But the infrastructure wasn’t the only thing Lowres knew he had to bed down in the early days. He also invested a significant amount in the health of the surrounding marine environment to ensure the locals wouldn’t be disadvantaged by the development of Naisoso.
“I realised how important the mangroves are to the people of Fiji, I mean it’s part of their way of life. Also I didn’t want to go and kill all the fish, I didn’t want to scare the birds off,” he says. “I engaged Dr Dick Watling, who’s an eminent environmental scientist. Basically the government knows if Dick’s involved with it, it’ll be done properly. There are projects that he won’t work on, but he was really happy to be part of ours.”
As well as conducting turbidity testing to ensure the project didn’t add silt to the river, Relcorp leased a patch of the mainland facing the island and rehabilitated the mangroves on the shoreline. “I’m really proud when I go past, I like the bird life there and the fish—that’s why people come here. You don’t kill them all off, and stick concrete walls up everywhere,” says Lowres. “I’d like our project to be the benchmark by which the government will say, ‘want to do a master plan tourism development in Fiji? Go and look at Naisoso. As long as you do what they did we’ll be happy’.”
A public project
Although Naisoso Island is private land, the project to develop it is a very public one. Lowres, now a Fijian citizen, is a local celebrity because of the amount of national interest in the Naisoso development. Burnt by previous failed projects, most recently the Momi Bay development, Fiji decided to introduce advance tax assessments.
“They wanted to advance tax me on every sale I made. So if I made a million-dollar sale, they wanted to charge me 30% tax,” explains Lowres. “I said ‘stop’. When you do subdivisions you clear your debt, when you clear the debt you make a profit, then you pay tax; you can’t make me pay tax on land that I’ve still got debt on.” Lowres sought legal advice and managed to clear his project from suffering the double debt of advance tax, thus cementing him as a credible player in Fiji.
Lowres also had to overcome the taint of previous failed projects, often perceived to be foreign greed stealing from Fijian people. He met with the local chief and the iTaukei Land Trust Board, which looks after native land rights, to negotiate a deal on fishing rights, agreeing to pay FJ$30,000 a year for five years with $5,000 a year for an education fund.
Money flows from the development to the community in other ways as well, through donations such as the FJ$80,000 Naisoso gave to Nadi Hospital, the FJ$20,000 it afforded to attractions such as the Fiji International Jazz & Blues Festival and just about every rugby team that asks. “There wouldn’t a week go by that we don’t give $500 or a $1,000 to someone,” Lowres says.
And it isn’t just money. The idea that Naisoso has national stakeholders is certainly one Lowres has entertained. “The multiplier effect’s fantastic, I mean it’s unbelievable the number of jobs we create, the foreign earnings we bring into the country. For every $1 a tourist spends it creates another $11 in terms of jobs and the like. We’re certainly aware of that.”
He is also well aware of keeping communication lines open in such a close-knit community. “There’s a standard joke that says if you haven’t heard a good rumour by 10 o’clock, you start one. Someone’ll say ‘oh I haven’t seen Bob Lowres round much’; within an hour or two he’s at home, dead,” he conveys. Bearing in this in mind, Naisoso takes out a page in the nationwide newspaper Fiji Sun every week and treat it like a public newsletter, informing readers of Naisoso’s progress and team movements, such as when Lowres visits China to meet with potential buyers.
Weathering the storms
Earlier this year tropical storms hit the island nation and flooded various parts of Fiji. Lowres says major events like this only happen once every few years and the island is quick to recover.
“What gets written up in the media is obviously the worst affected areas. [Major tourist hub] Denarau was unaffected during the January and March/April floods. We had some flooding on Denarau Road but nothing affected Denarau itself; a few coconut and palm trees fell down, that was all. I think we might have lost power for an hour or so,” says Lowres. “We’ve been here for 10 years now and we’ve only ever had one or two events. You plan for them accordingly.”
Lowres also weathered another kind of storm: the political one that saw a military coup put Frank Bainimarama in charge of the government. Lowres had already contracted to buy Naisoso before Bainimarama took the helm, then took some decisive steps to get the project moving. At one of Bainimarama’s whistlestops, Lowres stood up and criticised the Town and Country Planning Department.
“I said, ‘My name is Bob Lowres, I’m the frustrated would be developer of Naisoso Island’, and everybody laughed. And I said, ‘I have to say that in all my years in property development that the Town and Country Planning Department here would be the worst department I’ve ever dealt with’. The whole place, 150 people, erupted into applause.” Lowres then offered to fly over John Brannock, an academic at the University of Queensland’s geography and planning department and director of Brannock & Associates Planning and Environmental Consultants, to review Fiji’s planning. “He did a review, made lots of recommendations and now, five years later, they still refer to the Brannock Report every year when they do their budgets.”
There must have been something in Lowres’ can-do, solution-based stance that appealed to Bainimarama’s new government because Lowres is now a director of Investment Fiji, reflecting the trust he has earned. Lowres doesn’t hold back either, not even against his country of birth. “Australia has been woeful in their management and dealing of Fiji and the Pacific Islands, which is why Fiji has started to speak out more: ‘please don’t beat us over the head with a big stick because you give us foreign aid, treat us with some respect’.”
Lowres’ task now is twofold. On a macro level he’s pushing for Fiji to join the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) to ensure the island nation can take full advantage of regional growth. On a micro level, it’s about finishing the Naisoso Island project so that he can finally retire to his bure by the sea. But if his track record indicates anything, it’s more than likely there’ll be another project on the horizon: the Naisoso Island is just the beginning.
Lowres’ lessons learnt:
- Lean, project-based operations can bear cycles better than large companies. “I’ve seen so many developers become successful and with that success they’ve built their own buildings, they’ve got their own engineers, surveyors, town planners, quite a few surveyors, secretaries, PAs and the whole thing. Then the downturn comes, they think ‘hey, I’ve got an overhead of a million dollars a year; if I didn’t have them and them and them, I could do all this on 250 [thousand]’. We’d rather operate as a handkerchief than a tablecloth.”
- Choose your team and you’ll never have to worry about the little things. “Engage with people that share your vision. There’s no use getting someone on board with a she’ll-be-right-mate attitude when you want better. It’s picking the right people.”
Adeline Teoh flew to Naisoso Island courtesy of Relcorp Fiji