High school dropout waves magic wand over Ponsonby
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Andy Davies stepped up as a street-side talent scout.
It’s not his usual line of work, but there was good reason for him to assess the virtues of a grab-bag of buskers who had registered to perform on Auckland’s Ponsonby Rd.
It was a mutually-beneficial venture. The artists in their many guises were vying for a $500 prize.
Mr Davies was looking for someone to provide a guest spot for the opening celebrations at his latest project – a soon-to-be-opened Ponsonby Central development. And for once, he had to stand still.
In terms of risk, the contestants’ level would be on a far lower par than that of their judge.
At worst, they faced the fleeting prospect of rejection or public humiliation. Davies has substantially more riding on this gig. He’s been in the property development business for three decades, but has never before taken on something of this scale.
Consider the size, for starters. The site – originally a printing works, more recently office space and a warehouse clearance centre – is 1.5ha on the corner of Ponsonby Rd, Richmond Rd and Brown St.
Aimed at tickling palate and pocket
On this will sit everything aimed at tickling palate and pocket: a fruit and produce market, a fish market, street food, cafes, a wine bar and wine shop, a restaurant, a pizza outlet, a Japanese eatery. Then there’s the outdoor market, the designer furniture, the cotton store. And the office space.
Is there a need for all this? Ponsonby is already groaning with food and retail outlets. Margins are tight. What is Mr Davies trying to do: take trade from existing operators or bring more visitors – read spenders – to this look-at-me precinct?
“I’m not trying to put anyone out of business,” he says. “There’s room for us all.”
The way he optimistically sees it, Ponsonby Central will be Auckland’s answer to Melbourne’s Prahran Market.
Mr Davies should know what that mix is.
He has a number of commercial properties on this strip already. His reach extends further: he owns a number of additional sites on the city fringe and beyond.
Exactly how many, he’s not immediately sure. He has to consult the wall in his office, which bears pictures of them all, to gain some perspective himself. “I’ve had years of collecting property and adding value,” he says.
Included in his collection is the old Naval and Family Pub on the corner of Karangahape Rd and Pitt St – now home to Calendar Girls (he owns the building, not the business), a convent in Herne Bay, which he has converted to what he calls upmarket student accommodation, a prime corner site on the entrance to Auckland’s Mt Eden Village and a showroom and office complex – another corner site – towards the city end of Mt Eden.
There’s another university-stay lodge that he’s already established, and that brand – which he’s called Unistay – is one he’s actively trying to expand .“Parents love it. It gives the kids a safe secure environment.”
Ponsonby his neighbourhood
Ponsonby, he says, is his neighbourhood. He’s now living on site, in an apartment which is spared the constant jack-hammering attention being paid to the business below.
If he ever tires of it, he can always seek refuge at his house on Waihi Beach. Or he could escape to Mexico, where he’s currently halfway through a conversion of three villas into luxury apartments in Puerto Vallarta, an hour by air from Acapulco.
At 54, he drives an old station wagon and has holes in his jersey. His most common accessory, for now at least, is a fluorescent jacket, which he wears on site.
He’s never been one to sit still. At school he was a hyperactive kid. He's still running today.
The son of British parents who migrated here when he was seven, he left school at 15 with just two School Certificate subjects. “My teacher said ‘he’s no good, he’ll do well in real estate’.”
And he did. He set up Ponsonby Real Estate and merged it with another company before selling it at a price that enabled him to retire, albeit briefly, at 43.
This is how it began. He bought a house in Grey Lynn in 1980 for $17,500. The money came from a law firm’s nominee account because Davies could not raise the money through a bank.
Five months later, and having done little to it, he sold the place for $36,000. It was the easiest work he’d ever done, he says.
The law firm who initially loaned the funds for the purchase was Keegan, Alexander Tedcastle and Friedlander (now Keegan Alexander.) Former partner and now consultant – and a major property developer in his own right – Michael Friedlander remains a big influence on his business model, Mr Davies says.
'One of the best there is'
“He’s one of the best developers there is.” Davies still uses that same law firm. And he’s only ever had the one accountant. He applies the same long-term relationship to his properties. “I don’t like to sell.”
How does he differ from other property developers? “I’m probably the only gay one in Auckland.”
Within the property development set there is a degree of admiration for Mr Davies. He has a reputation as somebody who brings character sites back to life without excoriating their past.
“He buys good real estate and he does it up well,” says one, who chose not to be named, adding: “I think Ponsonby Central is f*cking brilliant. I wish I’d thought of it myself.”
Why does Mr Davies keep on taking risks and working so hard when he could clearly ease up? “Because I did stop when I was 42 and I retired to Sydney with my then-partner. I’ve never been so miserable in my life. I lasted six months and then I came back and started buying again.”
There have been failures – deals he’s lost money on “when my heart has ruled my head”.
Ponsonby Central is a frenzy of paint and concrete and carpentry.
Later this month it will have an informal opening, followed by the big formal fanfare on November 22. The $500 buskers – a two-piece male band – will take the platform.
And Mr Davies? “About 2am, when everyone’s closed up, I’ll walk around the site and breathe a huge sigh of relief.”