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Since taking the reins in 1997, Justin Hemmes has made a major mark on commercial property development in Sydney, dominating the hospitality sector and expanding the Merivale portfolio to include a host of the country’s most ambitious and successful hospitality transformations. Our very own Amy Williams sat down with Justin for a one-on-one interview in front of 500 young property professionals at Property Council of Australia’s Future Directions ‘Meritale’ event.

‘Meeting Justin’: Sitting down with a hospitality trailblazer

By Amy Williams

Justin Hemmes was asked by his businessman father at aged seven, “Son, what are you going to do when you grow up?”

Justin quickly replied with, “I’m going to work in the business Dad!”

“What are you going to do in the business, Son?” John Hemmes, who arrived in Australia with $20 in his pocket replied.

“I’m going to make it better!” stated the enthusiastic young boy.   

Fast forward to 1993, Justin Hemmes was road tripping around Australia when he got a call from his father promoting him from bricklayer to manager of the family’s first hotel site.  The then 20-year-old was in Darwin with a mate at the time.  He immediately jumped in his car, drove for two straight days and arrived back in Sydney early on a Friday night to see crowds of people spilling into the street outside Sydney pub Hotel CBD.  Justin’s entrepreneurial spirit was ignited as he took over the management of the pub and created a new type of hospitality.  Hotel CBD pushed societal boundaries by reimaging the concept of pubs as a predominantly male domain to places where both men and women could happily socialise for any occasion.

Having developed a strong interest in construction, Justin was itching to get his hands dirty once again, so he purchased the Slip Inn in the mid-nineties.  Justin shares the first time he doubted himself, “On opening night, it was dead.  I felt sick, I felt like a failure.  I called my Dad and told him that there was no one there.  Dad asked me if I believed it was going to be a success.  I told him that I did and he asked me to be patient and trust that the people will come.  The following week there were lines out the door.” 

In 2000, Justin opened Establishment, a ground-breaking hospitality development that introduced Australia to the concept of multiple venues and experiences within the one premises. Justin transformed the burnt-out ruins of the former George Patterson House into a nine-story entertainment complex that boasts a variety of sophisticated venues including Establishment Bar, two-hat fine dining restaurant est., hemmesphere, sushi-e, a boutique hotel, private event spaces. Easily the largest and best-appointed hotel and dining precinct development in Sydney’s history at the time, Establishment also had the effect of rejuvenating the northern CBD area that previously lacked style and imagination.

19 years later, it remains a leading Sydney icon at the forefront of Australia’s dining scene and has blazed a trail for further hospitality and retail ventures and has enhanced appeal and values of surrounding commercial premises. 

When Justin Hemmes first announced plans in 2007 to develop a Sydney CBD block into a hospitality precinct (just two blocks up from Establishment), many labeled the $160M project as overly ambitious. It was a bold undertaking for the then 34-year-old Hemmes, who had well and truly taken the reigns of the family business.  Justin wanted to create an urban oasis in the heart of the city. “An escape from reality,” says Justin. 

The extremely ambitious 20,000 square metre development furthered the idea of a mixed-use precinct, providing visitors with world class entertainment infrastructure. Home to 12 boutique shops, 18 bars, nine restaurants, two penthouse suites, a rooftop pool, a garden atrium, and one of the city’s largest ballrooms of its time, the scheme also had the foresight to create and then activate two surrounding laneways. He developed a thriving lane way hub that was dramatic, exciting and urban, providing Sydney the way of life enjoyed in European cities. A sanctuary in the middle of the CBD, ivy quickly became ‘the IT destination’.  

In the years since the ivy development, Justin has secured numerous other properties across Sydney, many of them run-down and transformed them into world-class hospitality venues.  Now, Merivale’s diverse portfolio of over 90 venues are imagined with respect to the existing architecture and original building features, capturing the character and heritage of a location and community, while also introducing surprise elements that promote new experiences. Through innovative development and design, Justin has an unrivalled reputation for attracting huge interest and new business, enlivening local economies and creating new Sydney icons.

It must be said, Justin Hemmes has revolutionised Australia’s hospitality industry and has helped shape Sydney into a truly great global city.

If you would like to discuss an upcoming opportunity, please get in touch with Amy Williams, National Client Relationship Manager at amy.williams@intrec.com.au or 0451 155 663.