How Tim Gurner became Australia's most controversial property king pin

Melbourne property baron Morry Schwartz remembers the day Tim Gurner walked into his life. It was 2006, and a skinny kid he had never met somehow talked his way into a meeting. "He approached me and he said 'I like what you do and I'd like to work for you'," recalls Schwartz. "At first he offered to work for free. By the end of the meeting I had given him a paid job."

The day Gurner walked into Schwartz's office, his biggest property deal had netted him a profit of $12,000. It was an apartment he and his boss, real estate agent Tony Pride, had bought for $182,000. "I stripped the place by hand, the floors, the walls. We sold it and made $24,000 clear profit. I walked away with $12,000, and I thought I was rich," Gurner says.

Fully loaded

These days, Gurner has a very different definition of 'rich'. According to The Australian Financial Review annual Rich List, the 36-year-old's personal fortune is estimated at $473 million. It's a rise that has stunned many of the veterans of Australia's property development world. But not Schwartz.

"I hired him on day one, threw him in the deep end on day two, and knew he was special on day three," says Schwartz. "There is energy and intelligence within Tim, but there is also guts. But the thing I noticed on day three was his knowledge of the business. He knew what everyone else was doing. He knew the details of their businesses. He knew the details of my business. He had studied it. That's when I knew he was going a long way."

Gurner smiles when asked about that first meeting with Schwartz, who was promoting a luxury development of 17 high-end apartments at 401 St Kilda Road in Melbourne, each priced in excess of $3 million. "The slogan Morry was using was 'Worth Every Million,'" says Gurner. "I was reading about it and wondered 'who is this guy?'. This is back in the era in the apartment game when everyone was marketing $299k upwards, and Morry was doing multi-million dollar apartments. I called him up and said I want to have acoffee. He replied 'Who are you?". I answered "I will tellyou when we meet up'."

The haters talk a lot louder than the likers ... it was a hard and brutal time, but I wouldn't take it back.

Gurner walked out of that meeting with a job, a mentor and a penchant for black and white clothes. "He was very intimidating, dressed in black and white. I walked out with a job and I never looked back. I learnt more in six months working with Morry that I would have learnt in six years at any other business."

Gurner admits he got his taste for sharp black suits from Schwartz. "There's a story behind it. Morry told me that one day he wore a blue shirt, and his wife, Anna, told him he looked stupid. So Morry has worn black and white ever since. 'It makes life simple' he said to me."

Even for our photo shoot, Gurner has turned up in a black Givenchy suit, and black Hublot watch. "In the office it's called the Gurner uniform," he says. "It's now part of the brand. We had a couple of people come from Lend Lease and they came in wearing check shirts on their first day. That didn't last long. A couple of younger guys, I've taken them out and bought them black suits and shirts and shoes."

From highs

The world loves a rags-to-riches business story. That's not the tale of Tim Gurner, but he is certainly a self-made man. As a kid he grew up in the little town of Kangaroo Ground, on Melbourne's outskirts, with his father, a civil engineer, and mother Sandie de Wolf, the long-serving and much respected former chief executive of the Berry Street charity.

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"I'd call my upbringing as definitely middle class," says Gurner. "We didn't want for anything. My sister and I had wonderfully supporting parents. Mum ran a not for profit and her passion was disadvantaged kids. Dad was self-employed engineer, but not a big earning job. I was the kid at school who had the hand-me-down blazer that was three sizes too big."

That school was Carey Grammar, one of the most prestigious in Melbourne. "My parents worked hard to send me there," says Gurner. "I do recall my very large blazer, though. Not in an embarrassing way as we had an amazing upbringing, but it was just something I was conscious of. It has been part of a drive for me to ensure I can justify and afford what my two girls need at school and in life, and ideally they are not the ones with the blazer a few sizes too big."

After year 12, Gurner opted for a career as an osteopath until he was talked out of it by his mother. "She sat me down and asked me if I knew what I was doing. She told me it was a very specialised field and suggested I first go and get a business degree and then go and work out what I wanted to do. Her view was, if down the path I still wanted to do osteopathy, I would still do it, but also have a business degree behind me. If I hadn't of listened to her it would have sent me down a very different path in life."

While at university, Gurner started his first business, running nights at some of Melbourne's biggest nightclubs with renowned club owner Nick Russian. Chances are, if you attended Eve, Boutique or Aqua in Melbourne in the early noughties, you attended one of Tim's events.

From there he started a gym business called My Wellbeing. He borrowed $34,000 from his grandfather – "A hard-assed Dutch businessman who taught me a lot" – at a fixed interest rate and then a further $150,000 from NAB.

To lows

Soon after opening, Gurner's world was turned upside down. "After four months my dad died. It was full on. He had cancer. Underwent a bone marrow transplant and never really recovered. Then over the next three months three of my grandparents died. So I had a new business and was going between work, a funeral or palliative care, and trying to study in between. It was brutal on the family."

Gurner sold the business, took a year off and assessed his career choices. That's when he decided on property. Over the next two years he built his skill set, first taking a job as an agent, then with listed property trust FKP. Then he decided to pick up the phone and call Morry Schwartz.

Within a year, Schwartz had given him 5 per cent of a joint business. After two years, Gurner was a onethird owner. Amid the global financial crisis, the pair purchased a site for $10.7 million on the day Lehman Brothers collapsed. They flipped the property for $22 million a few months later, and Gurner was on his way. After that deal, Gurner asked his business partner if he could branch out. "Morry still wanted to do 100-storey towers in the middle of a GFC, with no financing anywhere," says Gurner. "I felt it was way too risky."

And so the seeds of Gurner's private business were sown. He focussed on smaller, high-end developments. "I wanted 10 sites of 30 [apartments] rather than one site of 300. I started in 2013; website went live in 2014, in that year I bought 12 sites. It had to be nationwide, had to be eastern seaboard and I wanted to do it quickly, and I wanted to be big."

The business blossomed. In 2014, Gurner's first year as a national player, he sold 1800 apartments and took in $980 million. "That's why everyone thinks I am very aggressive and risk-taker," he says. "But it was never about being a development business. It was about launching a luxury brand ... I wanted to flip the buyers' thinking from 'I want to buy an apartment in Collingwood' to 'I want to buy a Gurner product'."

The brand is simple: one to three kilometres from the CBD, high cafe culture, 25-45 year old demographic and must be a very active location. "When I bought in Fortitude Valley people were telling me it was a bad location because there were strip and nightclubs and bars. To me, that's why we want to be there. If you are living in a high-rise building, it's because you want to be part of the action."

Selling 1800 apartments in a year also changed Gurner's life financially. At the age of 34, he was now the youngest member of the AFR's Rich 200. "I met Harry Triguboff," he says." I went up and saw him. He looked at me and said 'What's the story with you? You sold a lot of flats. No one but me sells 1800 flats in a year."

Smash and grab

A vast fortune, a beautiful young family, and a business that was booming. Life was good. Until Gurner said "yes" to a 60 Minutes interview last year that would make global headlines. Responding to a question that proposed that Millennials might never be able to afford their own home, the edited response from Gurner was: "Absolutely, when you are spending $40 a day on smashed avocado and coffee".

The line went viral. In the next 48 hours, Gurner fielded more than 1000 interview requests from around the world, as the Millennial generation took to social media to vent their anger. Paparazzi camped outside his house. When he refused to take questions, some journalists started to track down his mother, his wife, Aimee, and his family.

Gurner described the ensuing media circus as "brutal", but says he has no regrets.

Navigating the fallout

"Absolutely not," he says. "I don't regret any of it. I admit it has changed my life a lot. It has changed my personal life. It has changed how I approach dealing with media. You have to put it in context though. I was asked to do 60 Minutes with Harry Triguboff and Malcolm Turnbull. That's hard to say no to. We did a four and a half hour interview and 99 per cent was about the business, the market, where we are at today. In that they asked me about the Millennial generation and getting into the market. I said it was really hard for them, I said I feel for them because there were real challenges, but I added I thought there was an issue in society with the amount of conspicuous consumer spending with the Millennial generation. I said a large number of this generation needs to lease latest BMW, take the European holiday, buy a 70 inch TV, the latest designer suit, the latest phone, eat smashed avocado and $4 coffees every weekend. They took out the last bit and it all went crazy."

The ordeal also took a toll on his health. "I got physically sick about three days after it," he says. "It really got me personally. We can all have a tough media facade but I am normal person inside and it really hurt. But I learned a lot. I learned the haters talk a lot louder than the likers. And I think it did, ultimately, create a really good conversation around affordability and what the next generation will do about it, because it is a legitimate problem."

Gurner copped a lot of flack, but he wouldn't take the now-immortal line back. "I wouldn't take it back. Although I think Aimee would. To her it wasn't worth it. But that's why she married me. She married me because I am black and white. I tell the truth. And that was the truth."

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