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He said Michael, if you take care of the quality of the product, money will take care of itself. If you don't focus on the money and costs, and just deal with the fabulous design, in the right locations, beautifully considered and put together, people will pay for it.

Episode 1

How to develop the world’s best residential buildings, befriend council and cry tears of joy.

Michael Grant | Founder | Cornerstone Property Group
This episode features Michael Grant. Michael established Cornerstone property group in 1994, and his driven and detailed approach has seen it create an admirable track record of development success, with more than 60 projects completed over the last two decades valued at over $2B. Specialising in mixed-use projects in Sydney’s City Fringe and Northern Beaches area, Cornerstone’s key past projects have included multi award winning brands such as Cleveland & Co in Redfern and the Griffiths Teas building and No. 1 Lacey Street heritage restorations in Surry Hills. Cornerstone is building an enviable reputation for the adaptive re-use of existing buildings with a genuine passion for iconic heritage buildings which they creatively and meticulously refurbish into prestige living and working spaces tailor-made for the 21st Century. The simple vision at Cornerstone is to challenge convention, to transform the urban footprint and change the way people live and work. In this interview Michael provides his insights on how to build productive and lasting relationships with architects, council and purchasers as well as tips on creating and marketing the world’s most awarded buildings. Enjoy.

Anthony Denman: Michael, welcome to the Property Marketing Podcast.

Michael Grant: Thank you, Anthony.

Anthony Denman: How did you get started?

Michael Grant: I was an electrician in a previous life. I worked in a family business, and I had, at the age of probably 18/19, I finished my apprenticeship, left school in year 10. Finished my apprenticeship. I wanted to take over the family business, but my mother wouldn’t let me. She sent me overseas. I went overseas. I came back.

Anthony Denman: So you enjoyed being an electrician?

Michael Grant: Look, honestly, it was-

Anthony Denman: I can’t imagine you-

Michael Grant: I look back now-

Anthony Denman: I can’t imagine you as an electrician.

Michael Grant: I look back now, and I think it was a great learning curve for … yeah, as an electrician, you’re generally the first person on a building site because you’re doing the disconnection when people demolish things. You put conduits in every slab and every pore. You put conduits or wires behind walls. They come and they paint, then you put the plates with the lights on. You’re the last to leave when you turn the power on, so if you’re a conscientious observer of the building process, it gives you a great-

Anthony Denman: So you’re an electrician on building sites, not so much walking and fixing the light bulbs?

Michael Grant: No, my father did a lot of construction related stuff for the eastern suburbs, for lots and lots of homes. And then I went overseas a third time. I came back, and my mother still said, “You not understanding, you need to have your own business, you shouldn’t run your father’s.” And I never understood at the time, to be honest, and it probably took me 15 years until after that time, when I’d actually been, finished my electrical business and I’d actually started my property business, took mum overseas, and we had a long chat about a whole range of things.

Michael Grant: So, look, it was an incredible grounding. I went from no staff to 40 staff fairly quickly. I had an incredible good fortune. My father had given me such an amazing foundation of hard work. Dad had the most extraordinary amount of energy, drive, commitment to, if something didn’t work, he’d fix it again, didn’t work, he’d fix it again. And that also was a fabulous, interesting foundation to which to build any career or any business career because it wasn’t … I got out of bed early. I went to bed late. Lot of traits I got from my father, and I just never took no for an answer, which was I’d had for him my entire life growing up as a kid. So I had-

Anthony Denman: Also integrity, right?

Michael Grant: Dad, today, he’s still alive, which is fabulous, between the two of them, I had this really interesting dynamic of this incredible rock and foundation of hard work, never say never, do everything with 100% of the best of your ability, to a mother that was incredibly creative, that obviously-

Anthony Denman: Wow. Yeah. Okay.

Michael Grant: … put a lot of creativity into the later part of-

Anthony Denman: So you got a healthy dose of both.

Michael Grant: I got a really healthy dose of both, so I was really very lucky, and then I started doing a lot of … eventually, I took the view that they weren’t going to accept the theory that I should be taking over the business. I must set up my own business. I then started doing my work for a company called Mainbrace Construction.

Anthony Denman: So 1994, is that-

Michael Grant: Oh now I’m back into 19 … probably I started 1994 and probably now into early 80s.

Anthony Denman: Right.

Michael Grant: So then for 10 years, I went from no staff to 40 staff and did a lot of work for Mainbrace, Buildcorp, Principally Mainbrace, who’s a big, mid-size contractors, they now build most of my buildings, have gone from a-

Anthony Denman: So you mean electrical…

Michael Grant: Electrical contractor.

Anthony Denman: Oh, so you did start out as an electrial business of your own?

Michael Grant: I started as an election-

Anthony Denman: All right. What was the name of that?

Michael Grant: It was just called Grant Group, and it was all very high-tech. So I did that for 10/15 years.

Anthony Denman: Wow, you had an electrical business with 40 odd staff, and-

Michael Grant: And then I had a lot of work, did a lot of work, and I changed from doing a lot of residential flats to doing a lot of commercial office, retail stuff, Mainbrace did a lot of work for Woolies, Coles, a lot of commercial office buildings. So I went from, I look back and I think, God, I don’t know how I survived, but yeah that’s when I did the seven day a week, 16 hour day thing, like my father had done, to be honest. Because that’s just the way, you rolled your sleeves up. So I did that from my early 20’s, for 10 to 12 years.

Anthony Denman: That’s a fair pivot. A solid electrical contracting business-

Michael Grant: And I was making good money, was a good business.

Anthony Denman: 40 people, making money, to pivot into project marketing, or development.

Michael Grant: Well I had always had much more of a love for art and architecture, probably than crawling under floors and in ceilings.

Anthony Denman: Totally, right.

Michael Grant: My mother was an amazing painter and sculpture, sorry, still is an amazing painter and sculptor. She did a lot of stuff with some very interesting people. So I had this great love of architecture and buildings.

Anthony Denman: Which is so evident. I’m got to say, for those of you listening, they can’t see what we can see, amazing office. Just sculpted space, really amazing, beautiful artwork and furniture and styling. And just everything’s been considered to the finest detail, and we’re sitting here in this wonderful light filled boardroom, overlooking the ocean, the ocean baths, which Michael swims in every morning. On this beautiful day in Sydney and you really get a sense of that.

Michael Grant: Thank you.

Anthony Denman: Just by walking into this space.

Michael Grant: Yes, I was lucky, I was working doing some electrical work for a developer on the norther beaches called John Taylor, and I was doing a block of 12/15 apartments for him, just being a humble electrician. And I said, John, maybe there’s a better way, why are you using that kitchen bench, what about the stones wrong, the windows are wrong. And he said, if you want to do something, why don’t we find something to do together. I then went out and found a little block of what was at the time, it was a dual occupancy. So my very first thing was a project in Greenwich I did. Managed there, I dare I say it won a medium density award-

Anthony Denman: Did you really?

Michael Grant: I did.

Anthony Denman: Crazy. That was fun.

Michael Grant: And we did a little block, we went from doing a block of two, to a block of four, to a block of six.

Anthony Denman: It’s a pretty common story isn’t it? Building a business from the ground up?

Michael Grant: Well I was really lucky because it was, he was a really quite innately conservative English guy, and he was very kind about it, he said, how much have you got? I said I could probably put $50000 together. He said, well I’ll put in $150, we’ll call that the equity, and I’ll lend the rest of the money. So we didn’t go to a bank, he had a fair bit of dough. And the first three or four were very successful. And then, we ended up doing a block of 15-

Anthony Denman: But just on that, even that’s interesting. A lot of people look at, people like yourself, you’ve been successful doing their right thing, but in hindsight, when you look back on your career, you couldn’t have done it on your own. There’s always a tribe of really good people around you.

Michael Grant: Well I’ve been blessed that from there I probably went on to have, most people have one mentor in their life, I did a lot of stuff with a guy called Bill James, who was a founder of Flight Center, I’m still in partnership with a few buildings today, with Bill, some 25 years later. And he was an extraordinary, I mean he floated Flight Center, was one of the original three founders. So we did a lot with him, I did a lot of stuff with a guy called Gary Teak who was the founding family of Franklins

Anthony Denman: So they mentored you on an entrepreneurial level

Michael Grant: Well they probably, Bill actually mentored me on, if you’re lucky enough to have success, have a good time. He’d travel the world and part of my great love for travel came out of Bill, because he’d traveled the world extensively. Gary had built a $4 billion private family fortune, and for him it was more about, he just gave me incredible rules of how, do quiet things, in a quiet and humble way. To be rich is fabulous, but to be rich and honest is perfection.

Anthony Denman: How valuable is that, that lesson in humility, seriously?

Michael Grant: And if you saw Gary today, I had coffee with him, luckily enough not long ago, he’s just finished a billion dollar building, it’s one of many things he’s got, he’s one of Australia’s wealthiest people and no one knows. He’s an absolute champion. But he was really instrumental, probably in the business sense.

Anthony Denman: Keeps you grounded right?

Michael Grant: Keep me incredible grounded, but he really gave me a lot of flexibility and control. We’d have problems, I’d go to him and say Gary we’ve got this problem, he would never answer the question, he said if I need to answer a question, I don’t need you. So if you have a crash of the Titanic into the iceberg, you’re the skipper. So I did a lot of stuff with Gary in building, as I started my property business, and I went from doing blocks of two and three, to a block of 15, block of 27, block of 10, block of 14, block of 20, Principally in the Northern Beaches.

Anthony Denman: Whilst the electrical business?

Michael Grant: I still run an electrical business. I didn’t give the electrical away until probably, honestly, 10 years ago.

Anthony Denman: Really?

Michael Grant: So I had a guy that worked for me for 20 years, who I tried to sell it to, first I tried to give it to him. And I don’t think he ever had a day off in 20 years, he never lost money on a job. A guy called Greg Butler, absolute champion fellow. So then I was lucky-

Anthony Denman: Is it still called Grant’s?

Michael Grant: He did, he kept the name, it made no sense to me either. He’s still going, I haven’t seen him for a while. But we then did a lot of, I started doing some industrials, some bulky goods, some commercial office, in the back end of the late 90’s. I was then very lucky, I did an apartment project called Rockpool, which…

Anthony Denman: As that your first major, class it as major project?

Michael Grant: It was the first, I had probably done seven or eight things before that were of the same scale and magnitude, blocks of 20, but in terms of an architectural iconic project with an iconic architect, named Alex Popov, it was probably uniquely the first. And I started that probably, it was a rezoning, in mid 90’s.

Anthony Denman: I’m interested in that, because you were so interested in architecture and mentioned prior to getting this thing started that you had just been on these world trips with some of the biggest names in the architectural world, certainly within Australia. So how did that feel for you, up until that point, having this dream to work with these great minds, how did you put that relationship together?

Michael Grant: Honestly, I was doing electrical work at the time for Vogue Magazine, the CEO and Managing Director of Vogue was a women called Eileen Co, and she was building a new house in Lane Cove, which Alex was the architect on. So Eileen then met, Alex on site, one day on site, in a meeting, while I’m drilling holes and running wires-

Anthony Denman: Because he wasn’t noted to doing a lot of projects.

Michael Grant: No he’d done a lot of houses, this was his first foray into apartments.

Anthony Denman: Was his first one?

Michael Grant: Yeah.

Anthony Denman: Wow.

Michael Grant: And then, we sort of became, I wouldn’t say friend, we’re very good friends today, but I then approached him and said, I’d finished maybe five little projects in the Northern Beaches, two at Dee Why two at Mona Vale they’re all architecturally very substantial. I used a Melbourne architectural practice called Billard Leece, I flew to Melbourne because I thought Melbourne architects were better than Sydney, so bought them up-

Anthony Denman: Do you still?

Michael Grant: I’m still, they still do some work for me, we’re very good friends.

Anthony Denman: And you still feel like Melbourne architects are better?

Michael Grant: Yes. And I think Sydney has really changed on that, probably the last 10 years. But certainly in the 90’s.

Anthony Denman: Lack of sophistication right?

Michael Grant: Yeah, I think Melbourne faces much more of an interesting, well very different cities.

Anthony Denman: But even just the idea, the notion of bringing in a brand name architect, was quite revolutionary, at the time, right?

Michael Grant: Well I went to my partner, I said, look I think we’ll get a 10% uplift in the rate. We’ve broken records in ever project we’ve done, everyone said, you won’t get more than $180000 or $200000 for an apartment at the time, we were getting 320. When we get to Rockpool, you won’t get more than 400, we got 800. And that was a combination of, A, some good early marketing-

Anthony Denman: In terms of, you talk about marketing, good marketing is about compelling storytelling, with a genuine truth behind it. And I guess, and very different of the way most developers think right? You just FSR, get as many units on as we can, minimize risk, don’t spend much money. But the whole notion of thinking about that, turning that upside down really-

Michael Grant: Well to be honest, Alex was partly instrumental in that in a very early stage in my career, because he said to me very early on, even before we had lodged a DA, we’d get a rezoned first. He said Michael, if you take care of the quality of the product, money will take care of itself. If you don’t focus on the money and costs, and just deal with the fabulous design, in the right locations, beautifully considered and put together, money will, people will pay for it. In particular the markets that you’re looking at. So then Alex and I started this fabulous-

Anthony Denman: You must have had a sense of that, because you kind of changing the way things are done, to take that approach.

Michael Grant: As I said, I was lucky I had an incredibly creative family, my dad had built 10 boats, so in his own way he was equally, well three or four boats, sorry. He was equally as creative as mum, in a different way, in terms of how he could use his hands. My elder brother particularly has this most extraordinary business, had a little changed the event industry in Australia. So I looked at what he was doing in events and how he would present things, and to me marketing starts with presentation. How do you sell any idea, whether it be a function for 1000 people, or an apartment. And then we just made sure that every decision we made, in the design journey, in the planning approach, in the construction approach, was based upon the simple principle, how do we make this the most extraordinary product and project, for the people that are going to … a simple thing was easy to say hard to do, you want to change the way people live and perceive what quality space is.

Michael Grant: When we finished that project, we had a women that actually bought off the plan, which was, at the time, in the 90’s, wasn’t as prevalent as it is today, buying off the plan. Where the Asian crisis in ’98, we went to the market. Who said, well I’ve actually lived here now, the way the light comes through the front and the back, it’s changed how I … I feel happier, I feel … and to me that was more important than any money I made, to be honest.

Anthony Denman: That’s beautiful. And that’s, as your business, that you’re positioning too right? Which is changing the way people live.

Michael Grant: We did a lot of residential early and the commercial’s taken, we were then lucky that Alex, really in so many ways took me on, he sent me around the world, the 10 things that changed his life.

Anthony Denman: The 10 things?

Michael Grant: In terms of architecture.

Anthony Denman: That changed his life, wow.

Michael Grant: That he thought were the founding principles for how he approached architecture, urban design, interiors.

Anthony Denman: Can you remember the 10?

Michael Grant: Yeah, very clearly. I took my mother. I went to mum and said I’ve got this amazing tour, I’m flying into Russia. So he was married to Jorn Utzon’s daughter. So he studied with Utzon, he painted with Picasso.

Anthony Denman: Wow.

Michael Grant: So his main, great architects were, he loved Corbusier, he loved Louis Kahn, he obviously loved Utzon’s work. He loved Mies van der Rohe’s work, he loves Gaudi’s work. So he puts together this example of Utzon’s work, Mies van der Rohe, Corb’s work, and I went for five weeks, just with my mother, looking at things. And I had to come back … some were to do with color, shape, bulk, urban planning, landscape. He didn’t tell me what he thought was the one takeaway message, but he wanted me to go look at them first, then come back and tell him what my take was

Anthony Denman: That’s so crazy, man.

Michael Grant: It was extraordinary.

Anthony Denman: Seriously. I mean who needs an architectural degree when you get that. That’s amazing.

Michael Grant: So I was lucky. And this is in very early in my career, to be honest, in terms of architecture

Anthony Denman: Do you have architecture, apart from that, is there any architectural training in your resume?

Michael Grant: No. I’m frustrating the architects, I drive them insane. But I went in to some of Utzon’s great church in Copenhagen, called Bagsvaerd. The way the curves of the concrete went, and the way the light came in, so I sort of sat there with my mother, thinking, what do you think Alex would say, what he saw, because he’s very ethereal as well. So we then went to this field, his Kingo Houses and look to how the landscape, and the houses of the courtyards went. And then we came back, and then had lunch, and then had the download as to what I saw. He told me what he saw, I didn’t always see what he saw, and he didn’t see what I saw.

Anthony Denman: Did you take notes and stuff?

Michael Grant: I took lots of photos, I’ve got a very good head for remembering

Anthony Denman: And so you just turned up a lunch with-

Michael Grant: and I said Al, in terms of this first place I saw this, in terms of this place I saw that.

Anthony Denman: Right. How did you go, what sort of marks?

Michael Grant: I probably got half. I got a few things that he didn’t see.

Anthony Denman: Oh really?

Michael Grant: Yeah, and then so-

Anthony Denman: That would have been quite interesting.

Michael Grant: Which was great. I was really, at the same time I was doing a lot of work with Billard Leece out of Melbourne, who were doing 80% of my work, this guy called Ron Billard and David Leece own that business. They’ve been in business for, God 30 years. And Ron, I did a lot of traveling with Dave and Ron in the early 2000, particularly around through America, looking at a lot of commercial projects. And the same thing, we would just go, we would sit, we would walk, we would look. We would look at how people interact and use the space, we would love how, where the light had come from, or where the wind had come from. A lot of things that we could…

Anthony Denman: So observation I guess that-

Michael Grant: Just observation. Yeah.

Anthony Denman: So that’s your main lesson there?

Michael Grant: Well to me, I had this great benefit of having incredibly interested architects that were very clever, that were lucky enough to want to put time into me. And honestly, so Alex and David and Ron were very interesting in my early architectural journey, and totally different. Ron had a very strong planning, methodical approach. Alex was much more, obviously creative, incredibly creativity and doing very luxury houses. David and Ron come out of Darryl Jackson’s office, and he was this great mix between Ron and Alex. He was sort of in between, more on the creative side, not that Ron’s not creative, but in this great journey between the three of them. So I said, honestly, I had four or five years just traveling three times a year with them, looking at new things and different ideas. And then when I started to do Casba with Adam Haddow, who has been-

Anthony Denman: Yeah because I think, would you say that was a-

Michael Grant: It was a really kick up in terms of the size of the projects or the quality of the projects. Everything had been then sort of $10/$15 million stuff. That’s sort of becoming $80/$100 million stuff. And I wanted to still use Ron and Dave because I’ve been very, very loyal to those who have been loyal to me. Because you get out of life what you put in, and they put a lot in. So I had this great, already this sort of pseudo architectural mentorship between the three of those boys. And then Adam came along, and Adam and I, we’ve had the most fabulous relationship for 10 years.

Anthony Denman: Adam Haddow of SJB?

Michael Grant: SJB, yeah. Adam came out of Melbourne originally. So I had wanted to work with Adam for a while, he’d approached me and done some different things. And at the same time as doing a lot of work with Iain Halliday from BKH.

Anthony Denman: Yeah.

Michael Grant: Who also, to be honest, has been incredibly guiding, put a huge amount of time in to me, in relation to just interior architecture, in relation to, because a lot of architects want to make the building look fabulous outside, but you should really live inside, and the building outside respond to the inside architecture. In terms of window openings, and a lot of people think the fenestration is too messy. So I did Casba with Iain, so he did the interiors, interior architecture. SJB and Billard Leece worked in collaborative sets together. We were lucky enough that we won actually The World’s Best Building. We went to the awards

Anthony Denman: What an achievement.

Michael Grant: Yeah, it was. I still can’t quite workout how we, but that’s beside the point. But we won the UDIA President’s … sorry, it won, I think it’s won 15/20 awards so far. And it was really-

Anthony Denman: Where did the name come from, Casba?

Michael Grant: The pitch was, there was Winning’s families old, for 100 years it was their main trading store. They were talking to three developers, and I had just come back from Morocco on one of my interesting sojourn’s of fun, And to me Casba-

Anthony Denman: It wasn’t a Clash song?

Michael Grant: No it wasn’t a Clash song. It was really a mixture of how do I take the great benefits of Northern Africa, and Southern Spain, matching Seville and the courtyard spaces and outdoor living spaces, into Sydney, which I think was really poorly done.

Anthony Denman: How does that happen? How do you arrive at a thought like that, seriously?

Michael Grant: I sort of pitched it to the Winning’s team, I said, look, to be honest, your great trade … so they wanted to stay there so it was a mixed use project, we had to build them a new store of 1500 meters. In the end they went with us because they like the abstract nature of the idea. And looking back-

Anthony Denman: How was that idea born?

Michael Grant: Well it was just a combination, I think when you’re lucky enough to spend a lot of time away-

Anthony Denman: Yeah, Northern Africa meets-

Michael Grant: I think with the marketing, it was very much about Northern African collides with Southern Spain. So I put all tiled floors, all massively oversized balcony’s, massive daybeds, curtains on daybeds. We had vaulted ceilings, which was a very subtle play on where we have come from. And Iain did an extraordinary job on the interior architecture. And then between David and Adam, we had this beautiful, simple raw brick that we wanted to … everything to me at the time was glass and glass, and metal, it’s a train wreck I think all through Rosebery and what’s happened through all those Suburbs there’s very few good buildings there.

Anthony Denman: Yeah.

Michael Grant: So we wanted a building that actually looked like it had been there for 20 years when it was finished.

Anthony Denman: Yeah, stand the test of time.

Michael Grant: So we just said, that we want, one thing that Alex taught me very early on, the great Mies van der Rohe, use one product, use it really well. So it was one brick, we did some recycling with some bricks, and the thing was very much founded on, a brick foundation, brick wall, principally one color, beautiful landscaping. So it just developed, I had one idea, Adam had a good idea, David Leece had a good idea. Iain Halliday threw something different in. So it was this great melting pot of you know…

Michael Grant: Look, at the time, I have to say, all three of them were very capable practices, they didn’t necessarily want to be in a collaboration, and would have rather done the work by themselves. And that does have challenges, because it has challenges about who documents what, who’s … but when took all the ego out of it, because honestly none of those guys have, they’ve got healthy … they should have healthy opinions of what they can achieve and they’ve got great practices. But it wasn’t born on well my idea is better than your idea, it was like they would leave everything at the door, how do we make it really simply, how do we make better.

Michael Grant: So we went about doing that, and then I bought a fabulous old industrial building in Cleveland Street, Redfern, which I did with SJB, and BKH again.

Anthony Denman: Yeah, Cleveland & Co?

Michael Grant: Cleveland & Co, which was 40 apartments, and a really cool bar, and commercial space on the ground floor. One building was 1889-

Anthony Denman: How do you, adaptive reuse it I guess where we’re heading now, that’s Cleveland & Co.

Michael Grant: Yeah.

Anthony Denman: And a whole bunch of other stuff that you’ve done. I’ve been looking at these fabulous brochures I’ve taken on the table, we haven’t had a good look at them yet, but incredible attention to detail and production values. I can tell just by looking at the covers. And we might get a few photographs of those, and post them on the show notes and what have you. Well two questions. I guess the first one is, I get a sense of your passion around architecture and creativity and design, changing the way people live, and work. But a lot of adaptive reuse, where does that passion, why adaptive reuse?

Michael Grant: I think what’s interesting, because I spent a lot of time in combination of obviously European cities that are all five, six levels, a lot of fabulous old buildings. So Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, even going to different parts of New York. And at the time, I did Holt & Hart, which was a 15000 square meter commercial refurbishment, in a joint venture with the family that owned it, the Frost family, we’re still great partners today in a whole range of things. And that was a good starting point, because it was this massively ugly building, with great respect to the family, that it was built by their father 50 years before, it had a 2000 square meter floor plate.

Michael Grant: We looked at doing residential, we couldn’t do it, and then we adapted into, what is today, probably Surry Hills premium office building, that gets the highest rents. Once again we worked with SJB, Billard Leece, and actually Paul Hecker out of Melbourne was involved in that.

Anthony Denman: Yes.

Michael Grant: Because I wanted a bit of a different twist again, because-

Anthony Denman: Were you the first to bring him up, because he did quite a few projects.

Michael Grant: No, he did a lot of stuff with Justin Hemmes, but he was doing some stuff with Billard Leece in Melbourne, and that was how that sort of came to vision. Paul actually did this office.

Anthony Denman: Oh okay.

Michael Grant: So it was really just, the commercial building, all of a sudden it was like, well the building’s already here, less construction risk because the building is there.

Anthony Denman: A lot of developers would see it exactly the opposite way.

Michael Grant: Well it’s funny, because I think the interesting version, we had a great relationship, Mainbrace who I had be a contractor for, for many years, started doing a lot of my building work, commercial building work. So we had this fabulous experience in terms of the journey we went on. So Holt & Hart was a fabulous success in a whole range of outcomes, but I guess the first real adaptive reuse was Cleveland. So I had an agent ring me, because all of a sudden, I used to look 20 years ago, and think, how do people find it so easy to find sites.

Anthony Denman: That was one of my questions actually.

Michael Grant: And I think my God-

Anthony Denman: How do you find these sites.

Michael Grant: So all of a sudden I just had, you do one nice project, Casba was a great yardstick, Holt & Hart was a great yardstick.

Anthony Denman: So they find you.

Michael Grant: So I started getting phone calls, do you want to look at this, do you want to look at that. And Surry Hill is a very tightly held market, there’s a lot of very-

Anthony Denman: So the sites find you.

Michael Grant: Well it was probably, in terms of well Cleveland I had an agent put it to me, It’s Redfern, it’s Cleveland Street, I’m not even going to look. He rung me four times, he would come and, please come to the building. I said no I’m not doing Redfern, I’m not doing Cleveland Street, too noisy, couldn’t do it. Anyway, so eventually, he rung me so much, he was so persistent I went and had a look, I walked in and said, Fuck, I’ve got to do this deal. And I became very good friends with the owner, who owned it, a guy called Jim Brennan, and whose partnered Tony Magnus, and Jim subsequently bought projects, apartments of my last four or five projects, and we’re great friends after we …

Michael Grant: So we came to an arrangement, we bought it. I bought it, and we then went on a journey with Adam Haddow and BKH. Once again they would have rather done individual things, but to me it made more sense to keep the elements of what was really successful in Casba, together. And it was a fabulous success, we sold out in a relatively short period of time.

Anthony Denman: Really distinctive campaign too, from memory.

Michael Grant: It was very, Andy Hoyne from Hoyne Agency did the campaign. Dave Milton from CBRE did all the marketing.

Anthony Denman: One of the most successful-

Michael Grant: It was probably, I mean Griffith Tea

Anthony Denman: In terms of the level of inquiry, from memory

Michael Grant: At that time-

Anthony Denman: 2014 CBRE

Michael Grant: We got incredible inquiry, we put a beautiful display apartment together and room. It was easy, because the building was extraordinary. Massive high ceilings, steel windows, views to the city, beautiful space. And I’ll be honest, it was very difficult, the approval, I started to form a great relationship with, everyone says, Sydney City Council, they’re a tough council, when to be honest, I’ve had the absolute opposite journey, they’ve been incredibly good to me.

Anthony Denman: That is unbelievable. Why?

Michael Grant: I think, Casba got, certainly once again, because we won so many different awards around the world for it, and I think you using quality architects also helps, but our approach was, I would actually go and sit down with, often Graham Jahn, who is the Director of Planning there, and say, this is what I’m thinking about doing, here’s what I’m thinking about, why. Here’s who I’m thinking about using.

Michael Grant: So I engage at a really early level with council, to say here’s my approach, here’s what I think we should do. Here’s where I would like to move some FSR around, or … because we cut great holes, and volume, and I said we’ve above the height limit, but it was a heritage building. And most people I think go to your point, say well heritage is so hard. So we managed to get a fabulous planning outcome, which was-

Anthony Denman: Really a good approach, most developers they, especially for new stuff, right? They go and try get all that you know you’re going to get, so you start playing that game, which has no integrity, right?

Michael Grant: No, I don’t think there is. And I think honestly, if you go in, and you say here’s my best foot forward, here’s why it’s my best foot. Here’s what I think is great. I think it’s gotten easier, because the projects have got better.

Anthony Denman: Yeah. So you started to build a reputation.

Michael Grant: Yeah, so that was, it was a beautiful project, once again won a whole range of awards, because Adam ended up buying the roof, it just won apartment of the year, which one, we won 20 awards for that project alone now. Not that we do it for awards, it’s just a small …

Anthony Denman: I want to ask you about that, because it’s one of the most, if not the most awarded … I just feel like I’ve just spent my whole life sitting in audiences watching you up on stage collecting awards. How does that help you with … does it help you when you’re marketing new projects?

Michael Grant: I think the market has changed so much, if the last year or two with all these problems with buildings and cracks, and disaster. I think it certainly helps in terms of council approval. Because I think when we went from Cleveland, we then bought Griffith Tea, we then bought Number One Lacey, and we had similar approaches with council, we said okay here’s what we think we could do, and Griffith Tea is obviously a very iconic building, been empty for 35 years, had a lot of press.

Michael Grant: An amazing story, because every developer in Sydney was trying to buy that building, had done for 35 years. I just got lucky at the right time, I get a phone call out of the blue one day from Isaac Wakil who owned it, and said Michael, it’s Isaac Wakil, do you know who I am. And I had been sending him letters for 10 years, like every developer had ringing for 10 years, never got a phone call back. Over a period of six months, I’ve never met his still, sadly. We came to an arrangement, and we bought the building.

Michael Grant: But I think the question of awards I guess goes to, council, I think it helps with council, because they know you do quality things. They know you’re driven for a quality urban outcome, and planning outcome as well as construction outcome. I always take council through my finished buildings, so they see at a planning stage, I take them through at the end. I take Heritage through, I take planning through. So I keep them involved in what they’ve approved to what it looks like. And generally, honestly if you look to the CGI’s different things, generally it’s better at the end, which is a great thing.

Michael Grant: I think in terms of market acceptance, look, I think it helps a little bit, I think it helps probably today a bit more than it did. But I think, I don’t think you can ever get carried away with awards, because honestly it’s a recognition at a point in time. I honestly don’t – I’ve never set out to … I think my kids the other day said, dad … they thought I had won like four awards, and I was like I think I won like six, I said. So I don’t industry broadcast it, I think you use it when you have to.

Michael Grant: So that’s been just an interesting part of the journey. But I think it goes back to the fundamental thing that a great idea starts with, I’ve got to be able to sell it. What’s the vision? How to then take that vision all the way through the journey from marketing to architecture.

Anthony Denman: I was going to say, feasibility, seriously how do you do a feaso on the sites like this? There must be so many, how do you … all the unknowns of refurbishing?

Michael Grant: I think Heritage Buildings I’ve had some good luck in terms of, where the market went with us on one or two things. The hard part of Heritage for a building, in fairness, is there’s so many unknowns, which is what you’re saying.

Anthony Denman: Yeah, that’s what I mean.

Michael Grant: So you build a healthy contingency in. To be honest I thought I paid too much for the last two or three things, but then-

Anthony Denman: The market picks up…

Michael Grant: Well it’s a combinationof two things, so the market certainly helped. But then, we’ve historically been very blessed, I’ve got 10 or 15% better than the market, and that’s because we’ve actually got beautifully presented marketing-

Anthony Denman: Material.

Michael Grant: Material that we presented. Apartment display, apartments if we build them. And it goes all the way through to the quality of the documentation from conception to-

Anthony Denman: But it’s the story. It’s the story right?

Michael Grant: It is.

Anthony Denman: It’s the truth in the story.

Michael Grant: Well I think it’s the authenticity in the story that says, if you’re going to go to that much trouble up front, you’re not likely to lose the level of detail. I’m always amazed when I look at different, I recently judged for the UDIA, asked me to judge a series of categories last year. And you walk around as a developer and it was nice to go and actually look at a lot of other people’s work for a change, because you get so immersed in your own.

Michael Grant: And I saw some fantastic stuff, I saw some stuff, to be honest, that wasn’t fabulous. But when you look at the stuff that’s fantastic, and you talk to developers that are doing fantastic work, you can see the same interesting thread in their work. It’s like, well we start from this ground here, and you can see the journey is always well planned, detailed and meticulous. And to be honest, it’s not easy and it takes a lot of energy and a lot of effort, and you just can’t cut corners. So that if you found that back to the original architectural idea in the marketing, just enabled us to have a really good run of interesting projects.

Anthony Denman: Because you have done new stuff before, that in terms of building a brand story, do you find it easy to build a dialogue around an adaptive reuse building, as opposed to a brand new one?

Michael Grant: No. Honest I find it exactly the same. I think you take exactly … we’re doing a beautiful building in Surry Hills, in Reservoir Street, down next to Single Origin, the old Fracks Compressor site. We’re building a new beautiful 10 story building.

Anthony Denman: So brand new?

Michael Grant: Brand new, we’re knocking the existing building down, putting up a 10 story, very thin, beautiful building. Adam Haddow won a design competition for it at SJB. It’s going to be … and we start construction in two weeks time. And the idea in that is equally exciting to me in terms of the quality, the idea of what we’re actually going to create.

Anthony Denman: Which is born in architectural intent.

Michael Grant: Looks, it’s born in architectural intent, it’s born where the light comes from. How do I create a great working space that’s really interesting. It’s going to be fringe and urban and groovy and it’s a very, it’s going to be a really exciting building. I’m doing a church joint venture with Mark Carnegie on an extraordinary 100 year old church in Darlinghurst, which is an extraordinary building. But I get equally as excited about the new building, and trying to tell the story of what the new building is going to look like, as much as I do about the church.

Anthony Denman: Yeah, so you’re taking … in one sense you’re starting from scratch, in the other sense you’re taking an existing story and repurposing it.

Michael Grant: Yeah, correct. So yeah, it makes life fun.

Anthony Denman: How do you, we touched on it before, the buyer at Rockpool, and the way they perceive how light enters a space, and how that affects their day to day. Do you have, it’s the idea about changing the way people live and work, do you have a criteria for that?

Michael Grant: No, to be honest, I think the interesting thing, Alex told me 25 years ago, is that every site’s different, the light comes from a different direction, the wind comes from a different direction. So I think the first thing you look at, and say okay, and in a heritage building you’ve already got existing fenestration, the windows are there. So every project is unique, which is what I think makes it really interesting, because then it’s not like it’s the cookie cutter stuff. That’s one of the great things about adaptive reuse, because it is so different, because you’ve got to deal with what’s already there.

Michael Grant: I think it’s a simple principle of saying, you’re going to start with the quality of … and look to be honest not everyone, the hard part, when you’re used to a lot of apartments, or do a lot of office stuff, people will still think, well that’s not right, or this is not right, because a lot of stuff is subjective. So I’ve had a lot of incredibly happy people and probably had one or two that want, or think things should be done differently. Which is fine, I respect their book and I got my book, and it is what it is.

Michael Grant: But I think, it’s a principle around saying, if the approach is, how do you make that space the best it can be, from whether it be lighting, to the floor finish, to the acoustics, the reverberation, to what they look at, what their view looks like, how do you frame a view. There’s so many different layers of criteria to be honest, the office in Reservoir Street, the idea in the end, which came through from Adam, in winning the design competition, we had this beautiful heritage building either side, and the sites only 12 meters wide, so it’s very narrow. It’s only 470 meter postage stamp, so we ended up giving two meters, building the building 2 meters off this existing heritage building.

Michael Grant: So we’ve got this very long narrow lane way, and Adam and I were just in Italy, we did a lot of research in different parts of Verona and Venice, looking ar really narrow lanes

Anthony Denman: Beautiful yeah.

Michael Grant: Five, six story buildings. The office user in this 300 meter floor plate, is going to have light to three sides, where traditionally you would really have light maybe a bit to the back and a bit to the front. And it’s going to have this beautiful brick betinna up this six story wall. But the whole of the building, I’m just having those whole glass façade, looking at this brick, it sounds abstract, but it is going to be beautiful.

Michael Grant: So the idea there was, how do you make the office users, idea, an identity different to what would normally be Surry Hills, and by actually creating the Melbourne laneway look holding the building off the building, look at the brick bettina at the front and the back, you create a very unique, different experience. It allows cross flow of ventilation, the light, it opens up to the north of this on a little narrow, sort of aperture, like a camera. It’s in a really groovy part of Surry Hills, so I think that was an idea in that example, that said, it will be unique for them to be in that office, and have this very different space that they would have. It starts construction in 12 months, I’ll send you a photo.

Anthony Denman: Can’t wait.

Michael Grant: So I think, that’s different to, if I’m building a penthouse with a harbour view bridge on Lacey, where they have fabulous views to glass, to privacy. I think honestly, every room in every building has to be approached differently. And honestly you don’t always get it right. But if you start with the principle and you just … that’s one of the reasons it’s great to work with the same architect a lot because you … Adam and I now, who probably does most of my work currently, much to probably the chagrin of some of the other occasionally, Popov did, Al did Griffith Tea me, won a design competition from SJB. But, when you got the same level of thinking you’ve had now for 15/20 years, they know how I think, their staff know how we all think together. So it’s.

Anthony Denman: Totally, because it must be so time consuming.

Michael Grant: It is time consuming, and I still mark up every drawing, I get my yellow trace out, I still change things, I say what about this, what about this, that’s not right here, move that. People say, why do you spend so much time, I say, because when I walk in there I want it to be as good as it can be.

Anthony Denman: So instinctive.

Michael Grant: So look, yeah-

Anthony Denman: You got to have a talent for it. You can’t-

Michael Grant: I think you get better over time.

Anthony Denman: I don’t know, I guess there’s some learnings, but unless you’re as passionate, live and breathe it.

Michael Grant: Yeah. It’s like I said earlier, it’s not like I go to work, I love what I do, everything’s so different. Like any job you get good days and bad days, but to me all I wanted to do was to create some level of, legacy is the wrong word because I don’t like the word legacy, but-

Anthony Denman: Why don’t you like the word legacy?

Michael Grant: I think it belongs to people like Bill Gates, or some people who do extraordinary things. We do some nice things, but it’s a very big word legacy. But, I wanted my kids, I’ve got a 24 year old boy, 20 year old girl, and 10 year old boy, in 20 years to drive around and say, actually, dad did some really cool stuff in Surry Hills, and actually made the place better. So it wasn’t about for anyone else, it was just me really put a collection of things together that my kids would say, well actually, that was actually pretty cool. Not cool, but did nice things and built things of great quality, and in 10 years time or 20 years time …

Michael Grant: I drove past Rockpool the other day for the first time in probably eight years, and it looks as good today as it looked 25 years ago. So I’ve got owners, corporation that love the building, they spent the money on the building, they want it to be beautiful. And it looks equally as good, as I said, that it was when it was brand new. Which to me is a nice testament that the small part we played in putting an idea together, procuring the idea, building the idea and executing it, people after you actually have enough love of what you set out to achieve. Testament is probably a better word of quality, than legacy, as I said, but that’s what I think …

Anthony Denman: So that’s amazing, because that is the true benefit I think to having that, to apply yourself that diligently for so long. You built this brand equity now that … would you say that the brand equity that you’ve created in Cornerstone, does it make it easier now to get your projects sold?

Michael Grant: I think it must. To be honest I don’t really consciously think about it.

Anthony Denman: It has to.

Michael Grant: Griffith Tea, I think Griffith Tea was a perfect storm, because it was an iconic building, probably the most successful campaign in terms of number of inquiries, how quick we sold, number of express of interest. But it was a building surrounded with mystery and history, had been empty for 35 years, it was an iconic building, it was extraordinary. So it was just such a frenzy to get in there.

Anthony Denman: Mystery and history.

Michael Grant: Well it was. And when you walked through, when you look back and the photos when you walk through, it was … it had been derelict for 35 years. Lacey was a very different campaign. I chose-

Anthony Denman: Mystery and history, maybe that’s a good creative brief. So is that your thought?

Michael Grant: No, I actually had it as a throwaway line when I was interviewed on Channel 7, the news one night, after the campaign. I said it was a great … why was it successful? I said, honestly it was a combination of history, iconic building, the mystery of it being empty for so long, we played our … we’re a guardian in time, and how I look at a heritage building, I think it’s a great privilege and honor to be able to be the guardian for a period of time to actually make a 100 year old building stand the next 100 years. And a lot of those old buildings do deal with history and mystery. Look, it was more a throwaway, ethereal line, than it was anything else to be honest. I’m generally too busy to overthink things.

Anthony Denman: You’re too busy to overthink things, because you’re too busy overthinking things.

Michael Grant: Probably true. I never looked at it that way. But the honest answer is you just get busy, you get in there. I’ve never been really strategic, I could have had, I’ve had a lot of staff, I’ve had some great staff over a long period of time. But two or three guys that will always stand out.that say let’s build the brand bigger and let’s make the business bigger, lets go to the city, lets have a bigger office, lets do more projects. And I said look-

Anthony Denman: I can’t imagine you anywhere else but right here.

Michael Grant: I just want to be, and artisan is the wrong word, but it’s like I just want to be that artisan guy that says, I’ve been lucky to be given a great project, how to make it beautiful-

Anthony Denman: I don’t know if it is the wrong word.

Michael Grant: Well it’s like, I look at the stone masons who do extraordinary things, so I play my part as a conductor, with architecture and builders, and whatever you want to look at, and it’s to say, how do you make all those people come together. I never set out to have a big development business, I don’t want that, I’d rather have no notoriety to be honest, I normally say no to all this sort of stuff, often. I never answer when the press ring about thing, it’s like Gary Teak was fundamental, to just do great things in a quiet and humble way. Which is very much how my father and mom went about life.

Anthony Denman: It’s easy to say, but I think-

Michael Grant: It’s just then going on that journey-

Anthony Denman: So much value in it. It just keeps you focused, keeps you going.

Michael Grant: I think the interesting thing, it is interesting, even with the church with Mark Carnegie, they actually sought me out, he appointed someone that sought me out, and said would you be interested at looking at this project. We need a heritage expert, we need someone that knows the city fringe. I will only now do post code 2020. I just do Surry Hills, Redfern, Darlinghurst I might go there, but I’ve looked at lots at the Northern Beaches, I’ve really got no desire to do anything other than city fringe. I just think it’s, one thing that Gary also said, always know your market. I know every agent, not every agent, but a lot of the agents, I know the council, know all the controls. I know what I can get, I got a sense of what’s right in that-

Anthony Denman: The relationship with council is somewhat-

Michael Grant: Well that can change too, I have a great relationship with council, that can change overnight, I could make a mistake and ruin the building, which I hopefully won’t do, but people come and go in council. But I think it’s also too, now for me, just working in one of two suburbs that I love. I think they’re beautiful suburbs on the fringe of city, they’re groovy, they’re eclectic

Anthony Denman: That’s so interesting, for a guy from the Northern Beaches.

Michael Grant: So I would never live off the beach, but I go to the city two or three days, I go when I have to go, but I miss the traffic, I go after or I come before. And to me the great cities in the world, are all the five, six story cities, they’re all the fringe stuff. It’s the great restaurants, the great bars. Suddenly all the things that Surry Hills and Darlinghurst and Redfern offer, to me I’ve got no desire to go outside those suburbs, there’s enough buildings there to keep me going for whatever I want to do.

Anthony Denman: Before Cornerstone brand became so established, it’s all about saying Cornerstone, and in some ways SJB, so uniquely attached, it’s kind of hard to separate them sometimes. Before that, the value of architectural brand, a strong architectural brand in marketing, did it help you?

Michael Grant: I think is that question, it helped. And I think too, it’s a danger, and I’ve been very lucky again, because Adam’s the first person to say don’t use us for everything. Alex was the first person to say don’t use us for everything. So you’ve got these great architects and these great human beings more than anything, they’re extraordinary human beings. And Billard Leece, Ron Billard was the same, you shouldn’t use us for everything, because you’ll then be defined as Cornerstone and SJB, or Cornerstone and Popov, or Cornerstone and Billard Leece. So they all supported the idea of having different architects doing different things. But I think there’s no question, brand and architecture today, I think the danger can also be though, depends on the attitude you put yourself with, and I’ve had this discussion with Adam numerous times, in Sydney and around the world when we’ve been traveling. Is, if they’re now doing work for Harry Triguboff, now that can be seen as a great thing-

Anthony Denman: Are they doing work?

Michael Grant: Yeah.

Anthony Denman: Really.

Michael Grant: And that can be seen as a great thing, is to say, well they’re going to help make the city a better place. Or it can be seen as a thing that says they’re going to tarnish the brand slightly, because you’re using an architect that does Harry’s work. So it’s an interesting things for them as a business, how do they position their business to say, well if you’re doing work for Milligan Group or Cornerstone, or … they’ve got some great clients, SJB. As does Popov, as does Billard Leece, but you’ve got to be careful the clients you choose, the fact you’ve got 120 staff, which all those practices do, Adam’s got a lot of people. You’ve got to keep the work going.

Michael Grant: So I think the brand can work very well with your architect and developer, but I think you have to pick the projects, and pick the individuals generally in the practices. I’ve always been very, rightly or wrongly, director and principle driven, so I love all of the staff that those great companies have, but if there’s an issue or there’s a problem, 98% of time is with Alex, or Adam, or Ron & Dave, Ian Hallidy, and they’ve all got great staff and capable staff, but I’ve always been very, I want to deal with the principle.

Michael Grant: And if that’s doesn’t work, that’s no problem, because I understand you’ve got a big business, but they’re all great friends too, which is even a bit of a testament. I have them all around for dinner tomorrow and they … I think that’s how you’ve got to live your life, with all your … we’ve got great engineers, same thing with marketing, marketing is an incredibly key and interesting part of what you do, unless there’s a really strong connection in that, the whole thing becomes disconnected. So I think-

Anthony Denman: How do you choose your marketing agencies?

Michael Grant: Look I have swapped and changed.

Anthony Denman: I noticed that.

Michael Grant: To be honest, and it’s a probably a bit like the architecture, I think my approach has always been that, if you get one … a lot of agency, agencies are as good I think of the brief, because I still unfortunately quite painful, I think I should get what I think, I want to make sure my vision out of my head is encapsulated in the document. And some of the more famous agencies, say it’s either this or don’t do it. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but that’s been part of my experience.

Anthony Denman: You described the brand workshop methodology where you meet with the agency people and architect and you get them all in a room and try and arrive at positioning and that?

Michael Grant: Well I think in terms of-

Anthony Denman: Or a brief, in that moment.

Michael Grant: If I looked at my last, my four or five best marketing campaigns I guess, Casba was an extraordinary campaign at the time, which I used Property Agency at the time. Then Andy Hoyne did Cleveland & Co. Then I used Fabio Ongarato Design out of Melbourne for Griffith Tea and Lacey.

Anthony Denman: Which, is a really interesting choice I thought.

Michael Grant: That was very much on honestly off the back of Iain Halliday’s idea. Iain had a view that no detriment to who I had been using in Sydney, but he thought that I just needed another layer of, level of sophistication for the projects and where the business was going to. And Iain I don’t probably ever give as much credit as I should, because he’s been an incredible influence in subtly … because he’s got such an extraordinary eye. So Iain said, look I think you need to your business to another level-

Anthony Denman: Yeah, he was number one, what was the campaign where you styled an existing space?

Michael Grant: We did that in No. 1 Lacey, we also did it in Griffith Tea. So Iain’s view was, you should meet Fabio and Ronnen from Fabio out of Melbourne. They came up, we had a meeting.

Anthony Denman: They’re a design consultancy aren’t they?

Michael Grant: They’re creative agency, design consultant, they do a lot of different interesting things. They’re really interesting guys.

Anthony Denman: Yeah.

Michael Grant: So we met, we had two or three meetings. And I started very much from, here’s what I want to achieve. And to be honest we had, it was a very healthy debate. I didn’t win everything, nor I should. Fabio didn’t win everything, nor he should. So we had some things, there was two or three things I didn’t 100% agree with, but I went with them, because you’re paying them to be geniuses, so they should be.

Michael Grant: But to answer your question, I guess more directly, I set out with a very strong idea to what I want to achieve. I then have a very strong idea, so before I go to branding, I’ve got a very strong idea in my own head. I then make sure the architect I want to choose, whether it be Alex, Halliday, Adam, or Billard Leece, Ron and David, here’s what we going to do, do we subscribe to that same journey? Because if they don’t I then might go and use a different architect. Then we take that, and if it’s a residential thing, then often I would sit down generally often, bounce it a little off David Milton from CBRE, and say, this is what I’m thinking.

Anthony Denman: Yeah he knows his stuff.

Michael Grant: David knows how to sell. And we don’t always see the same thing, we don’t always see eye to eye. We probably made their job, I think, and he’d agree, hopefully. Somewhat easy because we actually go to such nth degrees of quality in the marketing, but also the displays. Because we’ve done, I think, some very interesting things. And then we sit down with the creative team and say, here’s what I think the vision is, here’s I want to achieve it. Happy to spend probably a $1.50 more than most developers, or $2 more, for every dollar of marketing, because I think we’re very good at actually selling stuff that we actually use. We don’t have to have hundred of thousands of dollars in advertising campaigns and press campaigns because we approach the thing so direct and so deliberate.

Anthony Denman: Goes into the content.

Michael Grant: It does go to the content. So instead of me spending hundreds of thousands of dollars with domain on Fairfax, we just simply put money to this beautiful quality document.

Anthony Denman: Yeah.

Michael Grant: Recently I’ve been using 630 Agency, I don’t know if you know the boys there?

Anthony Denman: Yes, I do.

Michael Grant: Who did my fabulous book on Darlinghurst. So I met Digby many years ago when he was a property agency, and Rob they’ve-

Anthony Denman: He’s got an architectural background, Digby I think.

Michael Grant: I should know that, because I’ve spent a lot of time with him.

Anthony Denman: I think he does.

Michael Grant: Digby’s this perfect guy that actually just delivers on, drives approached in terms of timeframe and program and budget. And Rob went and played the more creative journey. Digby’s very creative, he’s got a great eye himself. So it’s different, would I use Hoyne again, would I use any of them again, yes I would. I think really it depends on what the project looks like. I think Iain’s changed my whole thinking to be honest, as in Fabio, as to just making, I don’t want anything to look like anything else. And I think that a lot of, if you look at 90% of residential marketing, you can pick up a brochure, it’s like… There three different varied approaches. So to me everything should be different.

Anthony Denman: I love this.

Michael Grant: My Griffiths teas it had the tea box

Anthony Denman: Yeah, it’s beautiful.

Michael Grant: It was all very layered back, trying to be sophisticated, who our market was. That was harder, more gritty edged. Lacey was more romantic, because we were looking for the Woollahra buyer, empty nester which had a slightly more bit of love and romance and finesse about it. Where that was more urban, gritty city fringe. That was [pitched his commercial office. So we just take a very different approach, as we do with the architecture, the light, so the same element on marketing. Which also makes it fun, because nothing’s the same again.

Anthony Denman: No totally. And it’s not, when you see this stuff on the show notes, you’ll appreciate exactly what Mike was talking about in terms of the quality and the attention to detail that goes into producing documents like this, it does require quite a few hours and larger budgets. And I think the notion of creating a much stronger … and it’s consistent with everything you do right? You put a lot more work into the front end, to make sure that the back end, theoretically should run a little smoother. And yes, if you can save a couple of hundred thousand dollars on-

Michael Grant: Well you’re spending money.

Anthony Denman: Yeah.

Michael Grant: You’re spending money in the areas that add more value.

Anthony Denman: That’s right.

Michael Grant: I think.

Anthony Denman: How do you, because that’s evolving into the, you were talking about media. And historically place an ad in the SydneyMorning Herald and that’s all you had to do. Now it’s a digital marketing. Do you have a view on the digital marketing landscape?

Michael Grant: To be honest I don’t. I should be, honestly we’ve been so busy the last four or five years, I just haven’t really honestly caught up as much as I should have on that sort of space. I think, in terms of, at the minute my two projects are commercial office, so that’s a totally different audience again. We did a video, which I’ll send you a copy, beautiful video.

Anthony Denman: I would love to see it.

Michael Grant: Beautiful video. And that was just trying to pitch … because what we try to do with Darlinghurst and the church, was to say Surry Hills is a very safe office market, Darlinghurst is seen as slightly different. We’re trying to break new records, it’s not about breaking records, but it’s about getting the right CEO or owner engaged in taking their staff out of the city, having real engagement for your staff, from quality of location and light. The same thing, and this building’s got 10 meter ceilings, it’s extraordinary. And how do you then sell that whole journey. So we tried to do, it was very important in positioning that we, A, it was about a much creative … because commercial is very different to residential, so in commercial you’ve got to engage the CEO, or the person who is going to buy it from you. And-

Anthony Denman: Less emotion too, historically.

Michael Grant: Historically less emotion. But I think if you’re looking at taking 300 people out of the city, or you want this incredibly marque building, you’ve got to get enough emotion and light and shade in their decision, I think, to say, well okay why do you want to go to Darlinghurst.

Anthony Denman: How do you do that?

Michael Grant: Well we did it in what-

Anthony Denman: Because most of the commercial relationships I have had, have been very commercially pragmatic right.

Michael Grant: We took a really different approach in terms of how we presented in the first, instance so we wanted to create a series of books that talked about the building.

Anthony Denman: So Michael has just opened this beautiful hard cover box, and within that box is-

Michael Grant: Well there’s three books.

Anthony Denman: Three hard cover burse bound books, with a linen cover. Which I could tell you not an inexpensive exercise.

Michael Grant: But we start on the principle, we actually started firstly on the neighborhood. So we went in and we said, lets go engage with 18 to 20 different people in the neighborhood that are identities, that are different, that have an approach on the neighborhood, why Darlinghurst and more unique. So we started with a whole version of Tilly Devine, been a cultural hub.

Anthony Denman: Yeah that’s a lot of research.

Michael Grant: This took, honestly probably a thousand hours of time, and thousands of hours of Digby’s time and Rob’s time. We looked at the history of the building. Once again, we wanted some level of consistency between Griffith Tea, but we looked at the queen of the night, Tilly Devine. So she’s going back in history. We then did a lot of photography, walking and picked up all of the key things. Because, Darlinghurst is red hot. Carnegie actually owns a church, he’s a very interesting venture capitalist, philanthropist, and Darlinghurst resident. We’ve then got people that owned, I don’t know if you know Remo Giuffre, that had Remo store in Darlinghurst for a long time.

Anthony Denman: Some real local celebrities.

Michael Grant: Real local celebrities. We then looked at fabulous artists, to Eugenio Maiale that owns-

Anthony Denman: Tavola.

Michael Grant: Tavola.

Anthony Denman: Yeah. Because pasta that they make.

Michael Grant: And then Marco Polese that runs Beppi’s Institution.

Anthony Denman: Yeah, the Institution, it’s still there, Beppi’s.

Michael Grant: Yeah, it’s still there. Nick who own Gelata Mesina, one of their flagship stores there. So all of a sudden, I don’t know if you know ….that owns and some really cool bars.

Anthony Denman: Yeah, thousands of hours.

Michael Grant: So we started, then one of the most contemporary hotels. And then the guys who has the High Park House Hotel. So we have a mixture of … the brief was to, lets go and find a local, it’s his journey of food, big thinking entrepreneurs, night clubs, bars. How do we get someone to make a decision to go to Darlinghurst, to have their office, and why is it different to being in Surry Hills. Because we had to say, Darlinghurst is a much harder sell commercially than Surry Hills. Everyone gets Surry Hills. It’s actually closer to transport than you think. So we went on this version and found all these really cool people for food. The .. had been there for a 100 years, that great tower on Oxford Street. We then went and said, interviewed them all, took photo shoots of them all.

Anthony Denman: That’s a huge job. How long did that take?

Michael Grant: We did it, the boys did an extraordinary, we all did extraordinary, I won’t take any credit other than I did 10000 markups. See this whole thing came together probably over three months.

Anthony Denman: Three months, that’s pretty good.

Michael Grant: Which is pretty good.

Anthony Denman: Looks about three years of work.

Michael Grant: The first was saying, how is the neighborhood, because that’s the important part.

Anthony Denman: Well that’s tick.

Michael Grant: And then we said, in terms of heritage, this building is a 100 year old heritage icon. It was the First Church of Christ, we went and did a lot of research on how they started, did lots around history. We then we had all the old blue … it was done by Peddlethorpe and Walker, so we went and got all the original blueprints. That’s when they were actually started to set up, to when they were moving.

Anthony Denman: That’s beautiful.

Michael Grant: Got Peddlethorpe Walker got all their blueprints off of archives, a photo from 1920, outside the congregation.

Anthony Denman: It’s fantastic.

Michael Grant: A lot of time in finding the right photos, getting the right … we got letters from the architect, between the architect and the church at the time. But then this thing to me, where you’re making a decision to bring your office here. There was two markets, one was going to be a longterm buyer of the building. Or one was going to be, will lease it and we’ll keep it. And in the end we actually found a longterm buyer.

Anthony Denman: You did.

Michael Grant: But then what this then meant to them, is the level of detail in our thinking, so we went through this whole journey of the heritage of the building, because to us you’re making this decision about a building that’s 100 years old, for them it’s going to be another 50 or 75 year home, and it was important to understand that firstly we understood the heritage and history of the building. Because we’re adding storage to it, and we’re doing some really quite interesting things to the building, it was important that we sold the journey of the history of the building. It’s an incredible iconic-

Anthony Denman: Well you have certainly done that.

Michael Grant: It’s an incredibly iconic building. So then we, well I won’t bore you with any more of that but-

Anthony Denman: No, that’s not boring, that’s-

Michael Grant: It goes on to where it was, and how it was. We also then, Adam and I went and did an architectural tour in, principally Verona and Venice, there’s a great architect, an architect called Carlo Scarpa, who did extraordinary restorations of old buildings. Incredible interventions where everything’s held off the wall, everything’s on these raised platforms. So Adam and I went, earlier this year, and had literally just 8/10 days walking through, taking photos, having lunch, drinking coffee, drinking wine.

Anthony Denman: Tough.

Michael Grant: Well it was tough, someone had to do it. So we looked at a whole range of his projects, just to immerse ourselves in, how do you create great surprises and moments within the church. So that’s sort of said, here’s the heritage of the building and here’s how we’re going to sort of position the building.

Anthony Denman: And book number three is?

Michael Grant: The opportunity of what’s available. So then we got into a journey, that once again we took the blueprints, these had blueprints of the blueprints subtly laid. We then talked about, got into, obviously the heritage of the build, icon rebirth.

Anthony Denman: CGI’s, do we have CGI’s?

Michael Grant: We have got some CGI’s coming. That’s a real photo of the church.

Anthony Denman: How do you feel about CGI’s?

Michael Grant: I don’t love them. Personally, I’ve never loved them. I think they’re very hard … I think obviously they serve their place.

Anthony Denman: SJB-

Michael Grant: SJB now do a lot of these internally

Anthony Denman: They do them right. Did they do these ones?

Michael Grant: They did do these ones. So we talked about the cultural change. So once again, we’re now reinforcing the journey of the neighborhood.

Anthony Denman: Sorry, why don’t you like CGI’s

Michael Grant: Sorry, I think CGI’s, I think that industry has changed dramatically, and CGI’s have gone in the last five years, the quality of CGI’s that some people are doing is extraordinary.

Anthony Denman: Next level.

Michael Grant: Is the next level. I think, if we’re lucky enough though, in these examples, have real building, bit like we did on Lacey, I would rather use real photography and deal with it differently. Here we-

Anthony Denman: Well that’s what you did with Fabio right? The styling within the existing building

Michael Grant: We did a lot of styling within the buildings, and the thing, Griffith Tea, we didn’t do it here.

Anthony Denman: You didn’t do it here?

Michael Grant: No we didn’t do it here. Because we had, we were lucky we got some beautiful photography, that’s existing, so that’s a real photo of the existing, the church inside. We then, I’ll show you, we also then in this example, we then talk about working on the edge again, reinforcing the neighborhood. I then had to deal with all the restaurant, all around that, takes you forever. How you get to work, how does the transport work? Where does it sit within the context of the CBD and the fringe.

Michael Grant: Then we started looking at, making great … we took to an approach that said, what are the things that make great space? So to me it was around architecture, interiors, public art, heritage, health and well-being, end of trip, lighting, graphics, landscaping and … without my glasses on, the technical services. So they were the key principles, we started off with the building, and say, right, how are we going to approach all of those items. And they were, if you like, the guiding principle of the first idea.

Anthony Denman: Well that’s the criteria I was looking for before, in some ways.

Michael Grant: Then we started looking at this Carlo Scarpa idea of how do you punch a beautiful balcony, if you look at Casta [ in Venice, he punches this, out of this heritage buildings, a beautiful balcony and on there is this great horse. So we’ve commissioned Anna-Wili Highfield to do an amazing bronze full scale replica horse, of this great thing. So we got council to support us actually punching these openings for the heritage building, which we didn’t think we would. We then sent away the architectural vision-

Anthony Denman: What a great insight.

Michael Grant: So that’s the horse in the double height space, which would have this great surprise and gesture in this space. So then that is a SGI. So we put a two story glass box over the part of the building. Then we’re also doing this extraordinary thing internally-

Anthony Denman: CGI.

Michael Grant: The CGI. We then started taking some blank canvas stuff, and just doing 3D grabs of saying, if you get involved you have your own blank canvas.

Anthony Denman: Sort of whitewash.

Michael Grant: Just as a whitewash blank canvas, not putting, over styling-

Anthony Denman: So we’re looking at some, what we call whitewash CGI’s, which essential just got no textures, no layering. They just show how the space works, you’ve got the architectural detail and you’ve got furniture, but they’re all whitewashed.

Michael Grant: So it was really pitching at the idea of saying to the owner or the CEO, who you pitching at, if it’s a blank canvas, what do you want it to look like. And if you involved there, you can actually have your own emparamada,or your own footprint, on your own space. So we’ve got an idea and a vision, but because we’re in effect, either selling off the plan, in a commercial office example, or trying to pre-lease. So we had a series of those, back in the CGI within the existing grand hall. Then we had this massive double height auditorium that’s got 12/15 meter ceilings, we put this floating mezzanine in. So here’s how the horse works in that double height mezzanine, back to our CGI. But if you wanted to imagine it as your own blank canvas you could. And so it goes on, I won’t bore you.

Anthony Denman: No, it’s fantastic.

Michael Grant: It goes on. Another CGI down at the lower Sunday school. And then it was important, at the end of this we had this great sense of … there’s a double height auditorium, we doing this great added conversion in the old roof.

Anthony Denman: Oh that works. It’s like a dolls house view, sort of cut in half, it shows you how the spaces work on top of each other.

Michael Grant: Then we went into just more the leasing, technical building plans.

Anthony Denman: Wow, that’s incredible.

Michael Grant: A little bit on Adam at the end, a bit on us at the end, in relation to some recent awards, and some buildings.

Anthony Denman: It’s interesting, because it’s like everything we’ve just talked about, in a physical, a physical manifestation of everything we’ve just discussed, is pretty much right there in that box.

Michael Grant: And that’s probably one of the most current marketing things. To be honest, it’s probably honestly the accumulation of 25 years of ideas and work and think how can I keep on simplifying it, how do you make it better, and how do you tell the story. Because in some ways you are just telling a story about what the building could be, and what it could be. And it’s only one person’s view. So I’m really quite-

Anthony Denman: In fact, it’s quite a few people person’s view.

Michael Grant: Well it is. It’s been an accumulation of a lot of different people over a long period of time. Which has been fun.

Anthony Denman: Can I, this is what we call corporate branding versus project branding.

Michael Grant: Yup.

Anthony Denman: Okay. And this is the preferred model for most developers, what we call the endorsed brand model. Where the hero is the project, and it’s endorsed by the developer, it’s by far and away the most common form of corporate branding in the property marketing space. Have you ever considered more of a monolithic approach? What I mean by that is, if you imagine Crown Group for example, that’s probably the best example of monolithic branding in the marketplace. Where the identity and a naming convention and the way everything looks and feels is pretty much the same, through every project, and it’s about building equity in the crowd brand.

Michael Grant: I think essentially, I think it’s the same thing that Alex Popov said, once again, 25 years ago, going back in to the early foundation. Is that every building is different, and I think on the basis of every building being different, the marketing, the interior architecture, the lighting, should be different. To have the same, I think there needs to be some subtle-

Anthony Denman: And therefore the branding?

Michael Grant: Yeah, well there should be some subtly, and you should be able to look at that and then say okay if I looked at Griffith Tea, and open the Griffith Tea box up, there’s some-

Anthony Denman: Which is like a metallic box, little bit like an old tea box

Michael Grant: So we then wrapped an illustration of this book that had foldout things, but there’s some consistency, you wouldn’t necessarily link those two together, and the same with Lacey, but to me-

Anthony Denman: No, the production values are consistent.

Michael Grant: Yeah, the production value is consistent, I think the idea and the content is consistent, but to me, if I was to make Griffith Tea –

Anthony Denman: That would not have been easy to-

Michael Grant: That wasn’t easy to do, and if I was to do all of those to be the same, and say it’s all about Cornerstone, and it all looks exactly the same-

Anthony Denman: It’s hard to differentiate.

Michael Grant: I think it is hard to differentiate. I think, to be honest, once again, I actually don’t think … I would rather be, people come subtly along and think okay this is consistent, because honest it should be about that building or that building. It shouldn’t be about Cornerstone.

Anthony Denman: Is the hero.

Michael Grant: I don’t believe.

Anthony Denman: Well the majority of marketers agree with you on that. Out of all these wonderful things that you’ve worked on.

Michael Grant: What’s the favorite?

Anthony Denman: Well yeah, is there one that … I was going to say, the original question is, which one has been the most successful, but it’s how you gauge succuss.

Michael Grant: Yeah correct, and to me it’s not money.

Anthony Denman: Yeah.

Michael Grant: I think in terms of great joy to sit in Griffith Tea in Chin Chin, because we deal with Lucas Group out of Melbourne to fill that space from day one, because it was very important, that was the base of the building. And we went through a very long journey of that building, for a whole range of reasons, it’s very difficult to build, it was very technically difficult project with all the fire ratings and heritage and such. To sit in that, having walked in that space three years ago, whatever it was, and the train wreck that it was, and derelict, from pigeons and all the stuff that was in there. To sit in that space and see everyone in their eating, dining, music going off, and sit in the corner quietly thinking well you actually played some small part in that.

Anthony Denman: Smallest part.

Michael Grant: …but that was really, I sat with my wife and had tears run down my face.

Anthony Denman: Did you really.

Michael Grant: How cool is that?

Anthony Denman: Wow.

Michael Grant: So in terms of one pleasing moment I can think of, that was really cool. In terms of quality product I think No. 1 Lacey, when you walk through that building, in terms of planning, architecture, interiors, the courtyard, we moved space around, planning outcomes, I think has probably been my best achievement in terms of all the outcomes. Looking at light, everything, in terms of as a project, I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve done. I think Casba’s a different thing, but it had different challenges. But if I said, my kids asked me occasionally, they said … I’ve got a little 10 year old boy who is so enthusiastic about the world, and we travel a lot. So he love architecture, he says, dad can we go for a walk. We were in Cabana recently

Anthony Denman: So cool.

Michael Grant: Recently, and he will walk in the streets…

Anthony Denman: 10 years old, wow.

Michael Grant: Looking at buildings. He spent a lot of time with Alex and Adam, and Ronnie Billard, particularly, and we were recently in Majorca with Alan, we had been to look at Gaudi’s his buildings. And Mies van der Rohe had a great building there called the Barcelona] which Alex sent me 20 years ago. And I took my kids to look at all of them. And Mies van der Rohe is famous for saying, more is more. And not word of a lie sitting with Alex, he said, do you think Gaudi meant more is more, because Gaudi is so busy and so much detail. So I see the little 10 year old brain thinking, well there’s this beautifully simplicity in Mies van der Rohe’s stuff, Gaudi had put shit on everywhere. He said, if that’s less in more, is that more is more.

Michael Grant: So when the kids say, ah dad what do you think? So I think in terms of one pleasing moment, sitting in Chin Chin, seeing so many people use that space and activation, was really nice. In terms of actually building that’s actually ticked every box, the difficulty, planning, outcome, heritage, it would be Lacey by a fair way. Casba is really cool, in lots of different ways, and being there numerous times having lunch it Kepos Kitchen, see people interact with the space and enjoying the space is a nice thing. They’re all different, but that’s the two reasons that spring to mind.

Anthony Denman: I know what’s going on in your life, and appreciate you finding the time.

Michael Grant: It’s been nice to see you, nice to catch up again.

Anthony Denman: Man, it’s been great, it’s been really interesting. I’m really looking forward to just continuing to sit in the audience and watch you collect those awards.

Michael Grant: I think the interesting thing, in closing, I think is, I debate with my wife constantly about, she’s probably always the best yardstick when you walk in the door at home at night, as to how your face looks, or how your day has been going, and to be honest, I love … there is days, it’s a tough business, you borrow lots and lots and lots of money. So it’s not without its stress. And she’s constantly saying, well what’s the point, when is enough, enough.

Michael Grant: And it’s not about the money, and she knows that. But I think the great thing now of only looking to do, I only want to do one or two things. I actually want to make them more significant, I want to make them … to me Darlinghurst is potentially the great cumulation now of saying well, I’ve actually got more time to look at the detail, because when you’ve got six projects, I can work 100 hours a week, but you don’t have the same time when you’ve got two.

Michael Grant: So the outcome when you’ve only got one or two things, I think the quality of what we’re going to do is going to get better and better, which I think is exciting. I would rather be doing one or two things and make them even better, and make them more … it’s not about being extraordinary, just about saying make them better, and make them more fulfilling. Which is why I think Darlinghurst is going to be probably surpass No. 1 Lacey, in terms of its completion ideas. And I think time does that. It’s just that filter of time, balance between friends, family, yourself, and work. Because, work to me is a labor of love.

Michael Grant: See I don’t want to do as much, my wife knows I will work till the day I die, because I love what I do, but it’s just trying to get that filter of balance and then pick the right projects you can really leave a signature on, that hopefully can build a testament when the kids drive past with their grandkids in 20 years time, and say, dad did all right.

Anthony Denman: That’s awesome. Speaking of time, we’re probably out of it.

Michael Grant: Thank you.

Anthony Denman: It’s been amazing.

Michael Grant: Thanks Anthony.

Anthony Denman: What I suggest to those people listening, if they are looking for somewhere to live in 2020, the post code, I would suggest you subscribe to Cornerstone so you can be first to find out what’s happening with any of their new releases. Thanks Mate.

Michael Grant: Thanks Anthony.

Anthony Denman: See you again.

Michael Grant: Cheers.

About Us

The Property Marketing Podcast is an original podcast hosted by Anthony Denman, co-founder of Our Agency. In each episode Anthony talks to Australia’s most experienced property professionals, exploring their personal & professional stories whilst unearthing insights on how to create the most successful property brands possible.

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