Paul Lionetti has grown his property portfolio from a share in a single deli to around 30 per cent of Albany’s commercial district.
Paul Lionetti’s description of himself as a “baked beans seller” understates his place in the Albany community by several orders of magnitude.
His role in the development of Albany may have started with the delicatessen he established with his brother-in-law in 1977, but it has expanded significantly in the decades since.
Mr Lionetti moved from Italy to Australia with his family when he was five and grew up on a farm in Narrikup, a 30-minute drive north of Albany.
In the early years, becoming a businessman was well down a list of career choices headed by ‘farmer’.
However, in 1977, his brother-in-law was buying a deli and asked if Mr Lionetti would like to be a 50 per cent partner.
“I said to dad: ‘I’ll go into town for five or six years, make some money and come back’. And then I got the bug and I never went back,” Mr Lionetti told Business News.
“I still dream. I am a farmer at heart and my brothers are on the farm at Narrikup.
“Every time I think that I might go buy some [farm] land, another opportunity comes up and then another opportunity comes up.”
Mr Lionetti said the supermarkets gave him cash flow to pursue his main interest of commercial property.
“I’m a developer rather than a retailer,” he said.
The historic London Hotel, which is rented by French-Vietnamese restaurant Liberté, the Spencer Park Shopping Centre and property along the length of Stirling Terrace are some of Mr Lionetti’s commercial investments.
Mr Lionetti told Business News he owned between 25 and 30 per cent of the town’s commercial-retail floor space.
More recently, he entered the hospitality and tourism sector, opening waterfront bar and restaurant Due South in 2014.
Mr Lionetti said he developed the site because he saw an opportunity for a waterfront restaurant, rather than any desire to open a hospitality venue.
“We run this because my son-in-law loves it, but if he was to not do it anymore we would sell the business and I would lease the property,” he said.
Next door to Due South on the waterfront, Mr Lionetti purchased a 9,500 square metre property and is building a $17.2 million hotel, set to be finished in March 2021.
The 108-room hotel will be run by Hilton under a management contract.
Mr Lionetti said he would extend the premises to include 260 rooms if the hotel achieved a good occupancy rate.
The development will provide high-end accommodation, filling the gap in the market created by the demolition of The Esplanade Hotel in 2007.
Mr Lionetti said most of the existing accommodation in Albany had been built some time ago.
“They are all motels that have been here [since] the 1960s and ’70s … life has moved on, hasn’t it,” he said.
Instead of directly competing with existing accommodation, Mr Lionetti hoped the hotel would attract new visitors to the region.
“I think there will be a certain amount of people from Perth saying: ‘Well let’s go stay in Albany at the five-star hotel’,” he said.
“Fly down Friday, stay Saturday, Sunday, go home Monday and it won’t impact on the other motels but I think it will create its own following.”
Mr Lionetti’s various business ventures have given him a high profile in Albany.
“I know everybody in town,” he said.
“If I walk up York Street it takes me three hours, but that’s alright, I don’t mind.”
On at least one occasion, Mr Lionetti has used his standing to further issues outside his core property business.
Steven Lionetti was charged with one count of aggravated burglary and two counts of criminal damage at a property belonging to his ex-partner, and stories of his initial court appearance and his guilty plea were published by the paper, referencing his relationship to the well-known businessman in the first sentence.
Mr Lionetti was unwilling to discuss the matter in much detail, other than to say journalists had to learn to report news, not create it.
“Not sensationalise, and not create it,” he said.
“They are there to report news, and in that case they didn’t.”
The newspaper was established by a group of businessmen in the 1990s, inclduing Mr Lionetti.
Mr Lionetti has also strongly opposed seven-day trading in Albany, claiming it hurts small business.
“At times, I have probably opposed it to the point where it is getting personal with different people in town who wanted it, but seven-day trading destroys small business,” Mr Lionetti said.
Currently, Mr Lionetti’s IGA supermarkets are open from 7am to 9pm seven days a week, while Coles and Woolworths are open from 8am to 6pm Monday to Saturday.
“They sell everything, it affects everybody, people who sell TVs, chemists, it affects the whole community,” he said.
Mr Lionetti also owns an independent bottle shop in town, which is able to trade on Sunday.
“If they [big retailers] could open seven days a week, their bottle shops could open seven days a week, it would cripple us,” he said.
Despite his business success in Albany, Mr Lionetti said he wasn’t looking to invest in other country towns.
He said the lack of competition meant there were more unique opportunities to be found in Albany.
“If we were in Fremantle … there would have been a million people like sharks all over it,” he said.
“Whereas in Albany it’s hidden; there are a lot more opportunities in Albany than there are in Perth because there’s not many people having a crack.
“You’ve got to live there to see the opportunity.”
While he didn’t reveal the specifics of his future plans, Mr Lionetti said he was in the process of acquiring more commercial property for government departments and medical businesses.
These acquisitions were driven by a strong belief that Albany was one of the few regional areas in WA with massive growth potential.
“Margaret River has been created by a lot of money; rich people have gone down and they have created it, and that’s there and there’s nothing wrong with that, but they haven’t got the Stirling Ranges, they haven’t got the national park, they haven’t got all the beauty that we have got,” Mr Lionetti said.
“Where we fail, I believe, is that Albany is not selling itself for its beauty, and by the beauty I mean the cleanliness and what it is.”
He said it was important to promote Albany’s natural appeal to the billions of people in Asia.
“I’m not blaming the city, I’m not blaming anybody, but I just think we are not selling ourselves to the right market,” Mr Lionetti said.
As for Albany as a city, Mr Lionetti wanted to see more inner-city living in mid-rise developments.
“I’m against let’s say, Observation City [now known as Rendezvous Hotel], I’m against Crown Towers,” he said.
“We don’t need great monstrosities sticking up in there.
“That’s how I would like Albany to grow, beautifully, just like the cities of Europe where, it’s crowded but not overcrowded.”