Iwan Sunito sees things for what they will become

APAC News Crown Group CEO Iwan Sunito at Waterfall by Crown poolside

Crown Group’s Iwan Sunito stands atop Waterfall by Crown’s poolside, one of four developments re-shaping south eastern Sydney

After more than two decades at the helm, the co-founder and CEO of one of Australia’s leading private apartment developers says his best work is yet to come

17 December 2019 | Marcus Reubenstein

Walking into the almost finished Waterfall by Crown development in Sydney’s once industrial Waterloo, Iwan Sunito passes under a bamboo canopy and marvels at a resort style lagoon surrounded by tropical gardens.

He is clearly excited. It’s the vision he had for this project years ago and it’s the vision he presented when Waterfall was launched to the market in mid-2017. “My upbringing in Kalimantan of that river water, jungle and nature is always with me,” he says. “This is our vision for an urban resort, we want to immediately engage the five senses.”

Indonesian-born Sunito studied architecture at the prestigious UNSW, needing to complete the entry course in Australia because he failed high school in Indonesia. In 1996 he formed the Crown Group with engineer Paul Sathio, which over the years has become a hugely successful partnership of vision, design and execution.

Today, Crown is the only major Australian residential property developer run by an architect, solidifying its reputation for delivering on its promised designs. Indeed, the almost finished eight-level garden waterfall is one-hundred percent true to the artist images released when the Waterfall project was first announced more than four years ago.

Leading by design

When it comes to his resort style designs, he says, “It becomes natural, you get an affinity for it, and our whole entire business is about being the best developer. We have a tagline it’s not about being bigger first but better first and bigger will follow.”

We continue past the waterfall and take the elevator to the already completed rooftop infinity pool with views that spill out across the city and western skyline. Another few steps and the complex’s rooftop outdoor cinema awaits, nestled between the two is a function centre where residents have space for fully catered family celebrations or functions.

Crown Group's Iwan Sunito admires the design of Mastery by Crown
Iwan Sunito, the only architect running a major Australian residential property group

Crown Group sees areas like Waterloo becoming hubs of living, and working, for a creative younger generation. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data shows that 30% of the population spends some time working from home, while nearly 10% of the workforce operate small businesses from their homes. So, there’s a boardroom style meeting room, which residents will be able to book for meetings.

Says Sunito, “I get attracted to areas like Green Square, Waterloo and Eastlakes not because of what the areas were before but what they will become. Firstly, there is the government expenditure and with that the price will always grow, we’re interested in price growth, because if people who are investing with us don’t make money we’ve got a problem; they’ve got to do well out of it.”

Knowing the social trends

For Crown its choice of suburbs in which to develop is also simple economics. Older Australians tend not to move out of their homes, so supply constraints push prices up and leads their children to look for new more affordable areas. Says Sunito, “What I like about these areas, Waterloo, Green Square and Eastlakes, is the gentrification of this areas. Younger generations are moving into these areas and they’re the ones who’ll create a new trend.”

The most important trend is growing the purchaser’s investment in an apartment. According to Sunito, “I often say to people, you’re investing one million dollars in a single unit, I am investing half a billion dollars. You want your property to go up but I want it to go up even more than you.”

With developments in Australia’s three major eastern cities, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, his focus on the once industrial south-eastern suburbs of Sydney is transforming the dynamics of the area and the standard of living.

Still a private company, Crown Group has a $2.5 billion development pipeline across the Waterloo and Eastlakes areas with the second of four projects nearing completion.

Iwan Sunito on rooftop of Waterfall by Crown with Infinity by Crown in background
Iwan Sunito with Infinity by Crown tower in background

A trusted brand in China

Crown developments have a good mix of ownership and tenants, which reflect the changing demographics of the areas in which it builds. Half of the purchasers come from overseas, mainly from China, and a 2019 Australia Brands in China Survey ranked Crown Group as Australia’s top developer among Chinese buyers.

Even though few would doubt the Australian residential property market is well into a recovery phase, new apartment sales are nowhere near the rates of three or four years ago. And, thanks to the tightening of bank lending to investors, higher duties for overseas buyers and some trepidation after many were caught out by the market fall, local and foreign investors are sitting on the sidelines.

In September Sunito was invited to deliver a keynote address to Chinese buyers at an international residential property expo in Hong Kong. Crown Group received solid buyer enquiries from investors mainly looking to make cash purchases.

 “While there are restrictions on foreign buyers in terms of their borrowings, what it actually does is filter out the property speculators and filter in the buyers who are able to pay cash,” he says. “That’s been fantastic for us because we target more of the upper-end market.”

Quality design and construction allows him to command higher sales prices, one of his five penthouse apartments recently achieved a record price for the area of $26,012 per square meter.

Prior to this offering the previous area record was held by, another of Sunito’s developments, Infinity by Crown. He says, “Investing and developing in great locations is a big thing. We are near transport, jobs, beaches and other amenities. Waterloo is also close to three universities, University of Sydney, UTS and UNSW; and that is a big thing.”

Quality that’s inclusive

His latest collaboration, adjacent to the Waterfall project, is with a team of architects that includes world-renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Best known as the designer of Beijing’s famous “Great Bamboo Wall House”, Kuma has designed a forest inspired twenty-level apartment building, with the lower levels featuring cascading gardens bounded by natural wood finishing.

It will be one five buildings situated within 8,000 square metres of landscaped gardens and recreation areas. It’s a stark contrast to what was once an industrial area dotted with workers cottages and unimaginative concrete apartment buildings.

Says Sunito, “We are not trying to create developments that are exclusive, we are trying to create developments where people have a sense that they belong. We are not exclusive in the sense that we create gated communities that say we are rich and you are not.

“We are understated luxury that brings a sense of belonging to everybody that lives and doesn’t live in our building. If we considered our buildings to be exclusive, there is a sense of superiority. Being inclusive means well you may not live in this building but we welcome you.”

As market recovers Crown brand has the edge

In November Australia recorded its biggest monthly rise in property prices since 2003, Sydney prices rose by 2.7%, while prices in Crown’s development areas surged 3.4% for the month.

Recent data shows that apartment prices in Sydney are keeping pace with the rise in house prices, however, clearance rates of new apartments are not strong. In Sydney, around 15% of new apartments have yet to be sold, the bulk of those are in the western suburbs. The best performing areas are close to the city, close to amenities and infrastructure; Crown Group ticks those boxes.

Leading independent housing economist Dr. Andrew Wilson, who compiled the data on unsold new apartments, predicts it will take another six months until the stock will be cleared. In the meantime, as an established and reputable developer, he says groups like Crown will have a marketing edge in attracting buyers.     

Also helping the market are record low interest rates in Australia. “Rates go down, prices go up, simple as that,” says Sunito. “Interest rate reductions and relaxing mortgage policies is a big plus but where we need to go as a country is relaxing lending restrictions for foreign buyers. What I am hearing is that the four major banks are doing that right now.” 

Sydney property values are up 22.2 percent over the past five years but still 8 percent below their peak prices of two years ago. “I see prices moving up and next year I wouldn’t be surprised if the price growth is double-digit,” says Sunito. “It will continue to grow for the next three years because there’s under-supply and to replace the stock takes about three to four years.”