Harry Triguboff

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Billionaire builder Harry Triguboff has done more than anyone to shape the face of Sydney. So it's a shame that his buildings are often so ugly.

"It's pretty awful stuff," one former NSW premier told The Power Index, "with wind tunnels, dark corners and pocket-sized open space, [citing a recent South Sydney development], but Harry builds what people want to buy, which is small apartments. The average household in Sydney nowadays is 1.8 people."

And without Triguboff, Sydney would have even less affordable housing, says another ex-premier, Bob Carr (who's also no great fan).

Over the past 4½ decades, Triguboff's Meriton Group has put up 55,000 apartments in the CBD and surrounding suburbs, including Sydney's highest residential building, the 74-storey World Tower, and helped cure the city's obsession with the ¼ acre block.

Unlike most property developers, Triguboff buys in slumps, sells in booms, and builds in all economic weather. And it has made him into the nation's fifth richest person, with an estimated fortune of $4.2 billion

"Build it and they will come", has always been his motto, and if buyers don't come when the units are ready, he rents them out until they arrive. This allows him to dive into the market while others hang back, because he never borrows from banks and never needs to sell. "Everybody knows Harry Triguboff," says his general manager Peter Spira, "We don't muck about".

Triguboff often complains he can't persuade enough councils to give him permission for his projects, and says he would love to build more units than he does. But he's now selling or building in suburbs as far apart as Bondi, Gordon, Epping, Arncliffe and Warriewood.

Triguboff is a knockabout, old-school developer who gives money to political parties and expects help in return. Over the past dozen years he has handed out between $1.1 million and $1.6 million to needy NSW politicians, with more than half to Labor, whose hands have been on the levers of power. At federal level he has (not surprisingly) favoured the Liberals, who have also been in the driving seat. 

Whether this has helped him get results or not — and Paul Keating once said NSW planning ministers become the "Mayor for Triguboff" — Harry has certainly had access to NSW premiers.

He complained regularly to Morris Iemma about Frank Sartor not coming to his aid, and moaned just as frequently to Kristina Keneally about Sydney's lord mayor, Clover Moore. He even asked Kevin Rudd, when he was PM, to set up a commission of inquiry into Moore and the City of Sydney.

"He's a whinger," says one former NSW Labor minister. "He complains about any politician who doesn't give him what he wants."

Triguboff complained to Bob Carr that Sydney has too many parks and too many forests. And he once tried to pressure the premier into opening up Sydney's national parks for housing development.

That proved to be beyond his powers, but he's a master at using the media to pile on pressure. And he does get his way most of the time, despite concerted opposition from councils, community groups and local residents.

"Ugly, horrible, little boxes" was one comment on a recent development in Warriewood, on Sydney's northern beaches, which was slammed by the local Pittwater Council and drew hundreds of objections. 

"In complete opposition to the greenbelt, walkways, wetlands, flora and fauna which currently exists," was another verdict on the plan for Meriton to build 550 units in 16 blocks, up to five storeys high, in a medium-density area.

Yet Triguboff still got his way. Or mostly. After being called in for decision by Iemma's Labor government, the project was approved by the Planning Assessment Commission, in slightly scaled-down form.

The local state MP described this decision as an "insult". The local mayor declared that the development should have been "rejected outright".

But Triguboff shrugs his shoulders and moves on, arguing that Sydney needs to get real about higher-density housing so it can grow.

Born in China to Russian Jewish parents (who fled Communism during the Bolshevik revolution, then fled again in 1947 before Mao Zedong took over), Harry Triguboff went to Sydney's posh Scots College, before studying textile design in England. He then went into the carpet business in Israel and South Africa, before coming back to Sydney in 1960, where he drove taxis, owned a milk run and sold real estate.

In 1963, he bought a block of land in Tempe and threw up eight apartments. Five years later he built another 18 units in Meriton Street, Gladesville, and started the empire that bears the name.

Four decades later, he still visits his building sites every week to check on progress. If you're a Sydneysider, you've probably seen him driving there in one of his three big Bentleys: Hot 1, Hot 2 and Oscar 1 (his middle name).

In addition to his power to shape the face of Sydney, Triguboff is also extremely influential in the Jewish community, where the multi-billionaire is known as a generous donor and benefactor to schools, medical research, religious groups and numerous projects in the state of Israel.