to normally?
D: We wanted to, as far as we could, embrace sustainability. That was our goal.
A: And what do you see as the key parts of sustainable development?
D: Everything we did, we just asked ourselves a question: Is there a more sustainable way to do this? We ended up with almost every aspect of that development put together in a way that attempts to be as sustainable as possible. When we started off, we met with the Phillip Island Conservation Society and some other local groups to seek their input. The island is fortunate to have so much environmental knowledge and experience in the community. I thought we could do a better job if we listened to them. And [it’s] not typical for a developer to sit down…
A: …To sit down with your Conservation group.
D: I really wanted to get an understanding from their point of view of what we could do. We did that from the outset.
It was often a challenge in terms of getting approvals. For one thing, it took us almost two years to get approval for our street lights – our energy efficient street lighting. These were unheard of back then – now they are commonplace. We were refused by council; we were refused by the electrical network provider. The only way we could get them approved was under a pilot project and I had to sign a ‘memorandum of understanding’ to get them through both the regulator and council. That was a challenge. There was a lot that we did that was quite different to how things were typically done.
A: Can you talk about some of those key differences?
D: One thing that we’ve done is partner with Urban Landcare. When a resident settles on their lot, they get a twelve month membership that we’ll pay for with Urban Landcare. So that means an Urban Landcare officer will come out to their block, they will talk about how to garden sustainably and they will get a voucher for 30 plants from Barb Martin Bushbank. It’s a nice way to make those introductions and if only a proportion of those people go on to continue with their membership, well it’s a positive for sustainability on the island.
A: Fantastic. Your mum talked about how the estate was designed with the flow of the land, the streets. Can you talk about that at Seagrove? Were there originally wetlands?
D: There was a farm dam there. At the risk of sounding technical, there is something called ‘contour-sensitive urban design’ which is a fancy way of saying ‘well we’ll work with the shape of the land’. That’s why when you go up to Seagrove, you’ll notice the roads are undulating, they’ve got some curvature to them. That’s also around the aesthetic as well. I guess we were conscious of what we didn’t want to build. We didn’t want to build a straight up and down, Cranbourne type housing development. We wanted to build something that was sensitive to the character of the area.
(A comprehensive brochure produced for the development can be viewed here: file:///C:/Users/CHRIST~1/AppData/Local/Temp/brochure.pdf )
Seagrove Estate Master Plan overlaid onto an aerial photograph. David's own collection
The whole of the site was engineered to follow the contours of the land. On Settlement Road where the old farm dam was, we built a 23 million litre wetland. That was all designed for what’s called ‘water sensitive urban design’. That’s around naturally treating the storm water to remove pollutants before it enters Western Port. There is actually a whole treatment train with multiple steps throughout the estate.
Each home has to have a rainwater tank, so that’s the first step.
The second step is what we call ‘rain gardens’ which are like miniature wetlands integrated into the streetscape landscaping. There are over 90 of these located throughout Seagrove. When it rains, they fill up with water. They might fill up about 10 cm high or so and then they will slowly empty over a period and there’s plants in there that have been selected to naturally remove things like nitrogen and phosphorous. That will then connect to the underground stormwater network which will flow into the main wetland.
Rain garden on roadside, Seagrove., David's own collection
Seagrove Wetlands in 2007 before the trees grew and the houses were built.
David's own collection
Around the perimeter of the wetland, there are these very large underground concrete filter structures. They’ve got removable baskets in them so any large piece of rubbish should be able to be intercepted there and then the wetland plants will naturally remove the finer pollutants. If you get a big rain event, you will see the wetland fill up and then slowly empty over around 15 hours.
The overall system was modelled using software developed by the Cooperative Research Centre for Catchment Hydrology at Monash University and was designed to ensure stormwater is treated to Best Practice Environmental Management Guidelines developed by CSIRO before it reaches the bay.
Seagrove Wetlands in 2007 just after the wetlands plantings.
David's own collection
A: Were there developments like what you wanted to do, previously? Is this how you came about with some of the ideas or was it from your background that you wanted to move into that sustainable model? In other words, were there things that you had seen in other developments that you thought that’s really good or that’s really bad?
D: I was learning at that stage; this was the first one that we had done. I’d been running the hotel and I’d been in the Air Force. We partnered with a land development consultancy and landscape architects and they brought their ideas and we just asked the question at each stage, what is the best way to achieve a sustainable outcome? At that stage, no there weren’t any similar wetlands in the area.
A: There wasn’t anything comparable?
D: No. A lot of what we did was a first for the region. The wetland was a first; the street lighting. We replaced 800m of overhead powerlines along Settlement Road with underground power to help improve the views from Seagrove and to provide space for trees.
The pedestrian bridge across the Seagrove Wetlands in 2007, showing the overhead power lines along Settlement Road, which were placed underground as part of the development. David's own collection
The underground LPG gas system was another first. At that stage, our power was all being generated by brown coal, so electricity was very greenhouse gas intensive. LPG was therefore a less greenhouse gas intensive way of providing power. These days it isn’t anymore. That was 15 years ago.
A: Was there a focus on solar and orientation of where the housing would eventually be developed?
D: Yes. Part of the urban design was to ensure that all the lots had optimum solar access which means effectively they are aligned either east-west, or north-south. We went a step beyond that with the design guidelines. Again, I think that we were the first to introduce those on the island. We engaged an independent architectural firm and so when you buy a block of land at Seagrove, you have to submit your plan for approval. One of the requirements was a minimum area of glass facing north so homes will be naturally warmed in the cooler months, and an eave to exclude summer sun. So it’s all-around solar passive design. But these things really don’t cost our purchasers anymore because you have to have windows, you’re just putting some thought into which direction they face. It makes homes more comfortable to live in and more energy efficient.
A: Yes I think people were starting to consider a lot more of those elements at the time and I remember some of the first houses being built at Seagrove. It’s really lovely the way it slopes up and you’ve got the wetland area. What are some of your favourite features of the estate?
D: I’m really happy with the amount of revegetation we were able to do, the number of plants we were able to put in and what that’s done for the birdlife. So between the wetland, and Seagrove Park where we have got those old trees – and we deliberately put in big gardens around the trees so when they grow old and are full of hollows where birds nest, they can be allowed to remain there safely, as people are kept away from areas where limbs might drop.
The birds are fantastic. Before we started construction, we engaged Biosis to do a survey of our flora and fauna. They came up with 29 different bird species which were on site. We have been monitoring that since – I think we’re up to 67 different species; the most recently being a Great Egret which is a species of state conservation significance and also is featured in Seagrove’s logo and in two bronze sculptures at the entry to Seagrove Way. If anything, we have improved the outcome for birds so I’m really proud of that.
Great Egret bronze sculpture by Heather Ellis at entry to Seagrove Way
David's own collection
A: Has there been other positives that have come out of the estate?
D: The design guidelines have controls around not being able to plant environmental weeds so there was this whole education aspect to it as well. I think that’s been well received by a lot of people.
A: Do you think in the initial stages of when you were selling, that people understood where you wanted to go with it? Did you think people buying into the estate were on board with the goals you of what you wanted to achieve?
D: I think some were and others less so, and that’s not surprising. I think some people really appreciated it. We went out of our way. We’ve got signage in the parks that helps explains why things are designed the way they are, and much more detailed information online. Everything is designed to encourage people to engage around that. Obviously everyone is different so there are varying degrees of engagement but if we can move that conversation a little bit, I think that’s a good outcome.
The Seagrove wetland, 2007, showing the white netting used to protect the young wetlands plants from grazing by ducks
David's own collection
A: Did you have any key learnings from what you did at that estate to some of the current developments you are working on?
D: A lot of it, yes. We’re currently developing a 300-lot project at Officer and a lot of what we did for the first time at Seagrove, we are doing there as well. That’s actually the first project we’ve had independently certified for sustainability. There’s a process that looks at sustainability in six different domains and we’ve been able to be recognised in all six. We’re actually the only project in Cardinia Shire that’s reached that level of environmental certification, so that’s really positive. Many of those ideas are things that started on the island.
A: Wonderful. When you see the estate now, do you have a memory of what was there before?
D: Yes of course.
A: Can you talk a little bit about that if you are happy to? Did you spend some time growing up there?
D: We’ve lived on the farm since about 1980. Mum and dad are still there. I walk around the wetland. In my head will be the old dam and the paddocks. I used to walk our German Shepherd ‘Prince’ around there. I remember having my kids up on the big excavator just at the beginning of the construction process. It’s been quite a journey.
A: How do you feel about all these people living in that space? I know your mum, is quite proud, I think, that there’s houses and people in that space. How do you feel when you see all the houses and how it all comes together?
D: It’s nice and I think people appreciate it. It’s their home. The farm had some old trees on it which we worked really hard to preserve. There were always birds like rosellas on the farm but now there are a lot more birds. It has a special feel to it.
A: I love the parks there, they are really wonderful.
D: The parks cover 7.5 per cent of the total site. The benchmark is five so that’s 50 per cent more open space that you would typically have and that was around protecting those trees.
There was a lot of attention to detail in creating those spaces, with things like elevated boardwalks and the bridge over the wetland, the bronze Egret sculptures at the entry, the architecturally designed shelters and even solar powered barbeques.
Picnic shelter in one of the parks showing rooftop solar panels
David's own collection
A: Did that include the playgrounds or was that something you had to partner in with the council?
D: We built everything at our cost. There is a sign there that says ‘Brought to you by the council’ but not sure how that works! The playground is really my kids’ work. I shouldn’t have done that (laughs). “Pick, Harry and Kate. Which slide do you want?” “The biggest one of course!”
A: o they were involved?
D: Yes. That was good and so they had to test it. It’s really popular with families and it’s nice to see come Halloween, there’s a really nice feeling around the wetland.
Seagrove playground. David's own collection
A: Have you been involved in any other businesses on Phillip Island?
D: No, not since the Conti. No, when we started Seagrove I was approached to develop some land at Lyndhurst.
A: Yes, is that the house on the hill with the farm. There is a homestead? Sorry, keep going, I’m pretty sure I know the development.
D: Yes, the Rise at Lyndhurst. There was a big iconic Moreton Bay Fig.
A: And it still has the pathway leading up to it?
D: Yes. We designed the whole estate around that Moreton Bay Fig with one of the main roads specially aligned to create a view axis centred on it and terraced landscaping in the foreground. The project was over 300 home sites. I became involved through a recommendation from someone I was working with on Seagrove, so it was all word of mouth. We were introduced to another opportunity later down on the Peninsula at Hastings, and then another one at Narre Warren and now at Officer.
A: And is that through land becoming available that was previously a farm that may be used for residential?
D: Yes, so these are all infill sites. That is, they are not on the urban boundary, they’re filling in spaces between areas that have already been developed. And that’s important to us. We deliberately avoid contributing to urban sprawl.
(See more about Southern Sustainable Development here: https://www.ssdgroup.com.au )
A: In terms of the current business community, what do you think about some of the challenges they are currently facing?
D: Covid obviously looms large at the moment. That’s been very disruptive and difficult. It may also create opportunities with people moving down here from Melbourne and probably a greater appreciation of the ability to work remotely. That may end up becoming a catalyst for change on the island.
A: Do you feel there’s opportunities in the current economic climate for your business?
D: Our business is large-scale land development, so I hope not.
We have town boundaries. And at some point, the decision has to be made: how much is enough? What we did was develop within existing town boundaries and there are very few opportunities to do that on a significant scale that will allow [developers] to do the things that we do at Seagrove in terms of wetlands and parks and all the infrastructure. That is a challenge for the island to help keep those boundaries where they are and stop further encroachment.
A: So you wouldn’t want to see any further development?
D: No, I wouldn’t want to see the town boundaries moved out. Because once you do that, where do you stop?
A: Especially on a small island with such incredible wildlife.
D: That’s the beauty of the island – its environment and its character, and we want to preserve that.
From a housing perspective, the island is pretty unique in the proportion of private homes which are typically unoccupied – 60% according to the 2016 census, compared with the Victorian regional average of 16%.
What we saw in the late 1990s, early 2000s was the increase in land values provided a catalyst that enabled us to create a higher-quality subdivision at Seagrove.
A: I think the first home buyer grant also came in at that time and started to inflate prices.
D: Now prices have risen to another level, so there is a lot of older housing stock sitting on land which has become quite valuable. Perhaps increasing land values will be a new catalyst for a lot of those older typically unoccupied homes to be re-developed into new permanent homes? Done well, there may be an opportunity for the island to continue to meet demand for housing without outward pressure on town boundaries.
Many of those current unoccupied homes are also now being monetised with online platforms like Airbnb. That’s a challenge for neighbourhood amenity – with what amounts to small-scale commercial tourism operations located in residential-zoned areas. It also undermines the business case for new-build high-quality accommodation, which would be a great employer of young people on the island.
A: We might start talking about some of your memories of the island, as we go to the last part of the interview. What do you see as the most memorable changes to Phillip Island over your time living here?
D: When I think about the island, I think about the things that haven’t changed. I still enjoy the beach; I still enjoy the environment. Our community is growing. There are more places to go out now. There are more people running businesses that are very professional down here. But the main thing for me is what hasn’t changed.
A: What are the things that you love about the island?
D: I can walk out my front door and there will be a wallaby there. And I’ll go down the beach and there will be hooded plovers. Every now and then I will see a sea eagle go over. We have a beautiful coastline and I love watching the weather come through and the changes. The banksias near the beach. It’s got a beautiful feel to it and you can’t help having a sense of connection.
A: Do you have a favourite memory or story that you like to tell people? I’ll let you answer and then I’ve got a question around that.
D: Mum and dad would have done all those.
A: Oh, no no, it’s your story too. I guess a lot of your story here is about your family, isn’t it and how your grandfather has come and then your parents? Do you see your story tied to your family story here?
D: Our children are growing up here. Harry is in year 12 now and Kate is 16. They’ve got both sets of their grandparents here and that sense of connection is really important. I reflect on my time in Japan and that sense of family that was very strong that I experienced there, and to come back and have that here on the island makes me feel very lucky.
A: Do you have memories of your own grandparents?
D: Yes, they would tell me about how they started their own business Willoughy Catering from their home, after one of nan’s work colleagues at Kodak asked if they could prepare food for an upcoming event. They grew the business, and later they would cater for mayoral and vice-regal balls. Nan enjoyed telling the story of how she would always make a chicken sandwich for the then Victorian governor Sir Dallas Brooks as he was dining out at functions all the time and really just wanted some simple food.
Governor R.A. Dallas Brooks and Lady Violet Brooks.
From the collection of the Ringwood and District Historical Society, on the Victorian Collections website.
A: Where do you think your grandfather got his drive from? It’s an amazing and very resilient story where he seized the opportunities and kept working out any issues and I think maybe your parents are the same.
D: Dad would like to say, “turn a disadvantage into an advantage”. My grandfather had to leave his job in the dye mills. His eyesight was failing because of the chemicals they used.
They started a new business from scratch and built it up over time. When they saw opportunities, like the growing need for catered functions in Melbourne – which was in part due to the arrival of post-war migrants from Europe – they worked hard to make the most of them.
Mum and dad had more than their share of adversity, with the fire at the Conti and then record inflation in the mid-1970s just when they were rebuilding – they had to take out four mortgages to complete it and at one stage were paying 28% interest. But they worked very hard to get through. They also saw new opportunities like international tourism and conferences and had the vision to make them happen.
A: What are your hopes and concerns in terms of the future of Phillip Island?
D: We’ve talked a little bit about development and pressures on the environment. That’s so important. In terms of hope, there are some really positive things that are happening and there is, I think, a sense of importance being placed on sustainability and the environment so we’re seeing things like bandicoots being re-introduced. In terms of changes, the absence of foxes is huge and that’s really positive. That’s something we can all be really proud of. Challenges like climate change is something we will be talking about more and more and seeing the impacts of that on our wildlife and on our beaches so that’s a huge challenge.
A: I am going back a little bit, but when you developed Seagrove do you think you were ahead of your time in what you were trying to achieve, or do you think it was the right time for that development?
D: We did receive recognition at the time for many of the sustainability measures we put in place.In 2007, we were recognised in the Urban Development Institute of Australia Awards for Environmental Excellence.
Some of the things that we worked so hard to put in place, such as the energy-efficient street lighting, have now become standard. Others, like the gas, we would now do differently as things have changed.
When I walk around Seagrove now though, the best investment I think we made was the number of trees that we planted and have now started to mature. They’re so important.
A: I think your wife has had some involvement around conserving trees and the significant tree register?
D: Wow. You’ve done your homework. Jane’s sits on the Phillip Island Conservation Society and the tree register is one of her projects there. She’s now also on the Phillip Island Nature Parks Board. I have to do the right thing. Mainly I’m embracing sustainability so I don’t get in trouble when I go home!
A: It’s wonderful seeing the island and the amount of wildlife. We’ve had our block since the ´80s, we’ve seen it progressively change and it’s just beautiful. I think it’s amazing what has been done here.
Thank you very much. Was there any other stories or anything else that you wanted to share?
[51.11] No, no. Thank you.