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Not your average developer: The family legacy that saw Johnson Tran build a $50m portfolio

With a portfolio worth $50 million, property developer Johnson Tran is the textbook definition of success… but the 29-year-old Melburnian’s tale is anything but ordinary. Unlike many of his peers, Tran didn’t benefit from an affluent upbringing; rather, he is the son of immigrants who fled communist Vietnam on a boat and arrived in Australia with nothing. 

Since the launch of Nicson Property Group in 2012, Tran – the group’s founder and MD – has successfully launched four major developments across Yarraville and West Melbourne. With more than $180 million worth of projects in the pipeline, including three hotels totalling over 300 rooms in Doncaster, West Melbourne and Elizabeth Street in the CBD, as well as a 70-townhouse residential and retail complex in the heart of Footscray, Tran’s company is very much in demand.

He spoke to Dynamic Business about following the example set by his parents and grandparents and the secrets to his success.

What led you to found Nicson Property Group?

Nicson started when I began my first project, a 12-townhouse development in Yarraville. I purchased the site in 2012 when Yarraville was still an up-and-coming area. Young buyers were getting priced out of the east, the north started booming and eventually people started looking at the west where you could still find sizeable blocks of land at reasonable prices and in close proximity to the city.

What do you attribute your success in business to?

Hard work, being personable, doing business with integrity and working with hungry, ambitious partners:

  • Hard work:  I studied to become an investment banker knowing that while it would be tough, the skills and experience would put me in good stead to pursue a career in property development. After completing a double degree in law and commerce at the University of Melbourne, I went straight to work as an investment banker. I was working 80 to 100-hour weeks and for three years, I spent my weeknights building financial models in Excel, aligning charts in PowerPoint and mastering the presentation binding machine at 4am. I would still be working when most people were waking up for breakfast. Most weekends were also spent in the office, the highlight of which was the privilege of wearing trackies and a t-shirt to work. I worked hard early on. I definitely wasn’t spending my weeknights on the couch watching TV.
  • Being personable: If people don’t like you, they won’t do business with you. If no-one does business with you, there is no business. If you’re personable and can build a genuine rapport with people, business opportunities and networks will always open up. One network could open you up to multiple networks, which could open you up to business opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. One of which may be your next million dollars. None of which would have happened if people didn’t like you.  This approach has worked for my long-term mentor, Paul Hameister, the co-founder of Hamton Property Group and the founder of Australia’s largest university commerce organisation, the Financial Management Association of Australia (FMAA). I met him during my time as the president of FMAA and was struck by how humble and down-to-earth he is. He listens a lot more than he speaks so he’s always absorbing information and lets his success do the talking. His personable nature and humility means everyone wants to meet him and do business with him, which exposes him to a lot of genuine partnerships and business opportunities.
  • Doing business with integrity: Doing business with integrity is something I take very seriously. There are plenty of businesspeople that make money through dishonesty and ripping people off. I would never want to be on the wrong end of a dodgy deal so I would never put anyone in that position. If you do business the right way and with integrity, it will be appreciated and more people will want to work with you.
  • Hungry, ambitious partners: I love working with hungry and ambitious people who are passionate about their field and take pride in what they do. On any given project, I’m working with over 30 professionals and consultants on various aspects of a development. With so many moving parts, it makes your life much easier when you’re working with reliable people who can meet deadlines. I’ve found the best operators are those that are hungry and driven to either build their own business or career. It is like-minded and ambitious people like this I enjoy working most with and building long-term partnerships.
What have been your biggest career challenges?

One of the most difficult aspects of a development is the financing component. If you don’t understand what the banks are looking for to approve a project, the funding process can be very difficult. And with no funding, there’s no project. My background in finance has been helpful as it allowed me to work closely with financiers on feasibility and sensitivity analysis, thanks to many hours spent on Excel during investment banking.

One of the biggest challenges I face as a developer is trying manage deadlines of numerous consultants and workstreams on multiple projects. With so many moving parts in a development, it can be frustrating when mistakes or delays from one workflow disrupt another and hence, delay the overall development. You have to learn to be patient, deal with the inevitable setbacks and focus on what’s ahead. Looking back and trying to lay blame won’t change anything and doesn’t help anyone.

Have your family’s experiences informed your career path?

Everyone experiences setbacks in their life and careers. What often sets successful people apart is how they deal with these setbacks. My grandparents fled communist China to rebuild their lives in Vietnam, only to flee communist Vietnam 20 years later with my parents and restart all over again in Melbourne. My grandparents and parents refused to be dictated by communism and did something about it. Rather than feel sorry for themselves, they had the courage to leave everything behind, move to a completely foreign country and seek a better life for the family. This courage and forward-looking attitude is inspiring and has taught me to always remain positive in spite of unfortunate situations.

I didn’t grow up with money, I was a public school kid with a working single mother who sacrificed a great deal. She always bought me things I wanted that in hindsight weren’t financially sensible – from the most expensive tennis racquet in the store to a $5,000 Bianchi road bike. She would drive me to swimming training seven times a week, most of which were 4am starts. Her life revolved around me and giving me every opportunity to pursue what I wanted. The sacrifices she made for me growing up have always been the driver of my strong work ethic and ambition to succeed. She loves to travel and deserves to have a lifestyle where money isn’t a concern. The pursuit of property development was to be able to provide this.

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James Harkness

James Harkness

James Harnkess previous editor at Dynamic Business

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