PAUL Blackburne is sitting in a hut near base camp on Mount Everest furiously typing emails.
It’s 2014 and the managing director hasn’t been able to contact his business for 10 days while he trekked the mountain. But the second he notices the miracle bar of reception on his mobile it’s back to work.
This is the longest he’s ever been out of contact with his office and it doesn’t matter that he’s at an altitude of 5000m plus. While the rest of the trekkers are taking a day to rest, he’s pounding away calling his partners and emailing managers.
In the 13 years since he founded Blackburne Property Group, there’s never been a holiday where he stopped working. In fact, there have been holidays in Asia where he’s spent every day holed up in his hotel room because work crises have struck. But you don’t build a $500 million property empire without putting in the hard yards.
In 2003, at the age of 26, Blackburne took out a $600,000 loan to start his real estate business. In just over a decade, the company has grown from a property management group of 10 staff to one of Perth’s biggest apartment developers.
Last year Blackburne debuted at No. 3 on the BRW Young Rich list with wealth of $536 million. Specialising in high-end projects, his business now has offices across Australia and in the 2014/15 financial year alone the company settled $156 million worth of sales. Last month he was named winner of the coveted First Amongst Equals 40under40 award.
But Blackburne, who turned 40 on Monday, is not your not average millionaire. For a start, instead of crediting his success to an MBA or a cunning business plan, the property mogul believes it was his years hopping the globe that prepared him for the cutthroat world of property.
Before he was the man behind half of Perth’s high-rises, Blackburne spent five years travelling across 45 different countries. Whenever he ran out of money, he stopped to work.
Odd jobs, such as a six-month stint as a dive master on the Red Sea in Egypt, were his training ground for becoming a managing director. He worked at the customer service desk at a Canadian ski resort, tended bar in the Middle East and spent two years as a recruitment consultant in London. He even picked up a gig as an extra on a soap opera in Hong Kong.
“The major influence of my ability to start and manage a business was spending five years travelling,” Blackburne says. “Most of that time was in developing countries and living on $30 a day.
“You learnt how to budget, control costs. Most of the time I didn’t have money for the bus. I hitchhiked from London to Africa. I rode motorbikes. I had years of that. And I think I learnt more in that five-year period than I had in the previous 20.
“At the time, in the ’90s, we didn’t have mobile phones and the internet was only just beginning so you were usually only in contact once every few months. That was insane for my parents. From 21 to 26, I was out of contact with everybody.
“I didn’t see anybody I knew sometimes for years. That is going to mature you. You come out of it a very different person and a much stronger person.”
But it was his time backpacking through Cambodia that would be the real game-changer. Seeing how the country had been ravaged by war, Blackburne vowed if he ever ended up rich he had to come back to help.
“The worst areas are the slums around the cities. I think seeing so many beggars in the street and so many homeless children on the streets of Phnom Penh,” says Blackburne, who grew up in Gooseberry Hill. “In those days there was about a person a day losing their legs from landmines. I rode a motorbike through remote areas and you try not to leave the tracks because there are landmines everywhere.
“I remember thinking, ‘If you start a business and make money, don’t forget. Don’t become corrupted by capitalism and just making money and living in the west in wealthy countries. Don’t forget’.
“Because people when they’re young say they’re going to do all these things and spend their whole lives working and regret it. I hammered it into my subconscious to make sure.”
Five years ago Blackburne co-founded the Child Protection Unit in Cambodia. Supported by the Cambodian Children’s Fund, the project pairs Western police investigators with the Cambodian National Police to pursue cases of child abuse that are beyond the resources of local police. Last year the CPU investigated more than 300 cases of child rape or murder with a 90 per cent prosecution rate.
Blackburne is the son of a real estate agent, but he never wanted to follow in the family footsteps. He dreamt of working for the United Nations.
“I was pretty adamant I wasn’t going to be in property. Most of my interest was in humanitarian projects,” he says. “That changed when I realised I could achieve more through making money and creating a positive change for others, rather than just working for others.
“People say money isn’t important, but the things money can do if it’s used in the right context is a very powerful thing.”
Now living in the western suburbs, with his wife, Charmaine, and two-year-old daughter, Aria, Blackburne might have the charmed life, but it took more than just a few missed holidays. After the business’s initial speedy growth, Blackburne had just opened new offices in Brisbane and Melbourne when the global financial crisis (GFC) hit.
Suddenly, at 31, Blackburne was the managing director of a company of more than 100 people at a time when barely a day passed without news of another business collapsing.
“I distinctly remember the day watching the news that the stock market had crashed and Lehman Brothers had collapsed. I remember thinking, ‘OK, that’s it. Things need to change’,” he says.
“I acted before most of our competitors. I think a lot of companies in Australia didn’t make it through the GFC in the finance and property industry, but I acted very quickly after their collapse.”
He cut costs and began working like a maniac.
“I worked day and night for probably two years,” he says. “I basically took on five or six jobs myself to reduce costs.”
Jarrad Sizer, general manager of developments at Blackburne Property Group, has known his boss since they attended Guildford Grammar together.
“Undoubtedly the thing that sets him apart is the passion and motivation,” Sizer says. “Other people would think it’s ridiculous when he rings at 10 o’clock at night and says, ‘I’ve just thought of this thing, what do you want to do about the wine cellar at (their development) Aria?’.
“But it’s good. He’s always thinking about the product, always looking to get the best outcome.”
And while Blackburne admits the GFC didn’t hit WA as hard as expected, surviving the downturn has given him perspective in the current climate.
While WA’s biggest land developer, Nigel Satterley, has predicted two more years of “recession-like conditions” and reports have emerged of apartment projects collapsing due to failure to get enough sales, Blackburne is unwaveringly optimistic.
In the past 18 months, the business has splashed about $35 million on buying four new sites, which will equate to about 400 new apartments. And the company has six projects currently selling.
“If we hadn’t had the massive boom in the past 10 years, then people would think things are really good now. It’s all relative,” he says. “The percentage of people living in apartments is going to double over the next 20 years. I’m not worried about one year or two years when it’s a bit slower. We’re just towards the lower point of the cycle.”
Now one of Perth’s biggest property giants, he can drive through the city and see what he’s created.
“It’s brilliant driving round and being able to see buildings and remember when you briefed the architect,” he says. “Or remembering when you decided to do that balustrade or that door or that architectural feature.”
While the company continues to grow, Blackburne’s next Everest to climb is raising his family. And for a man with a foot in each camp of businessman and humanitarian, he has just one goal for his daughter.
“For a lot of business owners it’s natural to want to see their children follow in their footsteps,” he says. “But for my daughter, I don’t care if she wants to be a housewife, work in a cafe or be a CEO. Just so long as she’s happy.”