The first impression of a young property developer with a rapidly growing portfolio worth $40 million is one of an affluent upbringing, but at only 28 years of age, Johnson Tran’s journey of entrepreneurship and innovation is inspiring, having overcome the challenges of immigrant parents fleeing Vietnam on a boat with nothing to their name.
Since entering the property sphere in 2012 under Nicson Property Group, Johnson has successfully launched four developments across Yarraville and West Melbourne, with plans for three more projects in Collingwood, North Melbourne and Doncaster over the next 12 months.
But Johnson’s road to success is evidence that sheer determination and hard work is enough to turn a dream into a reality.
“My parents fled Vietnam on a boat to escape communism and arrived in Australia with nothing," Johnson said.
"I didn’t grow up with money, I was raised by a single mum and attended public schools."“Property development was always the end goal; there are so many facets of the industry and development process where you just never stop learning, and that’s what really attracted me.
“I knew I needed funds but also the right knowledge and skill set. Investment banking was one of the highest paying jobs coming out of university and probably the toughest, but I knew the skills and experience I would gain early on would put me in good shape for whichever career path I chose,” he said.
Johnson undertook a double degree in law and commerce at the University of Melbourne, before becoming the President of Australia’s largest university commerce organisation known as the Financial Management Association of Australia (FMAA).
It was during this time that he met his long-term mentor Paul Hameister, the founder of FMAA and co-founder of renowned developer Hamton Property Group.
In his penultimate year of university Johnson secured a coveted investment banking internship at Citigroup, before being offered a role as a graduate, where he often worked 100-hour weeks on mergers and acquisitions.
Following his time as an investment banker, he moved to Future Fund, Australia’s sovereign wealth fund, where his role entailed him to help oversee $15 billion worth of global private equity funds.
Johnson’s first move into property was in 2011 where he purchased a house in Richmond and had plans to build a self-contained studio behind it.
“To build the studio I needed to go through planning with council and work alongside architects, which was a great introduction into the development process.
“The self-contained unit added some value to the property and I started to see how development could work moving forward.”
From there, Johnson purchased his first site in Yarraville, which featured 12 townhouses, before purchasing a second Yarraville site to build 12 apartments; both projects sold out prior to construction.
The Yarra, YarravilleIn November 2015, Nicson purchased two sites in West Melbourne known as West Village, comprising 29 apartments and three retail spaces.
Johnson said one of the most difficult aspects of the property development process is the financing aspect but credited his background in finance for being able to negotiate with banks.
“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 was helpful as it allowed me to work closely with the banks on feasibility and sensitivity analysis, thanks to countless hours spent on Excel during investment banking.”
Johnson said one of the biggest mistakes people can make in not only property development, but any career is thinking they know everything.
“People who think they know everything often don’t know much at all. If you think you know it all, you don’t ask questions. You don’t ask questions, you don’t learn. If you don’t learn, you don’t know anything.
“One of the most important things I’ve learnt is to always be inquisitive. In development, you’re working with experienced people from an array of backgrounds. Everyone has something to teach you.
“You need to be a sponge. Especially when you’re young and starting out, you need to listen to everyone and use your own judgment to make the most informed decisions.”
Johnson said the biggest driver behind his success to date is having the ability to give back to his mum, who raised him as a single mother.
“Success is meaningless if you can’t share it with your family and friends. The greatest enjoyment I get out of making money is the ability to provide well for my mum. Growing up, she worked extremely hard and sacrificed a lot to give me every opportunity to succeed.”
Moving forward, Nicson Property Group is set to turn its attention to its developments in Collingwood, North Melbourne and a landmark project in Doncaster, a luxurious complex of “sky homes” targeted at families and local downsizers, which is set to launch early 2017.