Unsung Business Heroes: Series Two
Imagine being an eligible bachelor and director of your own business, leading a lifestyle to suit; owning one of the most expensive cars on the market and pursuing a passion for driving fast cars on the track.
Sounds ideal doesn’t it? Add a martini – shaken, not stirred – and it could be James Bond in real life, minus the spy factor. Now let’s add the year 2008 to the scenario; still sound great?
Simon recounts, “I tell this story and people laugh about it. I was driving a $150,000 AMG C63 – it was just the second one in the country, and I couldn’t afford to put petrol in it. Three months after I purchased it, the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) hit.
“My credit cards were maxed, no money in the bank, no cash reserves and I had to ask my Dad for $20 for petrol!”
It’s the story Simon Arraj, Director of Checkpoint Finance Group, tells today with a wry smile because, with the value of hindsight, he realises it was a major turning point in his life.
At the time he told his father “I needed the money because I had to go to a meeting and wanted to buy a couple of coffees. Little did he know the $20 was to put petrol in the car.”
Given that car was a 6.3 litre V8 Mercedes, $20 wasn’t going to get him too far. Simon is now able to laugh about it, however at the time, “it was horrible, demeaning.”
Simon didn’t only lose the car in 2008; he lost $2.5 million of his own money and owed as much again to investors.
The GFC turned his idyllic life into a nightmare and he was too proud to tell his parents the full extent of his problems.
Simon was living in the moment when the reality of the GFC hit; “I had built a successful business, financially I was very strong, and then in the blink of an eye it all disappeared. That was very, very difficult to accept and digest. Really I had just two choices – sink or swim.”
Obviously Simon decided to swim, but it’s how he decided to swim that’s makes the Simon Arraj story unique.
Before starting his own business in 2002, Simon was a banker who had moved into broking and then progressed into mezzanine funding. Simon explains that, “as a mezzanine funder you effectively underwrite certain transactions which means you’re assuming the credit risk yourself.”
When the banks became aggressive during the GFC, Simon’s company which was the second mortgagee on developments was squeezed, and it was those lessons that taught Simon how to swim.
Worked For Free
As a result of the credit squeeze, “not only did we lose a considerable amount of money, we were forced to take over some projects. It was through that, that we were pushed into development.
“I decided I wanted to get through this – and it wasn’t just me, there were other people involved – so taking over projects meant a bit more than just recovering other people’s money. There was a lot invested in terms of your integrity, so it was very important we saw those things through.”
For the next two years Simon worked for nothing as he got a better understanding of the development business in order to pay back those investors who had supported him.
But, without that experience, without being thrown in the deep end, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
The second story Simon tells of that GFC era isn’t as ‘funny’ as the first, but far more satisfying.
It’s the story of the re-birth of his company.
He recalls that “in 2009 we were second mortgagee on a couple of transactions.
“The first mortgagee was a major bank and they became very impatient, deciding it was easier and more convenient to appoint receivers as opposed to work through the deal commercially.
“That whole receivership experience cost us an incredible amount of money and time. But we were able to succeed with the receiver in the end.” Simon worked hard to formulate a way to “retire the receiver and pay out all the debts without the assets having to go to market. In fact, they had tried to go to market and the property was put up for auction, but 12 days before the auction we were able acquire the asset.”
In that instance Simon was able to outmanoeuvre the receiver and although that came at a cost, “I learnt a lot through the experience and about the receivership industry.”
A similar story arose again in 2012 where a club had appointed an administrator and a creditor-appointed receiver was also involved. On the surface, that was untidy and complicated.
In the background, Simon was “using my intel, from knowledge I’d gained during the GFC, to trump both the receiver and the administrator. I acquired the asset off-market and subsequently have done very well out of that.”
From the ashes of the GFC, Checkpoint Finance Group has grown into a successful property development business which also finances developments for other property developers.
A Competitive Edge
Financing for other developers may seem a little strange at first especially for those perceiving Checkpoint to be in competition as another developer itself. On this front, Simon tells them, “I’m a developer but don’t consider that to mean I’m your competition; consider me to be a partner, not in the traditional sense, but in the sense that I understand your business.”
The reality, as Simon sees it, is that “my competitors are bankers and other brokers. Bankers work for banks, they’re numbers people and they work on feasibilities and it’s very transactional. Brokers are similar, it’s all transactional.
“My approach is that I’m a broker but I’m also a property developer. So I don’t use or adopt a ‘tick the boxes’ approach to lending.”
Simon looks at the risk of deals completely differently. “The conversations I have with developers are completely different to the conversations they have with other brokers and bankers. I can relate to their everyday affairs.”
I try to get my head around the dynamic of the transaction and if I’m comfortable with the risk, then I will look at an appropriate return to compensate me for that risk.”
There’s another area in which Simon has done things differently which he believes has a big impact on clients.
It’s subtle but appears to work well for him. It’s the transformation of his personal image to what could be labelled the ‘blue collar’ broker.
To explain, Simon illustrates by adding, “I don’t like to wear suits – developers don’t like that. Can you imagine what it looks like, rocking up to a building site wearing a suit? It’s very stand-offish and it’s what a banker would do. My approach is just more relaxed.”
That idyllic ‘James Bond’ lifestyle has returned however Simon’s smarter now and is no longer an eligible bachelor. These days the martini is stirred.
The biggest change has been in Simon’s personal life. “I got married six years ago and have two wonderful kids and that changes everything. The whole dynamic has changed, I’m still driven by success, but everything I do is now about my family, and family is first.”
Happily, Simon adds that “most of the things in my life today that make me smile are things my kids do, things they say and the way they say it. Just the general feeling of going home, walking in the door and embracing that love which is unconditional.”
Passion Or Obsession
The cars have also returned; there’s a new AMG C63 in the garage for him and a GLE 450 Coupe for her, and there are also track days which allow Simon to drive around the best racetracks in the country.
Simon’s favourite is Mount Panorama. “It’s a public road most of the year, and companies like Mercedes have to gain special permission from the Bathurst Council to convert it into a race track for their corporate days. And they do it so well; there are around 50 invited guests and 25 driver trainers, so you get plenty of chances to drive the cars and drive them fast.”
Simon doesn’t like to talk about the speeds he can get to on these track days, but he can confirm that what the book says is the top speed is generally understated. For him, “it’s a massive adrenaline rush, driving the cars in a controlled environment at ridiculous speeds across the top of the mountain, down through the Esses and onto Conrod straight.
These experiences provide the full package -“the butterflies, the nerves; total excitement. It’s also scary, because you don’t want to damage the car. It’s very expensive if you do.”
Cars are his passion, “although my wife says it’s an obsession”, and that’s probably true. Whether he’s on the racetrack or driving to work, Simon has had a love of cars which began when he was a boy.
A neighbour was always working on cars in his garage, and the sound of them and seeing them driven down the street fascinated a young and impressionable Simon Arraj so much that he wanted to race them.
At the time though “my parents wouldn’t hear of that. They had worked hard to give my brothers and me a good education, and that included going to University. So cars had to wait until I could afford them.
“I’ve been lucky enough to own a Porsche, an Aston Martin, a BMW M3 and now the Mercedes. I can’t change the fact I love cars, but at least I have the money now for the fuel.”
There’s no chance of asking Dad again for petrol money. Those were tough lessons during the GFC and they’re not going to waste.
A lot has happened since 2008. The biggest factor for Simon has been “my experience in development, and that has completely changed the way I look at deals. I used to only look at deals as a broker or a banker and that’s very different. We’re excited about the next couple of years.”
Simon is of the view that “the Sydney property market is going through some significant changes. We’ve come off the last three years which I would describe as a perfect storm.
“We’ve had a relaxation in foreign investment laws which has allowed significant capital inflows from offshore. Then we had, and still have, a period of low interest rates, which is always a stimulant for the property market. We had relaxation of legislation around self-managed super funds allowing people to get into their funds to buy investment properties, and changes in first home owners’ initiatives.
Now, “the concern is, prices have increased and so has supply. So now we’re seeing a bit of caution in the marketplace; buyer sentiment has certainly changed and most importantly the banks’ appetite for risk has reduced significantly.”
Simon is wary of calling it another GFC, but does believe there is a chance the market will correct, and in some areas more than others. He doesn’t believe it’s time to be bullish, but does feel there are opportunities.
In Simon’s view, “through change, opportunities always present themselves. Within the space in which we operate and the way we analyse our transactions there are plenty of opportunities.”
Building his business twice made Simon Arraj realise how easily things could have gone the other way for him. It’s given him a different perspective on what success really means and the responsibility that comes with that success.
“Without sounding arrogant, I think if you start with nothing and you’ve always got nothing, your expectations are different to having started with nothing, had success and then lost it all. It does mess with your head, and there were some very difficult times.”
So there’s a definite sense of gratitude for Simon and a desire to help those who haven’t been as fortunate. But, just like his business, Simon wants to do it properly and has found a mentor in the Sarraf Strata Management company.
Simon recalls that he was invited to a charity function to raise funds for Camp Quality. He hadn’t had any previous dealings with Sarraf, and met the owner for the first time that night.
He recalls that, “leading up to and on that evening they raised over $850,000 for Camp Quality. And, for the next five years that company is committing all the money they make from their S-109 certificates from new developments to Camp Quality.
Simon explains that this means “about $150,000 each time and will have a huge impact. I’m now referring developers to them and it’s motivated us at Checkpoint Finance to do something similar.”
As a result of this exposure, Simon acknowledges that “it’s nice to take a step back and realise how lucky we really are. I don’t mean financially, but personally – I’ve got a great family, two healthy kids and that’s so important. Now our business is back – bigger and better – we’re looking for the right opportunity and it will be something that ties in with family, following the example set by Sarraf.”
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
The most valuable piece of advice Simon offers for achieving success, again comes from his experience with the GFC. It’s the reason he was able to rescue his business and it’s a combination of opposites; need and passion.
The GFC meant many changes had to be made and, “as a result of that we were forced to restructure. Part of that restructuring meant we had to assume different roles, we had to play developer as opposed to just financier. So our success was largely not by choice, but by necessity.”
Furthermore, Simon comments, “that necessity was driven by passion. It’s a key component for all business. Never lose sight of the vision you set out to achieve.”
His second piece of advice is to remember all business is about people.
“People do business with people they like. I don’t make money by sitting in an office, the more time I’m in the office attached to the computer, the less profitable the business is. The most important thing is to be front of mind; out there networking and connecting or meeting with as many people as you can. That’s where opportunities are created.”
Simon also adds “it’s also important, as you build your business, to get systems, processes and structures in place so you can facilitate the growth.”
- “Really I had just two choices – sink or swim.”
- “Without that experience, without being thrown in the deep end, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
- “Through change, opportunities always present themselves.”
- “Never lose sight of the vision you set out to achieve.”
- “People do business with people they like.”
- “I don’t make money by sitting in an office, the more time I’m in the office attached to the computer, the less profitable the business is.”
- “The most important thing is to be front of mind; out there networking and connecting or meeting with as many people as you can.”
- “As you build your business, get systems, processes and structures in place so you can facilitate the growth.”
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