May 21, 2012

The Courier Mail: Bob Lowres' retirement plans on hold over Fijian island resort dream

Mark Voisey From: The Courier-Mail May 21, 2012 12:00am

JONE recalls collecting crabs and mussels in the mangroves and cooking them on an open fire on the dark volcanic sands of Fiji's Naisoso Island many years ago.

He can almost see the spot from the resort at Denarau where he works, only the sand is now white, replaced by a man he knows as "Mr Bob".
"It is a shining light," the articulate barman enthuses of the early metamorphosis of the playground of his youth.
For him, Mr Bob's vision for the sands of Naisoso, almost in the lap of the fabled Sleeping Giant Mountain and its promise of good fortune, is one of opportunity and the prospects of prosperity.
Much the same for former Brisbane developers Bob and Libby Lowres, whose $F500 million resort and residential development is in the early stages of construction.
An interruption to their semi-retirement, the development is expected to boost the Fijian economy by about $F400 million a year once completed - now expected well before its original 2017 deadline.
"I honestly think I am in the right place at the right time," Lowres says.
"You know what? The big buzz for me - people say it is not about the money but obviously we are doing it to make money - but I can make a real difference in this country.
"It's employing lots of people and making a statement to the world that Fiji can become a pretty special place to visit. We will put millions back into this country and am happy to do it."
Lowres speaks about Fiji and his project with infectious enthusiasm and others who know him say it is genuine.
His company Relcorp has gone from being a boutique residential and commercial property specialist doing three or four projects a year in Brisbane to becoming a significant player in the Pacific hub. It already has attracted the Peppers resort group and a major hotel chain which will have the rights to the island's four and five-star hotels.
"I came to Fiji to semi-retire, to slow down and do the occasional project back in Australia," he says.
"But, gee, after six weeks here I was going nuts. I like one game of golf and one day of fishing and that does me ... well, what do you do with the rest of the time?
"I didn't want to become part of the set that started hanging around pubs and clubs. So I said to Libby why don't we buy a little island and stick a main bure (Fijian hut) on it and some guest villas."
Local architect Robert Truscott pointed him to Naisoso Island, slender and 2.7km long with ocean views over the calm waters of Nadi Bay on one side and across a river to what he soon secured as a marine park on the other.
It also is freehold title in a country where almost all property is bought under native title.
"We got in this little dinghy and paddled across and as soon as I walked on this island I thought 'wow' ... I am visualising what I am building today," he says. "If I had to build an island, I would build it that way."
That was in 2004, and it took almost two years of court battles with another prospective developer before the island was his for $F8 million.
"We ended up going to court four times, we beat him four times, it cost me $140,000 and the court awarded costs of $18,000. He skipped the country because he didn't have the eighteen grand," he says.
"I took the view that I am going to win this case, so still went ahead and got all my approvals ... this guy had it under contract for so long and he had never had the island surveyed, never done a soil test, hadn't sorted out fishing rights compensation. He hadn't lodged any plans for approval."
He does, however, confess to wondering whether his ambition was greater than his capability to deliver in a county such as Fiji.
"Someone said 'mate you are doing a $F500 million development in Fiji and the three major projects before you all failed'. I thought 'keep thinking that and that is eventually what's going to happen'," he says.
"But basically I am building a subdivision and a bridge and I'm putting a beach in.
"I'm borrowing seventy-odd million dollars - I have that covered with 10 per cent committed deposits to legitimate buyers. Where's my element of risk in that? I have an asset when I am finished valued at about $F130 million. I'll take that punt.
"I mean I paid cash for the island, it is unencumbered. Now we are at the stage where we don't have many blocks of land left to sell. Blowing my own trumpet, I think we did a damn fine job during the GFC to get the result we got."
Australians are expected to be heavily involved, either as investors or visitors, with about half of travellers to Fiji from Australia. For Australian investors there are significant tax advantages, essentially meaning apartment income is tax free for eight years. Lowres guarantees a 6 per cent net return for two years and says he is happy to make it five - as long as he gets any "overs".
That's the next phase of the masterplanned community: a strata-titled resort complex to be managed by Peppers, of which a significant proportion already have been sold off the plan. He plans to keep about half of the units for himself.
Nearby there are 122 residential lots - from 1650sq m to 2000sq m-plus. Already, 92 have been sold and homes are starting to rise. You can get beachfront land from $A700,000, with riverfront land - still just a couple of minutes from the ocean - for $A500,000. A block between the two will set you back $A270,000.
The marina will boast 50 berths and nearby, next to the hotels, there will be a world-class wellbeing centre and spa and a retail precinct with boutiques, Italian delicatessen, art gallery and restaurants.
It will embrace the traditional Fijian design.
"You'll have that sense of arrival when you come over the bridge and you look to the left and see those three bure roofs that look like a high chief's house ," he says.
It also comes with sound environmental credentials, from the beach establishment to the maintenance of the river and mangroves under the watch of eminent environment consultant Dr Dick Watling.
"I've got a pristine environment here. It has been untouched and I am not going to bugger it up," Lowres says. "So all I did was dredge the river and the quality of bird and sea life has improved because the river ebbs and flows and washes the mangroves out beautifully."
He took a lease over those mangroves and became their custodian, having the area designated marine park.
Lowres is eager to make a statement about doing business and investing in Fiji under the military regime of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, which has been condemned for human rights violations and stifling democratic opposition. Now a Fijian citizen, he says business Fiji-style can still be frustrating and sanctions from Australia and New Zealand have not helped.
"Having said that, there is a can-do attitude in the country," he says.
He believes freehold title in Fiji is secure for investors and backed that heavily with his own cash.
"You have got to understand that Fiji has a population of only 870,000. We need international management and funding for the country to grow," he says.
"If you start sending out ridiculous signals like we are going to change freehold to native title, we are going to resume all of your land and this and that, do you think anyone is going to come here and invest?
"Don't believe all the crap you see on TV. Come and see it for yourself."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The problem is that the "can do" attitude is not matched by "can do" ability, expertise or intellect!