The accidental developer
4 Aug 2020
Australian National University | 4.8.2020
Alumni Then and Now: Barry Morris, BEconomics ‘77
When he graduated from ANU with a Bachelor of Economics in 1977, Barry Morris knew he just wanted to have his own business. But he could not have imagined heading the Morris Property Group, a leading property business that is changing the urban landscape today.
By Subu Shankar.
“I’m a property developer by accident,” he says.
He credits his ANU economics degree (with majors in accounting and economics) for giving him a rounded education that has served him well on his entrepreneurial journey.
“My economics degree from back then gave me a macro perspective and the accounting bit trained me in the micro-business model. And the compulsory Business Law unit made your mind think a bit like a lawyer. That can give you a built-in protection in business.”
His family shares a strong connection to the University, with his wife Jenny and daughter Louise being ANU alumnae. Jenny, BA (Hon) ‘81, Dip Arts ‘01 and Barry have fond memories of the time they spent together at ANU and regard it as a significant period in their relationship. Louise, LLB (Hon) ‘08 is a Canberra-based property and construction lawyer and a recipient of the Australian Property Institute’s Young Achiever Award for her service to the property industry.
“My advice to students is to get a degree that’s going to allow you to do lots of different things.”
From his family’s small business roots operating service stations and limousine services in Canberra, Barry worked out that owning real estate made better business sense than paying rent. When the Petroleum Retail Franchise Act had just been introduced in 1980, he bought one of the first petrol station franchises in the city.
“It seemed like a logical thing to do. It gave a place for our hire cars to live during the day.”
Soon he diversified into the motel business and bought the Banjo Paterson and Motel Seven in Narrabundah in 1982. By 1988, he was running four motels, five service stations, three fuel depots, 25 trucks and a video store.
But the Australian pilots’ dispute in 1989 hit the travel industry and motel occupancy was impacted in a big way.
“Also with the popularity of the fax machine, people realised they could fax through their business orders and didn’t need to get to Canberra that often.”
He was quick to realise the potential of converting the motels into serviced apartments and this helped him turn a challenging situation to his advantage. His first major development in Canberra, James Court Apartment Hotel, opened in 1994.
“I realised development is actually about the numbers. It’s about contracts and everything I had studied in accounting. It’s substantially a numbers game.”
In the following years, Barry partnered with real estate agent Graham Potts in Amalgamated Property Group and expanded his interests beyond the ACT and into Brisbane and the Gold Coast. In 2009, he set up Morris Property Group and with the addition of an in-house construction team in 2010, there has been no looking back. The business has completed over 60 residential and commercial projects across Australia.
His children are very involved in the business, with older son, James, overseeing the development and construction activities, whilst the younger, Michael, is a founding member of the recently established project sales and marketing team. Daughter Louise was a Director at Morris Property Group for seven years, before starting her own legal practice.
On developing enterprise
Barry feels one can’t learn entrepreneurship. “I think if you’re entrepreneurial, it’s within you. You can’t learn to be a developer, no one can teach you how to take risks.
“I always wanted to be an accountant. I lasted two years as an accountant and then I was a limousine driver. And everyone was saying – ‘What? You studied all this to be a limousine driver?’ But that was just a stepping stone on my business journey.
“The accounting of the business is still there. Even today, our consolidated financials still land with me.”
He gets a bit reflective when we talk about measuring one’s success.
“Without making it sound a bit over the top, I’d say the reality of being an entrepreneur is you never count the cost. You never count the time. You only ever count the successes and the achievements.
“For example, back in the day, some people would say they wouldn’t work for $10 an hour. But I would. Because at 20 hours a day, I’d be making $200.
“And when you discover what you like to do and you’re good at it, stay with it. Don’t count the hours or the costs because you’d never do it if you did that. You just count your results and your achievements.
“Back when I graduated, I had no idea where I was going but I knew I wanted to have my own business. And having a well-rounded degree allowed me to do different things. Then, as I said, by accident, I had to convert the motels into some form of other business, which became property development. Once I got onto that, I just hit the sweet spot.
“So my advice to students is to get a degree that’s going to allow you to do lots of different things.”
Forty years on from his first investment in property, what keeps Barry Morris ticking?
“Back in the early years, I had five-year plans. I still have my own secret KPIs. If you don’t set goals, then you’ve got nothing.”
And when asked about his future goals, his reply is remarkable for a 63-year-old property development veteran. It could well be the reply of a hungry, early-stage entrepreneur.
“I haven’t finished growing this business. What’s next for me is growing the business.”