Georg Chmiel chats with Hickinbotham Group's Michael Hickinbotham about the home building family business

Georg Chmiel chats with Hickinbotham Group's Michael Hickinbotham about the home building family business
Georg Chmiel chats with Hickinbotham Group's Michael Hickinbotham about the home building family business

GUEST OBSERVER

For Michael Hickinbotham, Managing Director of South Australia’s number-one home builder, his company’s deep-seated family roots and commitment to innovation, quality, and value make the Hickinbotham Group a trusted household name today — some 60 years after the first house went up.  

His father and grandfather, Alan David and Alan Robb respectively, established the company more than 60 years ago. Today, it has built 40,000 homes and more than 50 community estates and maintains the founders’ mission of creating beautiful, quality homes for South Australians.

Hickinbotham tells me he proudly attributes the company’s ongoing success to its core values. 

“Above all, I believe in the concepts of innovation, creativity and value. It’s innovation and creativity that allow us to create value and, it’s the ability to offer superior value that underpins our success,” he enthusiastically shares. 

Hickinbotham Group is the only homebuilder to create and successfully manage brands for every segment of the market, from first home buyers to the middle market and all the way up to luxury homes.

But keeping the company at number one, Hickinbotham explains, takes tenacity and a passionate team that thrives on a sense of urgency. “When we decide to do something, we commit to it, and we do it as well as we can.”

He says, “To sell significant volumes of real estate you have to offer unmatched value. That starts with beautiful designs, great build quality, and fantastic service and is backed up by people who care.”

While Hickinbotham says luck has played a part of the company’s success, he also notes the company has continued to pioneer through significant challenges, including the South Australian State Bank collapse in the 1980’s, the Global Financial Crisis, and the residential building downturn of the mid- and late-2000’s.

The family business emerged from each crisis stronger, smarter, and wiser. 

South Australian Heritage

Hickinbotham’s father and grandfather were the first in the family to develop homes for sale, starting with a house in 1954 on Sturdee Street in Linden Park, an inner-eastern suburb of Adelaide. I understand that house still stands today and is in immaculate condition. 

These are humble beginnings, but both men had a vision to improve communities that still inspires the company’s success today.

His father was a renowned sportsman who represented South Australia and Geelong in football and seemed larger than life. He was well read and engaged with the world but determined and single-minded about the family business.

His grandfather —known to many as “Hick”— was a respected academic and the founder of Australia’s most famous winemaking course at Roseworthy, which is now part of the University of Adelaide.

The legacy of these two men drive Hickinbotham to try new things. 

“While I don’t like failures, I accept that if you don’t have some failures you’re not pushing the envelope far enough, you’re not testing your limits, you’re not growing,” Hickinbotham said. 

“With business you have to learn to take risks and to minimise risk where you can. You have to be willing to fail and, more than that, to face your failures squarely and learn from them.”

Creating homes, not houses 

Although a trained lawyer, Hickinbotham chose property. He could have also joined his family’s other business, which is wine. His older brother David oversees a business that produces excellent wines. Twice they have been ranked among the 100 best in the world by Wine Spectator magazine.

“I love real estate because it is so fundamental to human happiness,” Hickinbotham says. “Nothing improves lives like putting a roof overhead. Real estate is also a time-honoured way for people to build their wealth.”

“I whole-heartedly believe the family serves the business, not the other way around. The business, in turn exists to serve our customers and the community”.

And, as Hickinbotham confidently and proudly states, it is this philosophy and commitment that will continue to guide the business for the next generations. 

Hickinbotham Group was the first Australian developer to put telephone and power lines underground; the first to impose restrictive covenants on the felling of trees at a new home estate; the first to win a Civic Trust award for a housing development. They were the first to store run-off stormwater in the aquifer for later re-use. They were also the first to develop a privately-owned public school at a time when the South Australian State Government couldn’t afford to fund new schools. 

Notably, the company recently signed an agreement with Elon Musk’s Tesla to explore the deployment of Tesla batteries in its estates. And the company already puts solar on many of the homes it builds. 

Hickinbotham Group has even worked on plans to take an entire housing estate “off the grid” via photovoltaic cells and batteries. This means homeowners might be able to earn revenue by selling excess power back to the grid. 

Advice for First Time Buyers and Investors 

As a proud Adelaidean, Hickinbotham whole-heartedly believes his city is the best in Australia for first home buyers.

“You will get a lot more for your money in Adelaide than in Sydney or Melbourne,” he says. 

“Infrastructure here is less stretched. Prices are not as high, so there is a lower entry cost. Adelaide is beautiful and the perfect size at 1.3 million people.”

According to Hickinbotham Group, South Australia is a less volatile market to invest in because traditionally it hasn’t been subjected to the same booms and busts as other capital cities.

“I have also lived in London, Sydney and Melbourne, and I love those cities. But in Adelaide, I can take the family to the beach, or we can go to the wineries and small towns in the Adelaide Hills. Both are only about 30 minutes from the city centre.”

And, naturally, he firmly believes houses are a fantastic investment. 

“The secret to investment success in property is to understand that it is the land that appreciates, not the buildings”, he explains. 

“If you’re in a block of 200 apartments, when the land value increases, the extra value is divided 200 times. That’s the main reason why houses have been such a good investment for such a long time.”

GEORG CHMIEL, the chairman of Juwai, a Chinese website for buyers of overseas property, was speaking to Michael Hickinbotham in his regular column giving insight into the leading minds of Australian property experts.

He has spoken with LJ Hooker agent Bill Malouf about the ins and out of the Sydney market, REINSW president Leanne Pilkington about women in real estate, developer Larry Kestelman about developing your first property, Harcourts boss Mike Green on real estate investment secrets, Ironfish chief Joseph Chou on investing in today's market and liveability guru Cecile Weldon.

 

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