Business Hub: Property developer Chris Meehan’s $5 billion ambition

He’s a keen competitive sailor, married to a three-time Olympian, friends with Danish royalty, and has just spent nearly $20 million on a house in Australia.

And if Chris Meehan doesn’t quite have a profile in this country to match those credentials, that could soon change. In the next few weeks, the property developer’s Winton Capital plans to raise $300 million to $400m by listing on the NZX and ASX, to enable it to expand, with the goal of creating about $5 billion worth of new developments.

Giving what he describes as the first media interview in his career of 30 years or so, Meehan has a straightforward answer when asked about the profile that will come with a sharemarket listing: “I won’t enjoy it. It seems to go with the territory.”

In Australia, the Southland-born businessman is known as the founder of Belle Property, one of the country’s leading real estate franchises.

He’s also known for his sailing and social connections. Wife Michaela Meehan is Danish and an accomplished sailor, having competed at the Atlanta, Sydney and Athens Olympics, and the family counts European royalty among its friends.

“We’ve known the Danish royal family for a very long time, 25 to 30 years,” says Chris Meehan, referring to Australian-born Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark. “We’re very close friends.”

In his younger years, Meehan was part of the Australian sailing team for four years in the lead-up to the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. “My best mate and godfather to my middle son, Tom King, beat me in selection for the spot and he went on to win gold in the 470 class at the subsequent Sydney Olympic Games.”

He has competed internationally in various classes of boat, and in 2009 sailed in the World Masters Games in Sydney with Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, in the two-person Tasar class.

Meehan made headlines in Australia recently when he paid $19.5m for a house at Palm Beach, north of Sydney — with no need for a property inspection: “I’ve been holidaying in Palm Beach for the last 20 years,” he says. “It wasn’t a spur of the moment purchase. I couldn’t get there when it was up for sale due to the pandemic and travel restrictions. But I had visited the house many times. We had always looked at it and hoped one day to own it. It came up for sale. We sent friends to look at us for it, took advice and proceeded with the purchase.”

He has no immediate plans to visit, “probably not until next year”.

His New Zealand company is named Winton after the Southland town, and the place where he was adopted. “Parents adopted me from Winton. When my parents picked me up, I was in Winton.”

His early years were spent in Queenstown, where he went to Queenstown Primary School, before moving to Sydney in his early teens and going to North Sydney Boys High School.

He was a competitive sailor and studied property valuation in Sydney.

Today he lives “half and half” between Herne Bay and outside Arrowtown on Speargrass Flat Rd. He and Michaela have three boys aged 16, 14 and 12 who are King’s College in Auckland.

Now, he’s about to burst onto the markets here and in Australia, hoping to list his business by issuing new shares this month or next.

“We are looking to raise $300m to $400m via the issue of new shares to fund expansion with a listing on the NZX and ASX. No shareholders would sell existing shares. This would be the creation of new shares. Winton has around $4b to $5b of projects planned and underway. That would be the end development value,” says Meehan.

Meehan, aged 50, and Michaela own 80 per cent of the business. Long-term friends David Liptak of New York and Christchurch businessman Philip Carter own the other 20 per cent.

Winton has lodged a prospectus with the Financial Markets Authority. The private, low-profile business already has a significant track record, having completed projects throughout New Zealand.

It owns 29 sites of which 24 are for residential development and five are for retirement villages, Meehan says.

“We produce 500 to 600 lots a year for residential. We hope to lift that to about 1000 a year for residential and develop about 1200 a year in total of residential and retirement village lots and units.”

Not all has gone well on the development front. After a District Court case, Winton went to the Court of Appeal over the discharge of silt into the Clutha River at one of its projects: “The contractor who was doing the earthworks at the time. He complied with the rules.”

The appeal was heard last month and a decision is due.

“The court will hopefully tell me we didn’t do anything wrong. We took every piece of advice, followed the rules. There’s nothing wrong with what we’ve done and there was an extraordinary rainfall that particular day. It’s more a matter of principle with us.”

When it comes to retirement villages, Meehan sayshe’s aiming to be the BMW of the business. Ryman Healthcare and Summerset Group, he says, are mid-market “Ford Falcons or Holden Commodores. There’s no one producing in the upper quartile.”

Winton will create better villages “so the analogy is the BMW that we want to become. We think there’s a strong appetite for people to retire well and to buy into luxury living.”

While it doesn’t yet have any villages operating, Winton has village sites in Arrowtown, Wanaka, Christchurch, Wynyard Quarter and Hobsonville Point. It recruited ex-Summerset chief executive Julian Cook to the board and he will become a shareholder as part of the capital raise.

Winton is understood to have an extremely low level of debt against the assets that are now being valued ready for the float.

“It’s just my happy place. I like it. It’s a safe conservative way to run the business,” Meehan says of the low borrowings.

Design is his real love, though: “The New Zealand architect I admire immensely is Pip Cheshire. He hasn’t designed any Winton project. We do a lot of it in-house. Winton has about 40 staff,” he says of the operation with its headquarters in the Viaduct Harbour.

However, “the pandemic definitely slows us down. We’re finding it harder to get materials and labour and in alert level 4, we couldn’t build.”

He cites plans for the 5000-home, solar-powered Sunfield at Papakura as one project he’s particularly enthusiastic about.

But Meehan is set on expansion and applying Winton’s formula to more ambitious projects. Via that Australian and New Zealand listing plan, he hopes the business will catapult itself into a whole new growth phase.

Chris Meehan:

Job: Chief executive of Winton Capital
Based: Near Arrowtown and in Herne Bay
Age: 50
Education: Queenstown Primary School, North Sydney Boys High School
Family: Wife Michaela, sons aged 16,14 and 12
Last book read: F.I.A.S.C.O, about Wall St financial crisis, by Frank Partnoy
Last film seen: American action comedy Shaft
Last holiday: In the Caribbean about two years ago, sailing
Drives: An Audi e-tron in Auckland, a VW ute in Queenstown.
Not many people know: “I love designing buildings, landscaping and interiors. I love design. I don’t know where it comes from. I probably wish I was an architect.”

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