RICH PICKINGS: Ten rules for a high-rise lifestyle
By James Thomson
Not every rich list member would nominate Mahatma Ghandi as his inspiration, and help put together a book based largely on the Indian leader’s philosophies.
But Maha Sinnathamby is not your average rich list member.
Ranked 39th on BRW’s Rich 200 list with a fortune of $820 million, Sinnathamby’s fortune is based on the creation of an entire region – the Greater Springfield masterplan community, located outside Brisbane. In the last 20 years, Sinnathamby and business partner Bob Sharpless have taken the project from a parcel of apparently unusable land to a mini city that has more than 23,000 residents, overcoming the usual property developer’s curse – little or no funds – several times.
But instead of celebrating his success with a party or a jet or a sportscar, Sinnathamby has marked the milestone by helping to publish a book called 'Stop Not Till the Goal is Reached'.
The book, written by Scottish author Karen McCreadie with Sinnathamby’s full co-operation, is a part biography, part business guide and part self-help manual.
At the core of the book are the 10 principles that Sinnathamby says he has based his life around. But interwoven is a biography (which, it must be said, portrays Sinnathamby in an extremely positive light) of his career.
The book can be hard to follow at times, as the narrative moves back and forth in time, with various incidents used to support the 10 life rules of the property mogul. But what comes through is a picture of an entrepreneur with three core beliefs drawn from his “idol and inspiration” Mahatma Ghandi: persistence, hard work and positivity.
“They are fundamental beliefs that I’ve had for 30 years,” Sinnathamby told SmartCompany.
“Ghandi changed the course of history. He had no money, had no army. He had the self-belief that righteousness and truth could win alone.”
Sinnathamby’s rules are:
1. Make one idea your life
2. Arise, awake and stop not till the goal
3. Work relentlessly
4. Be fearless – face the brutes!
5. The darkest night bring the brightest dawn
6. Pure in thought, word and deed
7. Character is established through a thousand stumbles
8. Everyone is great in their place
9. Create your own destiny
10. All power is within you
Sinnathamby says the last rule is most important. Above all else, he says his message it about self-belief and self-awareness.
“You’ve got to believe in yourself and you’ve got to trust yourself. You are your best friend. Trust your friend, believe in your friend.”
Beyond the 10 rules the book tells a quite remarkable story of a property developer who arrived in Australia with nothing, made a fortune, lost it and then took on the extraordinary project of building a new city.
Sinnathamby arrived in Australia in 1959 at the age of 20 to study engineering and the University of New South Wales. He was married by arrangement in Malaysia nine years later and after working as an engineer in his home country he decided to chance his arm and move to Perth in 1971, where one of his brothers was living.
It was a poorly timed move. Perth was in one of its mining busts and Sinnathamby was forced to contemplate going on the dole. He and a Swedish migrant sold rulers to hardware stores (the metric system had just been introduced, and the Swede had a supply of rulers with metric units on one side and imperial on the other) before Sinnathamby moved into selling real estate on commission. His wife and young family joined him in Perth in 1972, just months before Sinnathamby landed a job at the Perth Municipal Water Board.
But the real estate bug had bitten and Sinnathamby spent his weekends dragging his kids around Perth’s suburbs trading real estate. In 1976, he and a Water Board colleague set up a company called Murdoch Projects and entered the world of property development.
According the book, Murdoch Projects grew quickly, with its value increasing from $17,000 and $7 million. Sinnathamby and his partner were millionaires and he bought a house in the exclusive Perth suburb of Peppermint Grove.
But things started to go downhill in 1982 when Sinnathamby’s business partner moved overseas. A year later, with a recession brewing, he launched what would be a disastrous attempt to raise $14 million through a public trust. When a key investor pulled out of the capital raising, Sinnathamby was forced to hand the money raised back to investors and was left with debts of $42 million.
Today, Sinnathamby looks back and says it was his “first visit to hell”. He sold all assets held in his wife and children’s names and avoided bankruptcy. At the final creditors’ meeting, Sinnathamby promised creditors he would sell his family home for $170,000 and give them $100,000, but pleaded for $70,000 so he could start again. Creditors, who received just 10 cents in the dollar, agreed to the deal.
Looking back, Sinnathamby says he was proud he “fought the battle all the way” and did not simply declare bankruptcy and walk away. He says he was deeply hurt by the episode, but determined to start again.
“I have a very strong philosophy that you never give up and when you fall down you have to pick yourself up. Because it is you and you alone that matters.”
Sinnathamby was finished in Perth and in 1984 he arrived in Brisbane with new business partner, a young engineer named Bob Sharpless.
Sinnathamby, inspired by master plan residential communities he had seen overseas, went on the hunt for a big, dramatic project. When a parcel of old forestry land outside of Brisbane came up for sale in 1991, Sinnathamby’s vision for a city began to develop. Eventually, Sinnathamby acquired the 10,771 hectare site for less than $8 million.
Sinnathamby happily admits the deal went against the better judgement of his business partner, who shared the market’s view that the land was unviable for residential development. His wife even broke down in tears at seeing the land, which Sinnathamby agrees was “desolate” when be bought it.
“Not one person believe in the project at all. Between the business groups, the councils, the state government and the federal government, not one person believed.”
The path to turning that parcel of land into the Greater Springfield was one Sinnathamby describes as “all-out war”.
Not only did Sinnathamby have to tread the property developer’s eternal tightrope of funding the staged development, but he also had to negotiate a planning process so involved that it required legislation to be passed by the Queensland parliament. Sinnathamby also had to contend with a highly-critical report on ABC Television’s 7:30 Report which raised allegations (subsequently found to be baseless) about political donations made by Sinnathamby.
He then had to endure a “second visit to hell” in 1999.
“Within six years of starting, the economy collapsed again,” Sinnathamby says. “We owed the banks $9 million, we hadn’t paid interest in 15 months and then the bank gave us 30 days to pay back the loan.”
A deal with Delfin eventually saved the project, but only after two months where collapse seemed inevitable.
“That was my second visit to hell. It’s a difficult journey. You just have to have the stamina and the strength of mind.”
Greater Springfield is now home to more than 23,000 residents, boasts its own education and health precincts and is due to be connected to Brisbane by rail next year.
Despite his success, Simmathamby says he continues to get up at 4am every morning and credits a very supportive wife and family for his success.
“They know I’m mad,” he laughs, before correcting himself.
“Well, not mad. Half mad.”
Maybe, like most great entrepreneurs, Sinnathamby is a bit mad. But it’s a madness that’s he channelled into energy and positivity – and a great big fortune.
James Thomson is a former editor of BRW’s Rich 200 and the publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany.