A property career steeped in history

By Anne Gibson

Growing up in a London house built by Henry VIII's most powerful adviser sparked Martin Udale's appreciation of real estate.

The Auckland property chief heads one of the largest development businesses, McConnell Property, with $750 million of real estate projects on the go, developing big estates of up to 1500 houses in subdivisions like Addison, McLennan and Anselmi Ridge and an 80ha business park project at Hamilton's airport.

But it was a somewhat modified and eclectic tudor mansion built by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the English statesman and Roman Catholic prelate, which first inspired Udale, an ex-Brit who so despised school that at just 16 he joined the British Army's artillery division.

The Hampton Wick house, built for Wolsey's mistress in the 1500s, was the first structure to make Udale stop and think about real estate.

Grandparents, who had seven children, initially lived in a house next door. Their rapidly expanding family forced them to search for a larger place so they bought the distinctive manor which once backed on to the Thames and where three generations of Udales grew up.

The house, in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames, is not grand. Nor does it have lavish gardens. The family sold it nine years ago.

But growing up there had its moments, forcing its occupants to duck under low door lintels to preserve their heads.

In his offices above Kermadec restaurant in Auckland's Viaduct, Udale fondly remembers the lively experience of growing up in what the locals referred to as Wolsey's cottage.

"Somewhere along the line, I developed an interest in buildings and it was probably in that 500-year-old house where the roof was made out of re-used ship timbers. Wolsey was said to have built that while he was rebuilding Hampton Court Palace. The initials, TS, are said to have stood for Thedosia Simpkins, and were carved in the middle of the mantle piece at my house."

Udale, whose father worked in textiles, was reluctant to settle down into the workforce after graduating from Britain's Reading University so set off for the United States where he pumped gas, hung out with mates with classic Dodges and grunty motorbikes.

"I had a ball. On my graduation day, I was water-skiing on the delta where the water comes into San Francisco Bay and I asked myself whether I'd rather be wearing a mortar board or out on the water. I knew the answer."

He returned to Britain to work as a project manager for real estate specialists Capital & Counties in an attempt to settle down. But his brother's trip to Australia inspired the next journey, this time an odyssey into a part of the world from which he would never return.

Udale reached Australia in 1981 and after arriving in Perth, he bought a Honda 750 FT and journeyed through the country.

"The grand plan was to go to Australia and New Zealand for two years and then return to London," he remembers.

But once in Sydney, he decided to stay, joining various development and property investment businesses.

A stint at New South Wales Railways, working on its property portfolio, illustrated the divide between public and private entities.

"I noticed there was a level of distrust in the role of government and thought it was a shame." A legacy from that experience now has him working with Auckland City on affordable housing.

In 2002, Auckland businessman David McConnell was looking to establish a new arm of the business which owns Hawkins Construction, Steelpipe and what was then called McConnell International.

So McConnell crossed the Tasman to see Udale in Sydney. Together, they toured projects including Prospect Quarry.

By April 2003, the Udale family had shifted to Auckland where in contrast to the arid Sydney, rain bucketed down for weeks.

Udale has spread his interests outside McConnell, being a founding member of The Azzie Mates, a club for Australians living in Auckland like former Fletcher Building chief executive Ralph Waters, Brian Evans (formerly Fairfax) and various airline chiefs. This year, McConnell Property strengthened its funding lines by selling a 36 per cent stake to investment bank ABN Amro, which can take its stake up to 49 per cent eventually. No price was declared on the deal.

Asked who inspires him, Udale deliberately avoided corporate role models and instead mentioned a hero working with the underprivileged.

"Without trying to sound too politically correct, people who really inspire me do extraordinary things often in quite ordinary day-to-day circumstances - community leaders such as Sully Paea in South Auckland.

"I think people like that are more laudable than anything I can do so the least I can do is try and make the place a better place.

"There are lots of competent developers and designers and business leaders around the world from whom we can learn but there are few people who dedicate their lives to making a difference in extraordinarily challenging and difficult circumstances every day. They are the people we should all admire, respect and support.

"Somewhere in all of this, the corporate world needs to step up as governments increasingly step back. We see that happening as customers, shareholders, staff and governments expect and require it of business.

"Corporate social responsibility, et al, is alive and well and not going away, at least I don't think so, which gets me back to the whole subject of there needing to be a more constructive relationship between business and government at all levels that focuses on getting to good outcomes and a clear set of responsibilities and expectations.

"It's not that the private and public sectors will always agree on the right solution or outcome but at least some constructive dialogue and go-forward would make a big difference to what I perceive as a general lack of trust and understanding by both."

CHRISTOPHER MARTIN UDALE
McConnell Property chief executive
Age: 52.
Lives: In an Epsom villa built in 1901.
Family: Married to Barbara, daughters Claire 21, Madelaine, 19.
Nationality: Dual Australian and British citizenship.
Education: Honours degree in estate management from Reading University.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a4 at 20 Sep 2014 05:01:25 Processing Time: 1963ms