As a young man, Ian Cassels was addicted to games of strategy, including a complicated chess-like game called Go.
It’s no great surprise then, that he has spent most of his adult life aiming to be several steps ahead of everyone else in his mission to make Wellington one of the world’s great cities.
Born in Northern Ireland to Kiwi parents, Cassels emigrated to New Zealand with his family at the age of five. Among other things, his father ran a YMCA.
A Victoria University maths and philosophy graduate, Ian tried his hand at property development after the crash of his first marriage, and the 1980s stockmarket. But it is probably no accident that both he and his brother, colourful Christchurch identity Alasdair Cassels, ended up in the property game. The similarities don’t end there – their current partners are sisters.
Sir Robert Jones once recalled that in the early days Cassels used to turn up to property industry cocktail parties looking like “a screaming arsehole” in Hawaiian shirts. According to Jones, Cassels eventually transformed into “the most dapper man in town.”
As co-directors and 50/50 shareholders in The Wellington Company, he and his partner Caitlin Taylor have been a dominant force in the redevelopment of Wellington’s urban environment and historic places since the late 1990s.
Their flagship project, Spark Central, is a case in point. Having acquired the site in 1999 for just $10 million, Cassels invested a further $100m to create what he’s described as “the best building in Wellington by quite a long way.” With a five-star green design rating, the finished project included a 12-storey refurbished heritage building and a new 11-storey office tower that attracted a rateable value of $188m just before it was sold for a Wellington record price of just less than $200m.
Known as an innovator
Other notable projects have included the Todd Tower, where more than $1m was spent on seismic upgrades, and the old Manthel Motors building in Taranaki St, which was the city’s first fabric-covered office block and has become the new headquarters for Xero.
In the post-1987 crash era when funding was difficult and many institutions were selling down, Cassels was one of the first to see pressure building on the demand side of the office occupancy curve. Using unit titles to fund acquisitions allowed the business to acquire a significant number of good-quality assets with minimal risk.
Cassels is also known as an innovator who has been able to rapidly identify trends and opportunities – like the need for affordable housing. In partnership with KiwiBuild, The Wellington Company is developing 22 apartments in Lower Hutt’s High Street Quarter and another 44 units in Mt Cook. In early 2019 he was also moved to create “pop up” emergency student accommodation for just $20 a night to ease the hardship on students desperately seeking summer accommodation.
The couple’s latest development is a 15-year lease agreement with Wellington City Council to convert the old Freemasons House on Willis St into 35 affordable apartments at no cost to ratepayers. Called Te Kainga, the project is being led by Cassels’ son, Alex, who says he personally felt that the solution to the city’s rental crisis “sat with the people who have the ability and know how to address it so, therefore, we think we can make a difference.”
Not that everything has been plain sailing for Cassels senior. Plans to build 96 townhouses on the historic Erskine College site have taken 18 years to finally come to fruition, with a promise to spend $7m restoring the Category-1 listed French Gothic chapel.
Wellington’s Shelly Bay is another high-profile battle zone, with Sir Peter Jackson publicly opposing The Wellington Company’s proposed $500m redevelopment of an old military site and pledging that his fight with Wellington’s Mayor Justin Lester “is only going to get more ugly.”
Cassels was once quoted as saying that board games revealed a person’s character. “You either play for power or territory. I constantly play for power,” he told the Dominion Post. “Territory doesn’t bother me. In a property sense it's the same thing. I'm much more interested in what I'm able to do than what I currently own."
A generous supporter of the arts, as well as a director of the Nikau Foundation, which aims to build healthy, resilient and self-sustaining communities, he announced in August that he would donate $10,000 from the profit of every house and apartment he sold over $800,000 to the Wellington City Mission.
The 65-year-old father of four sons (Alex and Andrew, with his ex-wife, and Ptolemy and Euripides [Rips]) lives with Taylor on a 45ha property at Te Horo Beach north of Wellington.