Plagued with the thought of giving up has been commonplace for Iwan Sunito on the journey to becoming an Australian property tycoon.
Since establishing the privately owned group in 1996, Crown Group has evolved from a boutique operation to an enterprise with an established portfolio of projects across Australia and Indonesia in its pipeline worth $5 billion.
The founder and chief executive, who has plans to take Crown Group public in 2021 with a float of no less than $1 billion, says he suffered from thoughts of not being good enough on his path to becoming a major property player.
But it was humble beginnings for Sunito, as he grew up in what he describes as “the jungles of Indonesia,” a small town of Pangkalan Bun in East Kalimantan.
When the crocodile infested river near his childhood home would rise, often flooding his house, Sunito says those were the times he’d take advantage of high tides and go swimming.
“If you survived that, you were really making it,” Sunito said.
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The first five years of starting Crown “I doubted”
Sunito easily commands the room with an air of confidence, but on seeing him most wouldn't guess he's wrestled with low self esteem.
“When I grew up I had a lot of setbacks and failures,” he said.
“I thought I was nobody. A lot of my self-talk was, ‘why was I born so stupid?
“And I used to often talk myself into defeat,” Sunito told The Urban Developer.
Sunito says he especially struggled when he arrived in Australia to complete his studies in architecture in the early nineties, the cultural differences combined with the philosophical language of the degree almost eluding him.
“I nearly failed my first year. But i had a great teacher who became a mentor to me. I was, and still am, always hungry to learn.”
It’s this awareness of his personal struggle Sunito brings to his business.
“Often leaders think they have to know it all,” he says. “But don't be afraid to say you don't know.”
And even after Crown Group’s 22 years of business and billions of dollars worth of property development, Sunito says self doubt doesn't go away.
“I feel like giving up every development launch that we have,” he says.
“Even in starting Crown Group, for the first five years I doubted if it would work.”
Following his studies, Sunito originally started his own construction company building residential homes which he says gave him the foundation to get into developing.
The site was a parcel of land in Bondi Junction on Spring Street secured for $5 million that would kick start the company. After borrowing a large sum of money from his Dad, and contacting two of his friends to secure the deal, Crown Group was officially created, along with a 10-storey development they later sold for $28 million.
“I thought developing would be something high risk, but also high return and I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” Sunito said.
“Those early years I was only paying myself $20,000 a year... there were a lot of hard times.”
Some 20 years later, Sunito says Crown Group has around 200 people running the operation.
A man with a penchant for quotes and personal affirmations, Sunito says “you don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”
Know who you are
Mindful of his start in life, Sunito’s developments are informed by his upbringing in tropical East Kalimantan.
“Jungle and water, these elements of nature inform my design,” Sunito says. “I don’t try to be something I’m not.”
Sunito also says he was conscious of keeping the media at arms length until Crown Group really knew its brand.
“I stayed out of the media for the first eight years of our business… until we really knew who we were, our colour, and our unique identity,” he says.
In launching the $120 million Greensquare Infinity development Sunito said the group sold $385 million in just five hours, describing the sale frenzy “as a fruit market”.
“But in the past, it took me years just to sell a $30 million job. Because we had no brand,” he said.
“So the reality of business is, it takes time. You almost need to move from a hyundai, to a toyota, to a lexus.
“Even though I had the goal to produce the best of the best in development, the reality was as a company we moved very slowly.”
Related: Crown Group Unveils Kengo Kuma Designs for Sydney Tower
In 1998 Sunito said the Asian financial crisis hit, and then in 2008 the global financial hit, but weathering the tough times is what sets you apart.
“Everybody tells you, 'don’t do anything in these times'. But that’s when you do deals,” he says.
“We made a fortune, because in tough times you can buy a site and there’s no competition.”
It was also during the GFC, Sunito discovered the Blue Ocean Strategy a book he says "shifted his perception" as a developer.
He attributes this book as a turning point for Crown Group, as it gave way to a new focus on what he describes as “urban resort” developments.
With this focus he approaches his projects from three areas.
“The building has got to be an architecturally iconic building. The foyer has got to be a five-star resort foyer. And the third thing, the landscape has got to be like an urban resort.
“From 2007 to 2009, our company expanded from a team of 25 people to more than 100,” Sunito said. “And that was during the downturn.”
Looking ahead, Sunito has expansion plans for a 500 apartment project in downtown Los Angeles in the US, along with a colossal 3000-5000 apartment waterfront development in Jakarta.
And while the Australian market is well into its current trough, Sunito says he’s been around long enough to know the market is a cyclical one. And like a career, or a life well lived, it’s filled with highs and lows.
“Every success is often followed by failure,” Sunito says.
“I really like that quote by Bill Gates” he adds, “success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose.
“As much as I’m optimistic, I’m optimistically cautious,” he added.
Name: Iwan Sunito
Occupation: Property developer, and avid drawer of Marvel manga characters, i.e Superman, Spiderman, Batman.
Education: Bachelor of Architecture and a Master of Construction Management, UNSW.
Personal: Lives in Sydney. Married to Liana and together have three children, Samuel 23, Hannah 21, and Michelle 15.
Career triumphs: Sunito has undertaken more than 10 major residential apartment development projects in Australia (including Homebush, Ryde, Ashfield, Rhodes, Newington, and Waterloo), along with numerous other residential projects.
One last Iwan Sunito favourite quote:
“If you are the smartest in your group, then your group is too small”.
"It’s a reminder to myself, there’s a lot of things to learn from the younger generation and from other industries," Sunito said.