They’re 24 years old, count their mothers as their only employees, and claim to have finished more homes in inner Christchurch than the Government-backed rebuild effort.
Meet Matthew Horncastle and Blair Chappell, co-directors of upstart property development company Williams Corporation, named so because of their shared middle name.
Last year, the company built 40 homes in the inner city and surrounding suburbs and sold 80, with an overall sales value of about $35 million.
They plan to build 100 homes this year, 40 of which were sold last year, and sell 200.
Among their upcoming developments – and their largest to date – is an apartment building on Hagley Ave, overlooking the park. It will consist of 39 one-bedroom units, starting from $375,000.
Horncastle and Chappell say their focus is on affordable, high-density projects in the inner city; they estimate about 80 per cent of their properties have sold for less than the median Christchurch house price.
And with their low-overheads relative to the big, established developers and building companies, they claim to be able to deliver the same product, but cheaper and better.
“How can anyone compete against us? We live in small houses that we own, we drive Hiluxes, which we own with cash, our office costs $20,000 a year and our only staff are our mothers,” Horncastle says.
Family has been an important part of the young developers’ story. Horncastle is a familiar Christchurch name. Matthew Horncastle is the son of Bill, founder of Horncastle Homes – the naming right sponsor of Horncastle Arena.
But the pair are adamant that any support they received was experiential rather than financial. While they may have benefited from family connections, they say their business success is a result of their own hard work.
“Did I get given cash? No. But did we benefit from a family connection in the construction industry – absolutely. You’d be very arrogant to say did my name not help, of course it must have with the banks,” Horncastle says.
In the early days the “banks would literally chuck money at us” – something the pair attribute to strong cash flow and rebuild confidence.
The pair joined forces in 2011 on a building company started by Horncastle that branched into temporary fencing.
The qualified builder left to join his father’s company for a spell in 2012, leaving Chappell, who studied information and communications technology, to hold the fort until they “sat down and said ‘hey, let’s go kick life in the teeth and actually do it'”.
What followed was a company-starting spree: Williams Waste Management, Williams Energy and Williams Business Solutions were among the six entities started by the pair. By the end of 2015, they had about 30 employees between them.
“We didn’t quite know what our main strengths were, so there was a variety of companies across multiple industries,” Chappell explains.
But by the end of 2015, the “post-rebuild market was starting to tighten”.
The pair were living and working out of a “beautiful big house” in Rolleston, but they hated the commute and were losing money. They decided to start “ramping down all our businesses” and focus on what they were good at: property.
They moved into the city and started renovating and subdividing properties in cheaper suburbs like Aranui. But the margins were tight, so Chappell said they decided to educate themselves on multi-unit, two-storey developments.
And the funding? Chappell and Horncastle say on a project-by-project basis, the money comes from a mixture of their own equity, bank equity and private equity sourced from investors.
“If someone says ‘no’ you ask them for three referrals and you just pound the pavement until you get the money. Because losing is not an option; we were never going to stop,” Horncastle says.
There is a touch of the ideological behind their development approach. Both Chappell and Horncastle hate the idea of urban sprawl and believe the best way to help Christchurch rebuild is by getting people into the inner city.
“One of our business assumptions is Christchurch is a winning horse,” Chappell says; and, according to Horncastle, “everyone wins from high-density, inner-city living. It’s cheap – we don’t have to build the roads, we don’t have to build the services.”
They admit they have done well from their developments, but both Williams Corporation managing directors say they live and breathe the job and would do it regardless of how much they were earning.
“I would keep working even if the money wasn’t there and I was getting half the salary, because we have the greatest job ever: we get to design cities,” Horncastle says.
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