A born maverick H e's a former public servant without a trade to his name whose building company has sold 13,500 blocks and built 4500 homes along the Australian eastern seaboard, turning over $1.
6 billion in the last two decades. He's a bloke not afraid of salty language who has subscribed to the Australian Ballet for more than 40 years. He's hosted then prime minister John Howard and cabinet ministers at his Yarralumla home for Liberal Party fundraisers. The company he heads has also backed one of former Labor ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope's pet projects the National Arboretum to the tune of $1 million. He's a director of the heritage listed Brassey Hotel and a past president of the oakley store discount Master Builders Association. And he can also lay claim to running an Australian icon his company has a 50 per cent share in the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour. Bob Winnel is a major player in Canberra but little has been said or written about him beyond the latest twist in the epic stoush over the Tralee housing development near Queanbeyan or the latest housing release by the Village Building Company, the national property developer of which Winnel is managing director and its largest shareholder with a 19 per cent piece of the pie. Now, at the age of 64, Winnel is preparing to take a step back from the business, already anointing his successor, deputy chief executive of operations Alex Tarasenko whom he has been grooming for the last three years. Naming work as his great obsession in life, Winnel will be only slowing withdrawing from the business, cutting down to four days next year and three the next but probably always maintaining an interest, especially when it comes to lobbying governments. And oakley boots it's perhaps in this reflective mood, that Winnel has spoken candidly about what he regards as the greatest challenge facing Australia the ability to properly house its residents, especially those on low incomes. And also his regret at being painted as a ''rapacious'' developer, when, he argues, all he wants is a fair go for the average person, just as he received as a young graduate fresh into a career in the public service and still able to afford a three bedroom unit for his first home. For anyone who's met Winnel, it's clear he likes to talk. No surprises that he helped his high school Kingsgrove North in southern Sydney to win the NSW state debating championships in 1963. Scrambling for a pen and bit of paper in his office on the 10th floor of the old Actew building on London Circuit, Winnel clearly also has a busy mind. He needs to write something down before he forgets it, ''empty his head'' so he can concentrate on the interview. There's no hint of the paperless office here. It's like a 1970s accountant's. Piles of papers, two old school calculators, bottles of red on the bookshelf next to a Christmas card from the Governor General (signed from ''Quentin and Michael'') and a Leunig cartoon a bowed man who can't bear to listen to a a seashell anymore because he hears ''blue fin tuna being hunted'' and ''boat people crying'' and wants his iPod back. ''He wanted to be more in tune with nature but what he saw of nature it was a mess,'' Winnel says. Winnel is an entertaining talker. It's easy to laugh at his anecdotes about the 10 long years he spent in the NSW and Commonwealth public service. He just wasn't made for either. ''It was as moribund as you could get,'' he says, flatly. With his arts degree from Sydney University (and later a diploma of education), Winnel joined the Commonwealth public service in Sydney in 1966, working for the bureau of statistics in George Street. ''It was a big open office with a lot of people and I remember one day the phone rang and I picked it up, you know, 'Winnel speaking' and a bloke sitting five desks away from me, my supervisor, just said, 'Winnel, do up your tie'. And thought, 'F him'. I'm sitting in a bloody office where we don't receive visitors. I'm kinda out of here.'' Next was the NSW public service. He was among only the second intake of graduates allowed into the administration of the public service in 1968. ''I remember they asked me which department I preferred and I said, 'I'm really interested in education'. And they said, 'Look, we have to ask you for your second preference. It's only the second year, you'll get your first preference. I said, 'Gee that's a bit hard. What's my second preference?'. I went with health. And they said, 'Look, the form requires three preferences and we wouldn't even look at the third preference. And I said, 'Shit, I don't know. Local government?'. So I had education, health, local government. They sent me to police. And that to me was typical how in those days the public service was. It was just a bloody schmozzle.'' It didn't get much better. Winnel still rails against the ''oppressive'' atmosphere of the public service in the 1960s and 1970s, so bad he felt he ''couldn't breathe''. Jobs where he literally had nothing to do. Feeling like an ''administrative terrorist'' if he questioned anything. By 1970 he was living in Tempe, married and had a child. Already disenchanted with his work, it took a heat wave in Sydney and a broken down train stuck in a tunnel for an hour and a half to force his hand. ''That was the final push I had to not only get out of the public service, but to get out of Sydney,'' he says. He applied for a job in administration at the then teachers' college in Wagga which was in the process of becoming a college of advanced education, arriving there in 1971. ''But the public service wasn't finished with screwing my head around,'' he says. Winnel says he was sidelined after he complained about his young assistant being sacked in favour of another women who was allegedly having an affair with his supervisor. He applied for a job with the cities commission in Canberra, interested in its aim to improve the wellbeing of cities around the nation. He got the job and arrived in the national capital in 1974. The commission was abolished soon after. It set a pattern and he found himself going from one public service job to another, only to see the structures around him removed. He, again, had nothing to do. His move into the housing industry was gradual. He'd built his own home in Wagga and another for his family when they came to Canberra, at Giralang, on a battle axe block he bought for $3600 in 1974. The building was all self taught. There was nothing in the family background. Winnel's father was a pastry cook in Cabramatta (''when everyone there was dinky die Australian'') and his mother was busy raising the family. He had three older sisters and a younger brother. His grandmother also lived with them. So there were eight people living in the two bedroom house in Kingsgrove, as well as occasional other relatives. His mother, now 94, still lives in the same house. Winnel remembers his father worked hard but was a drinker who wasn't home much, preferring to spend his evenings at the club with his mates and then ''come home between nine and 11 at night in a merry mood which sometimes was good and sometimes was difficult for my mother to handle''. ''I used to go out with him on Sundays at five o'clock in the morning. He had a utility and my job was stand up looking out the back window looking out for police and on the way back he would load up all the old pastry and dump it illegally in the bush and my job was to keep a lookout down the road.'' Winnel will now have a glass of wine but can ''count on one hand the amount of times in my life I've had too much''. ''I suppose my obsession is work. I've always put in very long days. Up until four or five years ago I used to work six days and up until 10 years ago I worked six and a half days. And that always has an impact on your family,'' he says. Winnel has four children from his first marriage and a fifth child from another relationship after his divorce. The children are aged from 41 to 16. He had a third relationship and married again in 2002. He's been a member of the Liberal Party since 1964. He joined the same branch as John Howard, Earlwood, where both served as branch presidents. John Howard today says of Winnel: ''I remember him as an active, enthusiastic contributor to branch activities'' and adds that he ''appreciated his help with fundraising in the ACT''. Winnel says economically he's conservative; on social issues ''more small 'l' liberal''. ''I'm not rabid. I do support the direction that the Liberal Party goes in running balanced budgets because I think what you've seen in Europe, you can pretend you're doing a lot for people who are underprivileged and then completely stuff them over when you allow your financial position to become unstable,'' he says. Winnel left the public service in 1976 and never looked back. ''The trigger for me leaving was long service leave, 10 years became available and you could take it on half pay so I was able to put a toe in oakley ducati sunglasses the water [of the housing industry], working with guys who'd worked on the house in Canberra, just taking on small jobs.'' Small maintenance and insurance jobs led to an entry into housing developments, modest at first. Six units near the Chapman shops. Fifty two units near the Giralang shops. His big breakthrough development was the Argyle Square development in Reid, 146 townhouses in 1980. Even then, Winnel says urban in fill was an issue. He believed there was a demand for inner city medium density oakley specs housing from especially older people, many widows, who no longer wanted a big house and yard to maintain but still wanted to stay in the area they knew and loved. He still maintains the development industry is only responding to changing social trends and needs, not driving the infill issue. ''The old lady doesn't want to get out and mow and the lawn and doesn't want 700 or 1000 square metres to look after. She doesn't want a house with leaky gutters. She's very happy with a unit on one level or a townhouse. So the development industry, the way it's painted, is pretty unfortunate. Because it's always painted as, we're driving change to make money and it's just so laughable. The demand has changed. Young professionals want a unit. They don't want to wash the car on the weekends and wash down the path and weed the garden. They're no more interested in that then flying kites. It's all about matching the housing stock to how people are living today.'' Winnel ultimately built 800 homes in Canberra under his own development company. The Village Building Company came about in 1988, then a cooperative of home building members within the Master Builders Association, set up to ensure its members a competitive supply of land. Its first project was called the Enterprise Zone in Belconnen, medium density townhouses. The Village Building Company now has more than 200 shareholders and housing estates in Canberra, Coffs Harbour, Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast and Wollongong and one planned for Sydney. It gave the ACT Government $1 million for the visitors centre at the National Arboretum and sponsored the inaugural Voices in the Forest concert, reflecting Winnel's interest in music. ''We just thought the arboretum was a local initiative with national undertones. The imagination that has gone into it is phenomenal and the location is spectacular,'' he says. Almost from the start, the Village Building company was all about challenging the regulatory framework and squeezing as much out of the land as possible by putting homes on smaller blocks. Palmerston in 1991 was an early example. ''We were accused of producing the slums of tomorrow because we introduced courtyard blocks. It was hardly an invention. If you go to Dickson 30 years earlier, they're doing small lots. It wasn't like we were radical,'' he says, rejecting that early criticism as unfounded. Winnel maintains the Village Building Company sold more than 2000 blocks in 1991 a record which still stands because it recognised a need. People would live on smaller blocks because they couldn't afford bigger ones. Even if they could afford bigger blocks, they might not want them and the maintenance that went with them. It's a strategy that remains today. ''There's a bit of snootiness about it. Even people in my industry will attack small blocks, small houses. They can be very snooty about it, like you're not contributing if you do that kind of thing and my attitude is the opposite. I think it's really important families own their own home. I think Australia has got something it shouldn't give up in that regard and we're starting to lose it. And we're starting to lose it because we allow all the obstacles [in redevelopment and greenfields development] to become the dominant force.'' In 1997, the Village Building Company moved into building the houses itself, providing land and house packages. ''We weren't happy with a lot of what the builders were producing on our land. You'd produce a small block and they'd come along and put a standard house for a large block on it and government would say, 'This is crap, you're not doing the right thing'. ''So we thought, 'All right, let's become a competitor in land house packages'. That drove our knowledge of the affordability issues into a lot more detail. So every setback, every verge width, every road width, every regulation on pipes and so on, all became relevant to us. ''So what we developed more and more in our company, which other companies in Canberra have tended not to match, is an internal capacity to analyse the impacts of regulations on buildings costs. We've got a couple of very senior guys who basically do nothing else but look at the impact of regulations on affordability or the impact of land supply on affordability.'' Winnel simply believes when developers aren't allowed to develop houses, it is denying people especially the young, those on low income, migrants the stability of home ownership. ''It's become a very selfish system. We've got kids growing up, we've got migrants coming in but stuff them, we're not going to do anything to make sure they can afford a house. I bought a three bedroom unit overlooking Cooks River in Marrickville in 1970 for $14,000. What would you pay today? $400,000? Is that right? Have salaries gone from 14 to 400 [thousand]? They have not.'' Winnel has shown remarkable tenacity over the company's proposed Tralee or ''South Jerrabomberra'' housing estate, waging a 10 year war against the Canberra airport to get the estate of initially 800 but ultimately 3500 houses approved. He still maintains it will happen. ''Ask me when and I haven't got a clue.'' During 20th anniversary celebrations for the Village Building Company in 1988, Winnel declared that ''providing affordable shelter is one of the oldest and most honorable professions in Australia''. The company has long worked with the ACT government to provide affordable blocks. The Brindabella at Macgregor estate in 2007 was its first attempt at providing affordable house and land packages, with housing options of between $250,000 and $350,000. Winnel says former chief minister Jon Stanhope was instrumental in turning the Government's attention to affordable housing. ''They had 20 per cent of the market who could not enter the market because they did not have the income levels to support a bank loan over $400,000 and we wanted to address that part of the market,'' he says. But Winnel fears land release policies and regulations are threatening, once again, to see governments lose their focus. ''I think it's really important that we get as many people into ownership as possible. If you look at it socially, it establishes a pattern of saving. If you're renting a house you can be moved on at any time. There is no security. Kids aren't very excited by the thought of, 'Sorry we're moving three suburbs away next week'. This is not a good stable way to grow up. The more people you have owning their house and having that stability I think it's an enormous social asset,'' he says. Winnel has always been active in the Canberra business community. During stints on the executive for the local chamber of commerce and business council, Winnel campaigned for the deregulation of shopping hours and for the creation of the Canberra Casino. He was at helm of the Master Builders Association in the late 1980s, facing ''severe pressure'' from the Builders Labourers Federation during the deregistration process. In 1991 Village Building Company published a proposal, A New Vision Gungahlin Urban Village that suggested the development of a light rail system down the median strip of Northbourne Avenue, with a priority for trams at every intersection.
It's a document he stands by as the Government now considers doing just that. ''I've always sought to focus not only on my own business but the bigger picture facing the housing industry and, indeed, the whole debate about the best way forward for the city of Canberra.''.
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