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Featured Profile: Jason Huljich

Building an empire

A single decision can change your life, and that's exactly what Centuria Capital joint chief executive Jason Huljich learned when he came to Australia in the 1990s. Eliza Bavin writes.

Sometimes in life you are presented with an opportunity that causes a chain reaction impacting the course of your life, and that was certainly the case for Jason Huljich when he decided to come to Australia after graduating university in New Zealand.

Huljich didn't know it then, but his one-year stint would stretch into a multi-decade career.

I remember John and I went out to lunch to celebrate when we reached $100 million, and we thought that was big news.
At the time, his father had invested in a small developments company and suggested Huljich travel to Australia to learn more of what it did. But only three months into the job, Huljich found himself feeling quite lonely. The development company was small, comprising just 15 people, all of which were much older than him.

"I thought to myself, 'I need to go get a job and meet some younger people'," he says.

It didn't take Huljich long to find a suitable position elsewhere, and it was then that he met John McBain, the now co-chief executive with him at Centuria. It was this meeting that changed everything.

"I came in as a junior in that company and, after a couple of years, John split with his partners and he said, 'Do you want to come with me, and we will grow this consulting business?' So long story short, that's what I did, and everything grew from there," he says.

Part of the deal was that Huljich and McBain would keep the consulting part of the business and McBain's former partners would keep the funds management side. But it wasn't long before another opportunity presented itself to expand their business.

One of the company's first consulting jobs involved selling a small shopping center in Western Sydney, which Huljich and McBain spent some time leasing out before going to market.

"There was one person that wanted to buy which was an accountant out of Brisbane," Huljich recalls.

"It was 1998 and he'd never done a syndicate before, but we helped him out. We tried to introduce him to equity because there was a fee on it for us. We wanted the deal to go through."

After the accountant needed to seek numerous extensions to try and raise the money, it looked as though the deal, and therefore the fee, might fall through.

"The owners basically said, 'You're doing half the work for him, you've already done this before, why don't we give you an option and you go and raise the money'," he says.

"They gave us a three-month option for $1. It was a $9 million asset and we had to raise around $3.5 million. It took us every day of those three months and it was hard work, but we did it."

That was the first fund they had to raise money for, and from there the business just kept growing.

Today Centuria has $21.1 billion in assets under management and a solid 25-year track record delivering a range of both listed and unlisted investment options.

Centuria introduced its first listed option in 2014, with the launch of its first REIT - which is now the Centuria Office REIT.

"We had a small diversified unlisted fund with a couple hundred million, and we bought a couple of other asset classes to go into it and we IPO'd. That was our first taste of being listed," Huljich says.

"What being listed has done is, when the market is strong and the vehicles are performing, you can raise a lot of money. So, over the past seven or eight years we've done a lot of raisings and, together with our Industrial REIT, those two funds combined are worth around $6 billion now."

Despite the success of Centuria's listed REITs, Huljich admits it's not always smooth sailing when it comes to property, especially when sentiment is down.

"Right now, listed markets are tough because sentiment around real estate is not so strong with rising interest rates. But when the market is strong, you can raise a lot of equity and really grow those vehicles," he says.

"But we also balance that with the unlisted side. We've got great support from our investor base, some of whom have been invested with us for 20 years. And they could be either direct investors or wealth managers that invest for their clients.

"The third thing has been institutional capital, which we really didn't focus on until the last few years."

And Centuria has had a lot of success with its recent foray into institutional capital. Over the past three years it has secured two mandates with an international sovereign wealth fund, two joint ventures with Morgan Stanley and is working with BlackRock on an office repositioning.

"I think we have done a good job being diversified across sectors. We've gone from just being office, to being in seven different sectors from retail to industrial, agriculture, credit, real estate, and healthcare," he says.

"It's been great because some of those capital pools are closed for business, it's very difficult to raise, but because we've diversified across a number of different pools, it always seems to be at least one of those are open and wanting to invest. So, it's really helped with that growth."

As for what's next, Huljich says it can be hard to predict where things might go. He has seen many cycles in the market over his 25 years at Centuria, but he doesn't think he'll be slowing down.

"If you had have told me 20 years ago we would have more than $20 billion AUM I would have said you were dreaming," he says.

"I remember John and I went out to lunch to celebrate when we reached $100 million, and we thought that was big news.

"Right now, we're not growing as strongly as we'd like to, but if you look over the past five or six years we were growing extremely strongly, so the market moves in cycles, and it will switch back pretty quickly."

Huljich says potential interest rate cuts should turn sentiment around, but in the meantime he and McBain are quite used to dealing with rocky markets.

"We are really well placed going forward for when sentiment does turn, just having all those different capital pools being in those different sectors. When we do come out of this cycle, we're probably one of the best placed to really get that growth going again," he says.

In the meantime, Huljich is focusing on growth of another kind - that of his family. Having recently welcomed two young ones into the world, his weekends are looking a little different than they used to.

"I was a bit late to the party on that one. So, I've got a six-month-old and a two-year-old so that's slowed me down a bit," he jokes.

"I'm really enjoying that next stage or the personal side of my life too."

And while his kids are a little too young to be brought into the business for him to mentor, Huljich hopes to be able to offer them the same guidance and support his father and McBain have done him.

"My father was very successful, and he taught me everything about reputation, morals, ethics, and how important they are. I've never heard him raise his voice, or swear, or anything like that," he says.

"And coming out to Sydney at 21, having never had a proper job, John has obviously been a great mentor. He taught me so much about real estate, how to manage people and how to get the deal done.

"It's been quite a journey, and it's been a lot of fun. We're quite proud of what we have built."