Alan Zammit (OAM)


Interviewee: Alan Zammit OAM, born 1948

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 28 Jan, 2009

Transcription: Glenys Murray, Feb 2009

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

I was born in 1948 at Malta migrated out here with my parents when I was four years old.

Where in Malta was it?

Born at a place called Pieta but brought up in a place called San Giljan (St Julian’s). After the war my father who was a building contractor decided to seek his fortunes and new life in Australia. So we came out here. My mother at the time was also a school teacher so they both found ready employment when they came here.

Was it a good move for your parents to come to Australia?

I guess so. I certainly have no complaints personally. Although they still held close links with Malta. Both Mum and Dad, Mum in particular because she was strongly involved in the Maltese community in Australia. They used to sponsor migrants out to the country here. Mum who later was awarded an M.B.E. (Member of the British Empire) for her services to the Maltese community was greatly involved in setting up organisations such as the Maltese Australian Women’s Association.

You must be very proud of your mother?

Both parents yes, yes.

Your father was a builder did you say?

Yes that’s right so when they moved out here Dad decided to build a house at Strathfield. Which was quite challenging because Dad wanted to build a flat roof house and Strathfield Council being a fairly conservative council flat roofs were certainly no go so he had a bit of battle there. Maybe that sewed the seeds for my career in land development and construction.

When you went back to Malta for those four and a half years when you were a child (circa 1959) was it mainly an agrarian community that you moved into?

No, Maltese society is highly sophisticated. With my parents both being professional people coming from an urban background it was certainly not rural or agrarian in any way. When Dad went back there and got into the construction game building schools and hospitals and things like that. Mum didn’t work while back in Malta but certainly was back in the teaching when she came back here.

Your mother you’ve already said gave you some values of community life and community contribution. What about your father what values do you think he might have contributed to your upbringing?

Oh very much application to work, to hard work. Dad never let up and was very supportive of my mother. It was good to see them working together. I’ve been blessed likewise with my wife supporting me in everything I’ve sought to do outside the workplace.

So what were your interests as a teenager? What sort of dreams and ambitions did you have?

My uncle was a town planner. He was the chief town planner for the Isle of Malta. If I had any yearnings it was to become an architect. That was the days when university admission wasn’t free. My first job was to join the public service The Maritime Services Board and so I commenced my studies on a part time basis in a field which was not part of my dream. That was in accountancy. I was assured that was the way to get ahead in the public service.

So how far did you go with your education?

I completed my accountancy course and then did cost accounting and later on picked up a degree in Business and then several post graduate studies in Advanced Management. So it’s given me a very good background in business and business management.

So you had a particularly strong idea of what you wanted to be already?

No, no as I said joining the public service was a fairly general step and having become an accountant I joined Hooker Corporation as an accountant. That was in 1969 but after watching the development industry realised that perhaps there were greener pastures by switching from the finance accounting field to the property development side. In 1972 I was given the opportunity to move across. It was suggested that I so some real estate studies which I did and then became a project manager back in 1972.

That’s with Hookers?

That’s with Hookers, yes.

View of Norbrik looking north west of Bella Vista Farm to Kings Langley c.1980

So what was Hookers like as a company in those days?

Sydney was growing the expansion of Sydney West was happening I was responsible for a project at Kings Langley, now the suburb of Kings Langley. The company was doing well but it was a very highly geared company. So when 1988 came along they were spectacular for being the first billion dollar bust in terms of corporate history that took place in this country. Which was very disappointing because the division that I was in Land and Housing was very much the cash cow just that they got caught up in the period of high interest rates and overseas expansion and it brought the rest of the company down. I was asked to stay on and so we worked through provisional liquidation and the company then reinvented itself as Australian Housing and Land. It has since floated as Australand.

So that’s what's left of Hookers?

That’s right.

You worked on the Kings Langley development the Greenway Estate, the Menai Town Centre.

Yes fairly large projects Greenway at Cherrybrook that was three and a half thousand home sites.

Really, and Cherrybrook and Castlewood Estate?

Castlewood of course is in the Shire of Baulkham Hills just off Castle Hill (Crane Road). We had to come up with an estate name and Castle Hill was a very prestigious suburb. Yet we wanted to link the environment of the valley down behind Castle Hill, West Pennant Hills. So I came up with the name of Castlewood.

You came up with the name?

I did yeah.

Did you actually design those places? What part did you play in them?

I was subdividing the land and responsible for the marketing and sales. As I progressed up through the organisation I had a fair degree of freedom when I was working with Hooker. It was very enjoyable because you’re actually producing something tangible. You drive through former estates which used to be equivalent to your back yard and all of sudden they’re new suburbs now full of houses or at Norwest with employment lands as well. So its’ quite rewarding to see something, that you had a hand in.

So you’ve nurtured those developments through from creation?

That’s right from getting plans approved, roads built and sewers put in and then being put to the market.

Years later how do you look back on those developments?

With great pride really I think they were wonderful places. We were creating communities really. It wasn’t just subdividing a block of land but we were able with the support of consultants that we used to create highly desirable places where people wanted to live.

You’ve had some exposure with the Baulkham Hills Shire as it was called? What appealed to you about the Shire?

Having been brought up in Strathfield when I got married in 1970 finding a place to live was obviously a challenge. So I migrated from the central west to the north west. Moved into Baulkham Hills Shire straight from our honeymoon and so I’ve been a resident of The Hills and still am a resident of The Hills for nearly forty years.

Castle Hill Trading Zone aerial view 2007

It’s a wonderful place to live good environment. The Garden Shire as it’s known. Probably what was lacking at the time was major employment opportunities in The Hills area. It was a dormitory suburb and people would migrate into the Sydney CBD or elsewhere in Sydney to have a job. Early seventies there was a little employment adjoining Parramatta but the rest of it was effectively, except for the retail centres of Castle Hill and Baulkham Hills a little but of North Rocks there wasn’t much around.

So it was a place where people lived not worked?

That changed, of course as the seventies came on and there was employment lands at Castle Hill Industrial Estate (set aside in May 1978). Since then Norwest Business Park has come into being.

Tell me about the beginnings of your career with Norbrik and how all that began?

Well at the time I was working with Australian Housing and Land as they were preparing to float as Australand. The former CEO of Hooker Barry Glover had just been appointed chair of North Sydney Brick and Tile Company. It was Barry that tapped me on the shoulder and suggested that I come across and take over the company’s property operations. Norbrik for short was a brick manufacturing company which was well over one hundred years old. As the name implied it was set up at North Sydney, although I guess St Leonard’s is what we call it today. It was a highly profitable brick manufacturer and paver manufacturer but small size. After the war the government said to the brick manufacturers to move out and secure clay and shale deposits. They came out to Baulkham Hills Shire in 1952 which was really coming well out of Sydney in those days. They bought a thousand acres of land (called Bella Vista Farm, from the Pearce family). They set up their brick plant there and that’s on the Old Windsor Road frontage that was only closed quite recently. They had to close it in 1992. It provided this vast acreage but they were only tapping into the south western corner of it for their operations.

So in the Seventies the then managing director Doug Lanceley decided to investigate alternate uses for the land. Doug was a descendant of one of the three original founders of the company so generations had passed. It was a public company but unlisted on the stock exchange. So to try to get additional value they looked at a number of various options for the land. At one stage I’m told it was considered for a cemetery. Another time it was considered for an educational establishment. But after a fair amount of research overseas they came up with the concept of a business park. We hadn’t seen business parks in Australia in the seventies and eighties. The fact that you have a blend of uses from employment uses, residential uses. Here at Norwest recreational, a hotel and heritage are all in the one project. We certainly had industrial estates we had residential estates but never such a blend. Particularly with the high amenity the environmental standards that were built into the project that was certainly a first. So after that study Council and the State Government were convinced that they should rezone the land as employment land. That was in 1987 but it still took five years for the first stage to be subdivided because there were difficulties in getting services to the land. Half of it drains to Parramatta half of it drains towards the Hawkesbury. There were no sewerage systems out at Rouse Hill so they had difficulties getting sewerage services. Likewise there was no water available at Norwest. It had to be piped in from Rogans Hill through Castle Hill all the way through Baulkham Hills to Norwest.

It’s rather an ambitious plan to take the water here though?

Well it was and particularly as the company was just a humble brick manufacturer. Whilst I say it was profitable it was profitable enough to pay our wages but it wasn’t really profitable enough to take on a project of this magnitude. But they were the eighties the vision of “the white shoe brigade” although it certainly wasn’t “white shoe” here at Norwest but it was certainly visionary times. To the extent that the project even had a golf course planned within it that was taking up some sixty hectares of land very valuable land. The project was next to the Castle Hill Country Club so there seemed to be a doubling up of such an amenity.

Norwest aerial view from Windsor Road 1992

What was your role in all that?

Well I came on board as general manager of the property division and after a couple of years was asked to join the board as an executive director. Eventually took full responsibilities managing director of both the property and the brickworks manufacturing division as well.

Were you overseeing the plan for the development?

Yeah so whilst the land was zoned I came on board in 1992 just after the first stage had been subdivided. So part of my role was to review the planning and indeed then embark on the physical construction and marketing and sale. 1992 was the year I joined and that was the year that we were in recession. There was a recession “that we had to have”. It was put to me why am I joining this organisation in the depths of recession. I suggested that it could only go one way and that’s up. Fortunately for me that’s exactly what happened.

How ambitious was the plan for the time?

Very ambitious to the extent that people had no concept of what a business park was. The fact that you could have high quality employment co-located with up market residential development. That took a lot of explaining to the marketplace to investors to owner occupiers. We set fairly high bench marks at the time and we stuck with those and the success is out there.

North Rocks Trading Zone aerial view 2007

To put this into context, Alan, how would you say was the business development of the Hills Shire up to the point of where you took over in 1992? What sort of business development was there in the Shire?

Well there was initially some industrial development down in the North Rocks area and that was then followed by what I would call service industry. Principally warehousing with nominal office space at Castle Hill on the eastern side of Windsor Road. Corporate offices were unheard of in the Shire as a whole. Indeed when we kicked off Norwest in 1992 for the first few years all we could attract was warehousing with small office space. But the park evolved and progressively we moved from the big boxes to a more blended use of commercial space with industrial. Now we’ve transitioned all the way to one hundred percent commercial space. To support that, we established a series of landscaped areas with lakes and waterways and created an internal heart around a retail centre Norwest Market Town. So we were creating an amenity for the workers to enjoy but we still suffered from lack of access. The M2 in the early stages wasn’t there. The M7 certainly wasn’t there. The rail of course still isn’t here but one day hopefully it will be. So it was a case of creating a desirable environment. We were at the interface between the executive workforce of the northern part of Sydney and the more skills based workforce of western Sydney. It was a good place to set up business albeit that transport at the time was a little short.

What we did put in place here at Norwest was a unique approval process and this was in partnership with the Baulkham Hills Shire Council. Whereby any development that took place at Norwest any employment development first had to be approved by a body corporate that was set up for the business park. This was called Norwest Association and so whilst I was managing director of the development company Norwest Land I was also chairman of the Norwest Association. This had the responsibility through a planning and design review panel to approve the plans for any development before they actually reached the local Council. Thr panel consisted of three nominees from Norwest Land and two nominees from the Council. So in partnership we effectively had the Council’s chief planner and deputy planner on that committee. What this really meant was that once that panel had approved it a proposed commercial development the issues that Council may have been looking at had already been thrashed out. So it was a fast tracking system which was fairly unique at the time and probably still is unique. When plans were lodged with Council then all the bugs had been ironed out. The beauty of having that panel outside the confines of local government is that it enabled us to demand higher qualitative standards beyond the quantitative regime that Council is confined to. That just created a better urban outcome.

Norwest aerial view from Windsor Road 2006

For those who don’t know how big this place is, can you give me the size in hectares of how big the business park is?

It’s about three hundred and seventy hectares. It was the original thousand acres that Norbrik bought after the war. It has a number of employment precincts and a residential precinct. In terms of residential areas there’s the original Bella Vista Village which had about four hundred, five hundred home sites. Bella Vista Waters which emerged from rezoning of the golf course and a small portion of employment lands which has another four to five hundred homes. The third residential precinct is Norwest Town Centre which is of higher density. It has the potential there for five hundred medium density and apartments. The employment land stretches over a couple of hundred hectares. In that half of the estate is also the Bella Vista Farm Park which is a heritage precinct.

So how many commercial areas are there?

Well it’s spread throughout the estate over a couple of hundred hectares of land. The beauty of the zoning that we have at Norwest is that you don’t have industrial areas set aside from commercial areas. It’s a very flexible zone that permits an employment use that meets the market at the time.

So is this the very first business park developed in Australia?

Certainly of the complexity that Norwest has to offer and certainly the first with the controls that are put in place. The environment was upper most in mind. So that, for example, even from the very first day even though we were creating a highly intense urban environment. The controls that we put on in terms of drainage meant that the storm water leaving our site was no greater than had this still remained rural land. So there was no downstream impact whatsoever either to the north or south. It was built into a series of lakes and ponds throughout the estate.

It must have been quite an undertaking to bring the water from Rogan’s Hill? It’s quite far away isn’t it?

Yes that’s all piped through. There are reservoir sites within Norwest but we don’t get our water from there because they’re not high enough to service our own estate. Initially those reservoirs were proposed to go within what is now known as Bella Vista Farm. The land had been secured by Sydney Water at the time before they realised the historic significance of Bella Vista. There’s a couple of hundred years two hundred years of the history of urban development in the one location on the hill top. Initially it was part of a land grant to a Captain Foveaux who had called the whole area a stock farm. It passed on from Foveaux to Macarthur’s of merino sheep fame. This was a citrus growing area this was Elizabeth Macarthur’s farm of Seven Hills. Progressively then it passed on in title to the Pearce family I think it was 1842. Matthew Pearce and his descendants lived there and indeed developed the homestead that was called Bella Vista. Hence the name of the new suburb of Bella Vista indeed the view from up there is beautiful as the name implies. This was supposed to be the location of Sydney Water’s water reservoirs and the company to the credit of my predecessor felt that really wasn’t desirable. So Norbrik at the time transferred the land on the adjoining hill to Norwest Business Park at no cost to Sydney water so that the homestead and the surrounding lands could be preserved. I had the fortune of convincing my board in the mid 90’s to transfer a further twelve hectares of land surrounding the homestead so that gave them a total area of about twenty four twenty five hectares of land. That was actually sold to Baulkham Hills Council for the princely sum of one dollar. So, on the one hand I was able to sign the contract to transfer the alternative reservoir sites which released the homestead lands adding to that the curtilage land for a dollar. At a time when those lands which were surrounded by roads and water and sewer probably had a conservative land value of about forty million dollars. It’s a great asset not only for the Shire of Baulkham Hills but really for Sydney. It’s actually a National Treasure.

Is it a US concept to have a business park?

It’s the style, the US style where we have a hotel at the gateway and the mixed use of retail, commercial, residential, employment and heritage all melded into one with the parkland amenity. It is truly a park.

How has it aided employment in the Shire having a business park?

Well having been basically a dormitory suburb this was able to provide an opportunity for people living in the Shire to actually work in the Shire. Our motto indeed was “work live and play” and as a resident myself that gave me an excuse to work, live and play within the Shire. Not that all the employees within the business park come from Baulkham Hills Shire. But certainly it gave added opportunity for residents to work locally or get caught up in Sydney’s traffic jams.

Hillsong Church

That’s still much the same slogan now isn’t it?

Yeah work, live and play. Well Hillsong Church has joined us now and so I guess it’s also Hills “work, live, play and pray”.

In terms of money invested how much do you think has been invested by your companies into this Norwest Business Park?

Well not only by our company but by all the companies at Norwest. There would be probably two to three billion dollars worth of investment now in this location. A workforce presently of about seventeen thousand people in the business park and growing.

Is there much more investment planned or any expansion?

Well the business park in terms of its employment is down to its last twenty hectares of employment land. That’s the location where the former brick works used to be. Norwest Private Hospital is currently under construction there and a second smaller retail centre is also under way. But the employment land is running out to the extent that the Norwest Association last year approved the first redevelopment of employment land. One of the earlier facilities going back to the early 1990’s is to be converted into commercial office space.

What is it presently?

It’s presently being used as a display for products by PGH Tiles and building products.

Go To Part Two