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Build quality, and they will come

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David Lee has one of the best views in Adelaide and one of the shortest trips to work. He’s keen for others to have that experience, and it doesn’t have to be in the building he owns.

Lee believes the sight of half a dozen new apartment developments under way within our compact CBD is a sign that we are on the right path to regenerating the city and starting to register on the international investment radar.

His personal contribution, as Managing Director of the Mandala Property Group, is the prestigious Rowlands Apartments complex that opened about a year ago in Rowlands Place, just off Grote Street.

It’s no coincidence that the $70 million, 19-storey building, with its 5-star fit-out and facilities and official 8.1-star environmental rating (the first in South Australia), is within a stone’s throw of the Central Market and Chinatown.

Lee returned to Adelaide in 2008 after a decade in Shanghai, with a clear idea not only of what he wanted to do, but where he wanted to do it.

“I wanted to be here to reflect the potential and growing importance of Chinese investment in our city and to show what can be achieved with vision and a clear plan,” he said.

The message has not been lost here or in Shanghai, where Lee still has business interests and many contacts.

Now 39, he first came to Adelaide as a schoolboy in the 1980s when his Chinese parents decided to reunite with his mother’s sister. He studied law and commerce at the University of Adelaide, worked for some big name companies and his own, then decided it was time to experience life and business in a China that was starting to boom.

In Shanghai he threw himself into a variety of projects, including helping to attract investment into Australia, then with a couple friends got involved with property development on a scale South Australians could only dream of.

But when the Chinese property sector started to overheat Lee began looking for new opportunities and Adelaide was an obvious choice for both family and business reasons.

He and partner formed Mandala with the Rowlands Apartments concept firmly in mind. It was a bold move in a market still suffering from the GFC, but Lee was convinced that if he built it they would come.

“I knew that there was a market for this type of premium city accommodation and that if we made the commitment it would provide a model for others and make a statement to the investment community about what Adelaide was capable of,” he said.

The project was fully-funded without pre-sales and is now fully occupied with an even mix of high-level executives, Adelaide white collar workers and high-end international students who – as Lee predicted– just wanted a quality place to live in the city.

He himself lives on the top floor, just metres from Mandala’s Grote Street offices.

This being Adelaide, there were doubters and knockers, but Lee says that by “going the journey” with the necessary processes and protocols and selling people on the big picture, things happened with a minimum of fuss.

Certainly the development ticks a lot of boxes for the State Government and the Adelaide City Council, which both see city living as the key to the city’s life. At the formal opening Premier Jay Weatherill described it as an “extraordinary act of enterprise”.

Lee, who is also a founding member of the Engine Room, a networking and development group for young local businesses and business leaders, believes much of Adelaide’s business and residential action is moving to the Central Market precinct.

The council certainly has further hopes and dreams for the area, having recently unveiled tentative plans to develop a Little India alongside Chinatown.

Lee says while Mandala has interests from Perth to Shanghai, the company’s priority is very much on Adelaide, where it is developing concepts for a number of sites that it owns around town.

“I have no doubt that the CBD will grow once confidence is restored and people see a reason to be here,” he said.

Building confidence in China in the wake of a newly signed Free Trade Agreement won’t hurt either.

This is the third article in a special Engine Room series in InDaily which will feature some of the “undiscovered gems” of SA business.

The Engine Room is dedicated to championing the growth of South Australian companies – for more information go to www.theengroom.com.au.

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