Michael Hickinbotham, who leads one of South Australia’s most successful and diversified groups spanning construction, development, premium spirits, finance and biotechnology, spoke to Australian Investor Property Magazine about heading a sustainable business.
Fresh from winning the housing industry’s highest honour, Michael Hickinbotham, Managing Director of the Hickinbotham Group, spoke to Australian Investor Property Magazine about heading a business group intent on improving lives, whether through construction, sustainable development, medical research – or just producing that perfect bottle of gin.
In being named the recipient of the coveted 2022 Sir Phillip Lynch Award of Excellence, Mr Hickinbotham, was described by Housing Industry Association (HIA) Managing Director, Graham Wolfe, as a significant innovator and leader within the construction industry.
Mr Hickinbotham leads one of South Australia’s most successful and diversified groups, spanning construction, development, premium spirits, finance and biotechnology.
The Group is responsible for one in every three new homes built in greater Adelaide and more than $2 billion of developments currently underway in South Australia, supporting the employment of more than 4,000 South Australians.
It is South Australia’s largest and longest-established building and development company and the 10th largest builder nationally.
“Michael works successfully with HIA on a range of initiatives including planning reform, development of the 30-year Plan for Greater Adelaide, population policy, stamp duty and tax reform, in addition to numerous other policies and regulatory reforms that support the industry,” Mr Wolfe said.
The business is a family enterprise, from the founding 65 years ago by his grandfather, a scientist known as Hick, and his father Alan, a maths teacher and footballer, to today when his own children contribute to the design of playgrounds.
Without skilled migration, there is a real risk SA’s population will decline, creating a burden for future generations.
– Michael Hickinbotham, Managing Director of the Hickinbotham Group
But before his own accolades began to flow – among them the HIA honour, the Centenary Medal for services to the Australian building industry and the community, an Honorary Doctorate from the University of SA for his contribution to the state and his commitment to education – he’d mixed time in his early 20s on the family building sites and gaining life experience in regional Australia, working as a jackaroo, bartender and on an oil rig.
He completed university studies and trained as a lawyer, specialising in corporate and commercial law before returning to South Australia in the mid-1990s to join his father and brother at the Hickinbotham Group.
There he held various positions, gaining hands-on experience in every aspect of the organisation, including home construction and land development. He took on the role of Managing Director in 2002.
Today, his vision centres on “improving lives through building quality homes, providing the foundations for thriving communities, crafting premium spirits for people to savour and enjoy, and advancing critical medical research for the benefit of humankind.”
“My role is to recruit great people, provide an entrepreneurial perspective and piece together the puzzle required to bring this vision to life,” he said.
“Working days involve collaborating with people to brainstorm ideas, provide guidance and undertake long-term planning and decision-making.”
It’s worth listing some of the achievements that have garnered such industry respect, particularly the emphasis on environmental impact.
Under Mr Hickinbotham’s leadership, the Group has led environmental and commercial projects, including becoming the first South Australian builder to offer a range of sustainable housing for the volume building market; establishing wastewater recycling for the township of Renmark; pioneering Australia’s first aquifer storage and recovery project at Andrews Farm, from which national standards were developed; and building Australia’s first privately owned public school, Woodend Primary School at Sheidow Park.
In the face of all this success and innovation is the reality of today’s building sector challenges.
The price and availability of building materials has been an issue that challenged, and in some cases ended, many Australian building companies.
Asked how difficult it has been to navigate the current landscape, he said he was very conscious of being in a fortunate position, in an economic climate that has been so difficult for so many during Covid lockdowns and floods.
“Our industry continues to face many challenges, from restrictive land release practices, which limit supply and reduce affordability, to the recent shortages of building materials caused by the pandemic.
“High levels of state and federal taxes have long been a burden for our industry to carry, and it limits our ability to satisfy public demand and ultimately increases the cost of home ownership for Australian families.
“A recent global housing affordability index rated Adelaide and Greater London as the equal 14th least affordable property markets globally – with Sydney the world’s second least affordable.
“All Australian capitals have been classed ‘severely unaffordable’.
“The HIA has done some excellent analysis and advocacy in this area and I like to think the Hickinbotham shoulder is also always against this wheel.”
People and property
Buoyed also by South Australia’s stella performance in terms of capital growth, which has continued while larger cities move into price decline, Mr Hickinbotham said the state’s continued success rested on population growth and land supply, the latter of which has become a major election issue.
As a contributor to the state government’s 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide, he is well aware of the issues confronting the city and shaping its prospects.
“Measured and sustainable population growth will be critical to Adelaide’s success, as it is the single best way to create jobs, grow the tax base, strengthen the economy and create a world-class lifestyle for South Australian families,” he said.
“The ongoing availability of land will be critical to support this, and without skilled migration, there is a real risk SA’s population will decline, creating a burden for future generations.
“I’d like to see a recalibration of the regional visa program that worked so well for South Australia in the past, aligning with and targeting the state’s desired skillsets.”
In the shorter-term, a rising interest rate environment will impact home buyers nationally, including South Australia, he said.
“The Hickinbotham Group’s focus is on providing affordable land and housing, developed in a sustainable way.
“Land availability remains a key factor that continues to push up prices and we hope to see more land become available over time.”
The Group is currently undertaking residential community developments in Two Wells, 40 kilometres north of central Adelaide.
They are part of a combined $1.2 billion investment by the Group to build more than 3,000 homes in the region over the next 20 years and support projected population growth.
Green and wet
Consumer environmental awareness now drives demand and places greater emphasis and accountability on corporate social responsibility. Green home loans have recently moved from niche to mainstream banking, and star ratings on environmental performance are a major building and fitting out consideration.
Projects such as wastewater recycling and aquifer storage are not the domain of the average residential builder but are a historical component of the Hickinbotham Group’s works.
“The Hickinbotham Group connection to water recycling and aquifer storage goes back decades,” Mr Hickinbotham said.
“My late father and I shared this passion in our focus to introduce innovation at every stage of the housing lifecycle and we were the first building company to tackle this on a large scale.
“Based on research I undertook in the 1990s, Hickinbotham established wastewater recycling for the township of Renmark and pioneered Australia’s first aquifer storage and recovery project and innovated in raft foundations to address Adelaide’s reactive soil.
“Sustainability forms part of our innovation mantra and continues to evolve with technology.
“Increasingly, home buyers want reassurance that their homes will be energy efficient to support their hip pocket as well as the environment.”
And if Mr Hickinbotham had his way, those buyers would reflect on their green choices while on their deck or porch sipping an Adelaide Gin, an iconic product of the Australian Distilling Company that he founded.