24/04/2007 - 22:00

Barry Humfrey feels right at home

24/04/2007 - 22:00

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Getting things done in regional Western Australia may have its frustrations – amplified right now by skills shortages and overstretched bureaucracy – but Barry Humfrey reckons local knowledge is the key to success.

Barry Humfrey feels right at home

Getting things done in regional Western Australia may have its frustrations – amplified right now by skills shortages and overstretched bureaucracy – but Barry Humfrey reckons local knowledge is the key to success.

As one of the biggest property developers based outside Perth, Mr Humfrey can boast considerable understanding of what regional investors want, having been a driving force of residential development in his home town of Geraldton, as well as reaching as far south as Albany and up into the north-west.

“Understanding regional areas is something different,” said Mr Humfrey, attempting to explain some of the success of his family company, Humfrey Land Developments.

“That is our value.”

“The demographics are different, the whole motivation is different to anywhere else.”

His family operation lays claims to about $240 million worth of current work on its books, half of which is in its traditional mainstay of residential property estates – typically in partnership with some of WA’s major players.

The Mid West capital is a great place to be right now, with significant growth as several iron ore companies jostle to build infrastructure in the region.

After almost three decades’ experience in the sector, though, Mr Humfrey said it hasn’t been an easy ride, recalling how the long, drawn-out and relatively recent failure of Kingstream Resources Ltd, which cast a pall over the area.

“Six years ago it was harder,” he told WA Business News.

The downstream processing venture led by former state premier Richard Court’s brother, Ken, had sought to exploit iron ore resources in the region with the construction of a steel plant and port north at Geraldton, at Okajee.

By the early part of this century, the Kingstream plan had unravelled and Geraldton’s future looked set to remain as the seaside capital of a large agricultural region at the margins of cropping country.

Now, just a few years later, it would be harder to imagine a bigger transition.

China’s demand for iron ore has more than rekindled the region’s resources sector and plans for a new port, driving development of all types.

In addition to new blood brought in by mining, the town has been buoyed by big numbers of seachangers, tourism growth and infrastructure investment that followed when Labor won office in 2001.

It’s the type of sweeping demographic change that Humfrey Land Developments would have been well-positioned for.

Mr Humfrey admits to something of an accidental career. Leaving school early and ending up in the management ranks of a large rural corporate – despite his (then) lack of formal education – which gave him a big breadth of experience at a young age.

His family project management operation, Humfrey Land Developments, effectively took root in the late 1980s when he bought the operations of Geraldton developer Syd Hatch, for whom he’d been working for some years.

These days, there’s not much that the Humfrey family isn’t into – with its tentacles reaching not just out of Geraldton, but also beyond property.

“He has fingers in a lot of pies,” confirms one Geraldton business operator, who also emphasises how supportive Mr Humfrey is of other business people from the region.

The Humfrey family’s regional focus is expanding into the tourism sector in a big way, including a boutique, upmarket, adventure tourism development in the Abrolhos.

There’s even a black pearl farm operating off the Batavia Coast, as the tourism sector likes to call it.

In its Abrolhos Pearls business, the family has decided to go directly to the retail market, employing jewellers and marketing expertise to step away from being simply a commodity producer.

With so much of the business concentrated in arenas that are heavily regulated, Mr Humfrey is surprisingly open when asked about dealing with government – a fact of business life that brings him to Perth on a weekly basis.

He said getting property developments done was harder and more expensive than ever, clearly contributing to the state’s twin problems of land shortages and steeply rising house prices.

For example, 15 years ago land development approvals came with 10 conditions, these days the conditions have almost quadrupled.

“It is all very well for the government to say there is a lot of land; to get approvals is one thing, to satisfy these conditions is another,” Mr Humfrey said.

Furthermore, the issues don’t end there. He claims that, once a development is completed, it is possible to wait four months for Western Power just to certify the work.

Costs, too, have spiralled, with charges rising quickly and, often, abruptly.

Mr Humfrey said a kind of inertia is plaguing development in the state.

“People are too frightened to make a decision now in government, it is sad.”

He points to the Indian Ocean Drive, a stretch of highway that would provide a coastal link between Lancelin and Cervantes and create a scenic route from Perth almost to Geraldton, taking tourist traffic off the busy Brand Highway.

Despite a government announcement last year the road would go ahead, little else has happened, Mr Humfrey said.

“Around $720 million of development is being stymied because the Indian Ocean road is not being done.”

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