A deal maker has helped Canberra's Commonwealth government-centred economy through a precarious change from Labor to a conservative Coalition. Yet his early business career resembles a demolition derby, like the pile-ups that entertained fans at Tralee Speedway near Hume, which he owned.
David Dawes admits he is a hoon at heart. The one-time speedway owner built and lost an automotive empire in Canberra. In a bank-fuelled fast lane, the mechanic's son acquired service stations, car yards and repair shops rapidly until the Australian stock exchange crashed in October, 1987. Dawes lost almost everything.
Bankrupt and depressed after having to sack 150 staff, Dawes was given three years to repay his debts. He threw his business career into reverse like the demolition drivers used to do at Tralee Speedway. Then he put the pedal to the floor, just like Australian super sedan champion David House did on the race track, when Dawes' service station sponsored him. He cleared his debts in a year by returning to what he knew best – selling homes.
"It was all commission only. If you didn't sell you didn't eat," says Dawes, a father of three young children at the time. "Again, I forged some incredible friendships and relationships, not only with the builders I sold for who specialised in new homes, but clients who bought homes from me," he says.
Today, 28 years after the stock market crash Dawes sits on TransACT House's top level on Northbourne Avenue, while the city he is helping to transform disappears under sprawling green tree canopy below. He is chief executive of the Land Development Agency whose annual revenue is forecast to top half a billion dollars in each of the next four financial years.
Dawes' journey from financial ruin to taking charge of the ACT government's economic directorate traversed the Canberra firestorm, insurance collapses, political upheaval and splashing $80 million on the civil sector to cushion the ACT's economy from Commonwealth spending cuts.
"I live at Reid but drive down Lonsdale Street every night on my way home thinking what a fantastic place," Dawes says. "I remember it because I had the Shell garage at Braddon, I remember Gregory Motors and all the other car repair areas. I love going down there at 20 km/h so you don't hit people. To see the place alive is fantastic, it is even better on weekends."
Dawes works past midnight and averages four hours sleep a night. He is out of bed about 4am preparing for the day ahead. "I like to get cracking of a morning and be prepared for the day," the 60-year-old chief executive says. "I have always done that since I can remember, since being involved in business, Master Builders and government for the last last 30 years."
A fanatic at times, he was 10 when neighbours took him to his first dog show. As an adult, he imported champion corgi breeding stock from England and New Zealand and shows some of Australia's top corgis. He grew up in Cooma while the Snowy Mountains Scheme peaked. His father Tom managed the Holden dealership's service workshop and captained a volunteer fire brigade. Tom was 53 when he died of mesothelioma, a cruel legacy from his motor mechanic days fitting asbestos-lined brake shoes. Dawes' mother Cherie was a nurse and still volunteers at Queanbeyan Hospital. His sister Karen lives at Murrumbateman.
After leaving Monaro High School, 19-year-old David joined the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney's Manuka branch, transferred to Tumbarumba, then Batemans Bay. He left banking to work for a book supplier for schools before John Vincent, a room mate from their Batemans Bay banking days, coaxed him into Reg Daly real estate and the RL Wellsmore's agency. He became sales manager and ran the Civic and Woden offices, building a rapport with clients who referred their friends to Dawes, who become a shareholder and director.
"You treat people like you like to be treated, it always pays off in spades," he says. "I was very involved with the Vietnamese community at the time, I used to get a lot of referrals from that community, and other communities as well."
He sold his real estate shares and plunged into business, buying Shell Braddon and Shell Deakin, City Brakes and Clutch and Tasman Motor Cycles, plus an engineering workshop and wholesale spare parts business at Mitchell which imported parts and distributed them across southern NSW. His staff were selling everything from Kitten car polish, lathes to hoists for service stations. With a friend he established Objective Learning Materials, importing teaching aids into Australia.
"In those days banks were throwing money at people. I grew too big too quickly. I used the mortgage to buy blue chip shares, bonds," Dawes says. The sky was the limit until the 1987 crash caught him out. "I never live off the word 'if' because that is something you don't do. I never waste time wondering what if, I move on," he says. In hindsight he should have acted faster and wound up businesses earlier, but felt responsible for 150 families of those he employed.
His sponsorship of David House led to him buying the Pepsi Power Dome from Brian Holbrook. Broke, he still hung on to what is best remembered as Tralee Speedway, where revved-up sprint cars, super sedans, midgets and dirt bikes gave car fanatics their regular fix. Super sedan races were billed as USA versus Australia.
"I should have got out, I limped on, which is unfortunate," he says. After four days of soul searching he took stock. "I thought, right, I have three young children, a wife who has stuck with me, I had always worked seven days a week from my real estate days. I thought right, I've got to dust myself off, as it were, I thought what did I have before I started all this? Nothing."
He joined friend and mentor Richard Tindale establishing Federation Real Estate [which ultimately was added to two other agencies to became a property giant, the Independent Group]. His bankruptcy agreement with creditors kept his foot to the pedal earning money. He had three days off in three years, each one on Christmas day. His wife Liz worked two jobs to help pay bills while the debts were cleared.
In the early 1990s Dawes left real estate for the Master Builders Association ACT – less pay but more time for his growing family – first building membership, then in 1998 succeeding executive director Bernie Bryant. In the years ahead Canberra's builders escaped the worst of the HIH Insurance collapse only to face another crisis in 2002 when insurance broker Dexta withdrew from residential building cover. This led the MBA establishing its own fidelity fund.
Dawes revelled in wheeling and dealing to diversify the MBA's income stream, including reviving an old group training company from the 1960s. Winning a grant, Dawes looked around for classrooms and transformed the MBA into a registered training organisation. "So while apprentices were out of work, they did training, we had flexibility, accelerated their training," he says.
Three young men's suicides in 2000 devastated the construction sector, leading to an unlikely partnership Dawes formed with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union's George Wasson, after approaches from Canberra mother Loraine O'Bryan. The group established the Ozhelp Foundation, now a national organisation, to combat youth suicide.
In the aftermath of the January 2003 firestorm which destroyed 488 homes, Dawes' deal-making came to the fore. Then head of the ACT Land and Planning Authority Lincoln Hawkins rang him on the Sunday after the fires, asking for help rebuilding devastated suburbs. He recalls people in tears getting quotes of $20,000 to $30,000 to demolish their burnt homes.
He approached a major builder with an idea. "We came up with a scheme where Bovis Lend Lease demolished all the homes in Duffy and Chapman under one agreement at a cost of under $4000 a home," he says. "That was a sobering, humbling experience to be able to try and help those individuals, again a lot of private sector organisations that chipped in, it showed Canberra does have a soul, and we do care about one another."
In the aftermath of an internal struggle with former planning minister Simon Corbell, then chief minister Jon Stanhope asked Dawes to help the government tackle housing affordability and mend relations with the private sector. Stanhope thought a better way could be found than a "gold-plated" planning system to get land onto the market.
"It seemed to me almost self-evident that if you felt in government you had an issue, you would go to someone with a proven track record in the area of housing construction and land supply," Stanhope says. "On that basis I approached David, asked him if he would move across to the dark side and he agreed."
Stanhope says Dawes' negotiating skills and energy were highly regarded. "The fact he is as straight as the day is long. David always said what he thought and what he meant, there's nothing tricky or duplicitous, he is straight, he talks straight, says what he thinks, he doesn't engage in games, nothing devious about him, what you see is what you get."
Four years later in 2011 Dawes' role widened to include economic development. He still has his hands on the land release levers, quite a turnaround from his MBA days when he hammered the government's land policies. Dawes says land release was delayed for three years while the LDA worked through environmental legislation. "One of my biggest frustrations, and it happens in every state and territory, is the environmental clearance processes we went through." Nevertheless, he says when average incomes and mortgages are taken into account, homes in the ACT are more affordable than they were in 2007.
"When I first joined government you would have 100 blocks and a ballot with 1000 people sitting at the Convention Centre, hoping their number would be drawn. We have moved away from that, we have a far better system for land. People know we have a four-year land release program, people are not panicking that this is the last block."
To boost the civil sector in 2013 through the change of federal government the new Gungahlin suburb of Moncrieff was accelerated and developed as a whole suburb. Five contractors worked simultaneously to bring more than 500 blocks onto the market to sell to builders and mum and dad purchasers. "There's not too many developers in Australia who would develop a whole suburb in one hit," Dawes says.
On contracts worth $83 million, the contractors began work in July 2014 and should be finished in December, 2015. Despite this big release, Dawes says single residential blocks are too few to meet the demand. He wants more medium density town houses. He reckons more infill development is bringing the ACT closer to a long-held target of 50 per cent greenfields and 50 per cent on infill. On one infill project, Canberra Brickworks, the size and building heights have been reduced, and number of building blocks cut from 1800 to 300 after prolonged community opposition.
"I am quite excited we have something going on at the Brickworks," Dawes says. "That has been a problem since 1979, it was owned by a private sector individual who hurt himself and went into liquidation. The fact we are able to do something and do an investment into [proposed] quarry park and brickworks is a real plus."
Dawes believes the latest transition from Labor to the Coalition was less painful for Canberrans than in the early years of John Howard's prime ministership. Unemployment was more than 8 per cent back then, and 10,000 home blocks oversupplied the residential market. Today unemployment is 4 per cent, and the ACT is still catching up on land supply, and people are staying in the ACT with their families rather than leaving. "Today, it's certainly been more a speed bump than a catastrophe," Dawes says.