The Ultimate Commercial Artist

Will Deague has worked for Asian Pacific Group, his family’s business, since he was a teenager and managed his first development at the age of 20. since becoming CEO in 2008, Will has overseen the creation of the hugely successful ‘Art Series’ boutique hotels. He speaks to Spark about how the company has bucked the trend in the contracting property market.

Did you ever consider another line of business?
It was never a consideration to enter into another line of business. I started on building sites in the school holidays from the age of 13 and I didn’t particularly enjoy studying, or the academic side of things. From day one I have always enjoyed (and been around) the property industry and have enjoyed working with my family members.
Your work in developing the ‘Art Series’ boutique hotels has won numerous awards. What was the inspiration for the series?
The inspiration for the Art Series really came about when I took over as CEO of the group in 2008. I was looking for a more sustainable business model rather than being in the hands of the boom-bust property cycle. At the same time I was reading about the amazing work and hotels that the founder of boutique hotels Ian Schrager was doing in the USA. I jumped on a plane and stayed in all of his hotels from Miami to New York and came back with the concept of opening a series of boutique hotels firstly within Melbourne and then all around Australia. From this I was also always thinking about creating that point of difference and that’s where my family’s and my passion for Australian art mixed in perfectly with the boutique hotels.

Why do you think that concept has been so well received?
It has such a point of difference within accommodation in Australia. There is nothing like it in Australia and no hotels have dedicated their name and the interiors to artists like we have. They are like a shrine to the artists as well as being somewhat ‘designer’ hotels. They are absolutely dedicated to Australian artists and I hope that also gives an educational experience to our guests.
You have undertaken expansion in the midst of an economic downturn. Why?
Fortunately (or unfortunately) we had actually already started the construction on most of these hotels, our bank funding was in place, we had great relationships with our bankers and part of our long-term plan was to open a series of these hotels in fantastic locations firstly around Melbourne. We were very confident in the market. There was nothing else being built at the same time and since opening they have paid off in spades as nothing else has been built in Melbourne. We were confident that the corporate market in Australia was not going to decline like it was around the world.
What benefits did you see that would outweigh the risks?
Due to bank finance it was very difficult for other developers to obtain funding and therefore a lack of projects came onto the market. As I mentioned, we were also confident that the corporate market would not decline. 
Which project are you most proud of, and why?
I have to say that I am most proud of The Olsen Hotel. It is our flagship hotel, with the glass-bottomed pool overhanging Chapel Street. It was probably the most difficult to construct but I am also extremely proud of the customer service feedback which I hear from customers every day and see on websites such as Trip Advisor. A highlight of this for me was The Blackman Hotel becoming number 1 on Trip Advisor for all hotels in Melbourne within 4 months of opening. 
What has been your biggest challenge running the business?
The biggest challenge in running the hotel business is the frustration of coming from a property background rather than a hotel background. Our hoteliers look at occupancy and I look at vacancy. The biggest challenge running the Asian Pacific Group is the ever increasing bureaucracy that goes on within every aspect of the business from town planning, to unions to increasing challenges from the banking industry.
You recently won the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Emerging Category. What is your most memorable achievement with the business?
It would have to be the opening of the Art Series Hotels. We built, designed and were involved in every aspect of the hotels from the ground up and opening three hotels within one year was a very proud moment and some of the most memorable achievements are hearing people and people writing about how ‘this is not possible’ and I ‘have to be off my head’ and now when I get my daily reports and I quite often see 100% occupancy it is really the most fulfilling achievement to date. 
Your business has boomed during difficult economic times. How have you bucked the trend?
Our business has boomed due to a number of reasons. Firstly in each of the hotels we have a residence product so each of the rooms has a kitchen and an openable window if not a balcony so in very quiet  times we lease rooms for 28 day-plus stays and this has enabled us to achieve very high occupancy and yield the hotel product by having a strong base to the occupancy.

Secondly, 100% focus on customer service so even in difficult economic times people still get the amazing customer service and want to stay with us compared to our competitors and at the same time always be focused on, and watching that we have a difference that matters, whether that be customer service, the interior of the hotel room, the price point. Again so people would want to stay with us rather than with our competitor around the corner.
What advice do you have for budding CEO’s with regard to managing a large staff?
No matter how big you get or how many staff you have, maintain an open door policy. Recently I initiated “One Family, One Group’ and that is the point of difference for Asian Pacific Group. We are a family company and you feel as if you work for a family and we want all of our staff members to interact with each other no matter what field they are in. Lack of hierarchy and leading by example. By leading by example I mean first in last out, work the hardest and in every aspect of your life lead by example.
What are your personal goals for your business in the next three to five years?
To expand on and focus on the “One Family, One Group” initiative. Long-term sustainable growth from multiple cash flow sources and I am certainly not planning on slowing down in the next three to five years.
What are your top 5 tips for business success?
  1. Never accept no for an answer
  2. Always be creating a difference that matters 
  3. Lead by example
  4. Treat people on the way up the way you want to be treated on the way down
  5. Keep your banks close

Which entrepreneur would you most like to emulate and why?
It would have to be Richard Branson. He has built an amazing brand and seems to have fun with it. 
What has been the biggest influence in your business’ success, and why?
My father. I started working beside him at the age of 17 and he has taught me everything there is to learn about the property industry including the discipline and work ethic to run such a large company.

By Neil Donnelly

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