Justin Hemmes lived the playboy life like it was no one’s business. Now he’s turned his life around, and the playboy life is his business.
Photo: Corey Sleap

It’s twilight hour; cocktail hour… beer o’clock even; and Justin Hemmes scoots in. Three weeks abroad — half-business/half-leisure, where business meant checking out bands in London and Coachella — hasn’t dulled the dynamo. Nothing the Hair of the Dog can’t fix anyway. He doesn’t have a jacket, he apologises. Which is not the end of the world…except that the shirt he’s wearing has a rip extending from the cuff to the tip of his elbow. “Armwrestling,” he offers in lieu of a more plausible explanation. There it is, the tabloid image of Hemmes, peaking out from his ripped shirt. The playboy rogue with a devil-may-care attitude, crossing the globe to catch a few gigs, only to come home to… armwrestle? So where exactly does business fit into this playboy lifestyle? Or is it just that money grows on family trees? Well, the thing is, Justin is a bit of a playboy — Keanu Reeves can vouch for that, and you don’t have Jay Kay’s headdress sitting in your office if you don’t know how to have a good time — it’s just that living the playboy life doesn’t preclude him from doing business. It is business, and he’s been playing it for all it’s worth.See, you don’t build Ivy or Establishment if you don’t know how to party. You renovate the Beresford instead. That’s when money doesn’t help. $37m. That’s how much Nassibian’s spent on the Beresford, while $14m was all Hemmes had to front up to take it off their hands. That’s the business bit.


To hear Justin talk about his upbringing, it’s little wonder the work/life distinction is not so much blurry as non-existent. “I grew up in a culture of hard work. My parents were always at work, and everything was about the business. The conversations at night around dinner were about how to improve the business, and talking about the staff. They’re such positive people, my parents, they’re excited about work, and being creative and that’s definitely rubbed off on me. I learnt that if you know if something’s going to work, it will work, as long as you put the hard work in. But it’s not about money. We never discuss money. You don’t do things for the purpose of wealth or money. You do it because you love to do it. I guess if we did things for money, I wouldn’t spend what I do on venues. We do it because we’re so passionate about what we do, trying to get it right, and trying to give the best offering possible to the customer. Business is a way of life. It’s exciting. It’s living.”Even now, well into his statesmen years and battling with illness, Justin’s father John burns the midnight oil to cast an eye over the reports. “Dad’s the one that reads most of the reports. He’s very much into the sales figures. Whenever the venue closes for the night, the manager then has to send a report through. We have a template they fill out. It’s got all the information on it, how it works, what we sold, who was in there, any incidents that happened, people of note, etc, etc. Whatever goes on, that goes through every department. So if a restaurant finishes at midnight, we get a report at 12:30, and if the bar closes at 4am, then we’ll get it at 4:30,” explains Justin. “It’s a very good tool for us in working out what’s going on when you’re not there. You might have one girl that sells $5000, and another that sells $1500 in a shift. And either it’s because they’re no good, or they’re stealing, or they’re sick and they weren’t in a good mood. But you’ll pick up on that and address it with the managers.”With over 1300 employees spread across an ever growing portfolio of venues, Justin can’t possibly know all his staff personally, but the way he acts you wouldn’t know it. An ‘aloha’ here, a peck on the cheek there, and plenty of glad-handing and flesh-pressing to go round the room. That’s the Justin way, to treat his staff like an extended family, even the newborns, or distant cousins he only sees once in a blue moon.”The most important element in my business is the staff. You can create the most beautiful room, the best furnishings and a fantastic product, but if your staff are rude or arrogant, or not welcoming, your place will fail. On the other hand, you can have the most basic room, a square box painted black, and if your staff are exceptional, and they deliver a good product, your place will be packed. All this other stuff, the beautiful lights, the carpet and the furniture, it all comes second to staff. So you’ve got to look after them. And it’s about personality. I want to employ people based on their personalities, and their enthusiasm and excitement for the business or for the industry. I don’t want a person that’s a fantastic bartender, but has no personality standing behind the bar. I want excitement. I want actors behind the bar, and it to come across to the customers.”We pride ourselves on how we look after our staff. We put a lot of effort into creating a happy environment for them. We share all of our knowledge and performance with the staff. We have an open book policy with the staff so they feel a belonging to the business. And if you engage your staff, and respect and look after them, they’re obviously going to perform their best for you. We’ve got a department that focuses on just looking after the staff.”


A large proportion of those 1300 acting staff work at Ivy. It’s a Disneyland for adults, and Hemmes is the Walt Disney of Australian hospitality; dreaming up ideas in his head, animating them and putting them on show in his own private fantasyland. But rather than privately doodling 500 pictures of Steamboat Willie at his walnut desk, Hemmes holds private pool parties for 500 at his mansion, thinking, “I should go public with this thing.” Just as Walt made his characters walk and talk long before they ever paraded the streets of Disneyland, Hemmes was living Ivy before Ivy ever existed.Ivy gives punters that chance to party in Justin’s house — the one he designed for himself, with all the perceived luxury, variety and sexiness that mental picture suggests. “In essence, I designed the venues for myself. I look at myself as a customer, so what would I like?” It’s that work/life distinction again: “I think [Ivy’s] a reflection of my attitude towards life. We go to work, and we sleep, and the rest of the time, it’s about us, about the individual and having a good time. I wanted it to be my ideal house, in the heart of the city, with lots of outdoor spaces — a sort of playground for adults. I wanted people to feel like they were walking into someone’s very comfortable, beautiful house — where you feel comfortable sitting down — and the staff are an extension of the host, the person that owns the house.” In a perfect Walt moment, he says, “I actually saw Ivy in my head, before I put pen to paper.”I’m very good at seeing the end product. I can walk into a place and see what its potential is. When I walk through it, it’s like it’s been built and completed, and the atmosphere, the staff and the customers are all there. And I can see that.”


The Hemmes legacy has always been about fashion, and a love affair with Sydney. His parents built their fortune in the rag trade. House of Merivale and Mr John effectively introduced Sydney sartorialists to European fashion in the ’60s and ’70s. And the eventual shift away from clothing to hospitality didn’t abate the Hemmes’ MO of bringing the latest trends to their hometown. Interview footage of Merivale Hemmes from 1972 — the matriarch and fashion designer whose name is the proud banner of the family business — serves as a preview of the values instilled in a young Justin around the dinner table. “How had the House of Merivale achieved such success?” began the ABC correspondent. “Because we really love it. We really enjoy what we’re doing and we put everything in it… And we’re perfectionists. That’s why,” came the reply. As for competitors, they never factor high on the Hemmes watch list. “I never think about these things really. I’m too busy, and it never enters my head.” Replaced instead with a watchful eye on trends overseas, bringing them home to Sydney with a healthy respect for their taste. “They don’t go for the gimmicky things,” she explains, “You can’t just give them rubbish.”Justin holds a similar admiration for the people of his hometown. “Sydney people are very educated in terms of knowing what they want and identifying quality, and they won’t put up with second best. Which is good.” And the trend of importing overseas fashions continues. Establishment was Justin’s response to boutique hotels he stayed in overseas but couldn’t find in Sydney. “This was in 1993. And in those days hotels were either a five-star Hyatt, or a pub. I’d been travelling quite a bit, and I’d seen these amazing places in New York, London, Morocco and Turkey. I wanted to bring that level of sophistication to Sydney.”


Justin Hemmes commitment to Sydney is unquestionable but the city isn’t beyond criticism: “I think we’re so over-regulated. And I think that’s the drawback for why Sydney’s not moving forward as quickly as a city like Melbourne. You go to a city like New York, where it generates creativity and encourages creativity. You can do crazy and interesting things, and it works. Whereas we’re so governed by what you can and can’t do here, that it hinders the creativity. And it takes the excitement out of it. This should be a buzzing city. Whereas on Monday night at 7pm, Tuesday, Wednesday night at 9pm, there’s not a ghost in the city. It’s crazy. It should be alive.”As for the small bar reforms, he loves the idea, but thinks despite all the hype and buzz, it hasn’t been executed well, after all, not even he could get approval for one. “I put applications in for small bars, and I got knocked back. There are too many fingers in the pie. If you want to do something, you’re getting opinions on design from the powers that be on what it should look like etc. Whereas, they’re not the experts in what’s best for the customer. People in the industry are. I don’t think that happens in New York City. I don’t think they tell you where your bar should be located within the restaurant, or where your kitchen should be. I was just recently in Mexico City. Now, I’ve never seen a less governed city. And, you know what? It’s chaotic, and it’s mad, but it works. It is beautiful. In the street, they had this amazing metal sculpture, which was like this huge park bench, but you had to climb up it to sit on it. The seat would have been about three metres high. And people were climbing up and would sit up on this seat, on the footpath. And it was spectacular to see. Now, you wouldn’t be able to do that here. You’d have to have ropes around, a harness on, and a security guard would have to be watching to make sure you’re okay. They’d have to barricade it off to make sure not too many people are going on it. All that hinders this creativity. And, you know, no one fell, no one hurt themselves; people were sitting up there, and it was beautiful. We’re so concerned about safety and OH&S; you can’t have one step, because it’s a trip hazard. How is one step a trip hazard? Seriously. It’s madness. There’s my gripe about Sydney. Too many rules and regulations.”When he talks about Sydney that way, you get the feeling it’s more disappointment than animosity. After all, he is, he says, one of the city’s biggest fans. “I’m a big ambassador for Sydney. I want Sydney to be the most sought after destination in the world. I guess I like to create venues to build the city up.”


And build up the city he does. He even builds cities within cities, Ivy and Establishment are both essentially entertainment complexes with bars, clubs, pools, hotels, restaurants, cafes, function spaces and penthouses. Cocktails at Hemmesphere, all you can eat Sushi for $20 at the Sushi counter, $5 steak at the Wynyard, fine dining at Est, clubbing at Chinese Laundry, and the list goes on. It’s not one size fits all, but every size to fit anyone. “My policy is, whatever we do, whatever level it’s pitched at, or whatever demographic it’s pitched at, we do it well. It’s value for money, and a great offering for where it sits in the market. And I think we pretty much cover all genres. We definitely try to differentiate, it’s not like a franchising business where we have a particular design or style and then we mimic that. Each venue is tailored for its environment, its locality, its clientele. Design it for the people that are going to use it.”


When Hemmes drops a line like “it’s not about the money”, it’s easy to arch the eyebrow of scepticism. But curiously it’s the man’s wealth that makes his assertions all the more believable — it is about doing what you love. I mean what are you going to do if you’re a young millionaire with the keys to a Ferrari and the reins to an already successful fashion empire? He could just party with no consequences, no ambition, and dabble in the family business for a healthy annual stipend. But he didn’t want to do fashion — not interested. So he went to work at the family’s first restaurant, Merivale, in Potts Point, where he found he had a knack with customers, learnt how to suggestive sell off his old man and turned a family side business into the most lauded run of hospitality venues Sydney has ever seen.And it’s not just hospitality. His love of music plays out like a Mastercard ad: Justin the teenager bugged his mum to bring back rare records from Europe, then Justin the fledgling manager dubbed his suitably fashionable collection onto DAT tapes for use as background music for Merivale because “restaurants back then weren’t focusing on having great background music.” Now Justin the music mogul owns and runs the Jam Music label and the Good Vibrations Festival. Priceless.Slingshot Hemmes, as they called him, is also a bona fide Australian GT Performance car-racing champion — the speed-demon streak of his ‘formative’years paying dividends on the track. Aside from the time his Subaru vaulted over a barrier and carved a neat car-sized hole out of a Shell billboard, that is. He hasn’t tried for a second title though, and when I asked him why he hasn’t made a return to the sport, he answers as if I’m kidding: “Because I won… I don’t want to go backwards!” Who would have thought Justin Hemmes, the millionaire playboy, is actually a posterboy for doing it for the love and not the money. Not that it matters; the green stuff grows on Ivy now. — Mark Davie

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