King’s College: Property chiefs Jason Huljich, Mark Francis met in class, footie field

Two property bosses with nearly A$18 billion of real estate under management met at Auckland’s King’s College in Ōtāhuhu.

Jason Huljich of Centuria and Mark Francis of Augusta and Asset Plus were at school together. They head listed real estate businesses on both sides of the Tasman managing assets in the Centuria and Asset Plus businesses.

“King’s was really enjoyable,” Huljich recalls. “As a boarder, you got to hang out with your friends and play sport and do homework. It tends to teach you a lot of discipline. I’m very process-driven and have attention to detail and that comes from that education.”

Huljich remembers Francis being a fast winger and Francis remembers Huljich as a decent half-back.

Both also have European migrant lineage: Francis’ ancestors are from Lebanon. Huljich’s are from Croatia and Lebanon.

Huljich finished playing rugby in the sixth form but in Sydney plays golf and tennis and is about to become a dad for the first time.

“Mark and I were friends since we were quite young. New Zealand is a great place, it’s nice how it works over there,” Huljich said of close business ties between Kiwis.

Centuria took over and delisted Augusta and it now manages its New Zealand portfolio, as well as managing separately listed Asset Plus which Francis heads.

Centuria manages and owns assets valued at A$17.4 billion.

Huljich, ex-Auckland and John McBain, ex-Hamilton, are joint chief executives of the Centuria-branded businesses including ASX-listed Centuria Capital Group.

Separate businesses are the A$3.1b Centuria Industrial REIT, A$2.1b Centuria Office REIT and NZX listed $300m Asset Plus.

In unlisted real estate, Centuria has A$7.9b in single asset funds, A$1.6b in multi-asset closed-ended funds and A$15b in multi-asset open-ended funds as well as A$900m investment bonds via Centuria Life, Centuria Investment Bonds, and Guardian Friendly Society.

Huljich is a member of the Auckland family previously involved in small goods food business Top Hat and who now have other extensive investments. His father Chris and brother were early investors in digital donation firm Pushpay and in March sold their 16 per cent stake to American investment firm Sixth Street Partners for $320m.

In Sydney, Jason Huljich’s family interests own a significant 6 to 7 per cent of Centuria’s shares on issue. That company has a market capitalisation of A$2.6b.

He told the Herald he holds only a New Zealand passport, “even though I have been here 25 years. I’m a pretty loyal New Zealander. I still support the All Blacks. It doesn’t provide too much difference. I moved over in 1996. We’ve basically got the same rights as Australians other than the right to vote.”

Asked about his success in Sydney, he said: “Kiwis are down-to-earth, hard workers. We didn’t have any preconceived ideas, we started out very small. Coming into Sydney it’s very different to growing up in NZ, but it’s worked really well.”

The Centuria business employs about 300 people. The son of Chris and Colleen Huljich grew up in St John’s, then the family moved to Ōrākei. He is the eldest followed by Peter and Elizabeth who live in Auckland and sister Rachel who lives in Sydney.

Huljich, 46, is an Auckland University graduate, having studied commerce.

From the age of 12, he worked for his parents’ meat and small goods Top Hat factory.

He moved to Sydney initially planning to spend only a year there but within four months. met McBain who had established a property consultancy company after the 1990s downturn.

“They were sorting them out with the banks. We’d go in and lease up buildings, problem solve. About two years into it, we found opportunities in western Sydney for about A$9m. We tried to syndicate it and we had three months to do it. That was our first syndicate in 1998. We now have 400 assets in Australasia, worth nearly A$18b. That’s a mix of commercial, industrial, retail, healthcare, and agriculture,” Huljich said.

Centuria took over ex-NZX listed Augusta and now manages separately-listed Asset Plus which plans to develop 35 Graham St in Auckland’s CBD. It is also developing new Auckland Council northern headquarters at Albany.

On the Augusta takeover, Huljich said: “The good story is we’re both Kiwis, John and I. We never found the right platform in New Zealand. Mark’s done a great job in building up and it made sense to merge. We can grow Augusta using our larger balance sheet from Australia. All we’ve done is helped Augusta with our balance sheet.”

Huljich married Lucy a year ago. Their first baby is due in January. They live at Elizabeth Bay. He doesn’t own New Zealand properties personally but stays with his parents when he returns to Ōrākei.

Asked about the European migrant background, he said “I’m more a Kiwi than Croatian. It’s cultures working hard and being humble. It helps to have immigrant roots. Really I’m a Kiwi.”

He has visited the Croatian island town his ancestors’ family come from, Hvar.

The family hail from that village and he has seen graveyards and noticed all the Huljich names there, having visited Croatia four times, including for his father’s 70th birthday two years ago. Around 18 family members returned to the ancestral village then, he recalled.

Asked about Centuria’s name, he said it was originally called Century Funds Management but that was sold.

“The name Centuria was a unit of land and the person who ran 100 men was centurions in Roman times,” Huljich says.

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