Stephen Ellis is CEO of Ellis Developments QLD, one of the leading developers and builders of small-lot subdivisions - clusters of townhouse-like single-family homes that are only 50mm apart from each other. The sleek, modern developments have proved extremely popular amongst Townsville homebuyers in recent years, particularly in high-demand inner-city neighbourhoods such as The Village and Haven Townsville, where demand for Ellis homes means they can’t build them fast enough to satisfy demand with waiting lists in place. And he’s currently under construction or about to start work on 126 homes in Townsville - all pre-sold - with a further 18 homes already scheduled for later in the year.
An Early Start
Inspired by his Father, a Draftsman to trade; construction has been a constant in Ellis’s life from the beginning. Starting with cars and motorbikes before the age of 14, and later moving onto house renovations. “I always had a passion to build things.” Said Mr Ellis.
Stephen grew up in Kirkintilloch, a suburb of Glasgow, Scotland and recalls a carefree upbringing always tinkering under a car bonnet or working in the garage with his Dad till the late hours of cold Scottish nights. In high school, Stephen worked with his Father on various home renovation projects, learning the ropes.
Foot in the Door
Stephen was accepted to Strathclyde University to study engineering aged just 16yrs, albeit young, he spent most of his nights in the Library. In 1986, on exiting University aged 19yrs he purchased his first investment property which he meticulously restored, with the help of his Father and sold within 12-months for profit. This heralded the start of a life-long career dedicated to commercial & residential property investment, renovation and land development. Stephen’s first paid position in the property game was as a ’Trainee’ Real Estate Agent with one of Scotland’s largest Real Estate groups, Slater Hogg & Howison, where he excelled above and beyond anyone’s expectations, demonstrating an absolute knack for understanding what his clients wanted. “Selling Real Estate is all about listening to your clients, not talking, and that’s where I have found my success in giving people what they ask for,” Stephen says. Needless to say within nine months of joining Slater Hogg & Howison as a ‘Trainee’, Stephen was promoted to Head Valuer and manager the company’s largest and most successful office in Scotland where he stayed for two years.
In the early 1990’s, on the back of Stephen’s rapid rise to management within Slater Hogg & Howison and increasing appetite for real estate; he grew frustrated because he wanted bigger challenges. Simultaneously the Scottish real estate industry opened up to a new market, whereby legal firms openly advertised and sold property on behalf of clients. “If you want to branch off to be self-employed, oftentimes the opportunity presents itself and you have to be ready all the time to move quickly” he said. Seizing the opportunity, Stephen established his first company 'Ellis Property Valuing', which unsurprisingly became the largest valuing company on the west coast of Scotland, servicing the majority of legal firms entering the real estate market for the first time. "I knew if I could succeed working for someone else, I would be better putting that energy into my own business - besides I was only 24yrs old and thought I knew everything, so I was willing to give self-employment a go” Stephen says.
Stephen had never been busier, initially working out of his West End home in Glasgow; it was not long before he had an entourage of loyal staff and relocated to a prime corner office location nearby. "I was living on adrenaline, literally running from appointment to appointment always challenging myself to achieve more than the day before. I was absolutely 100% dedicated to growing my business.” Stephen admits, "It was a scary period in my life. I was 24 yrs old running my first business that had quickly grown in reputation and size in a completely new market, I had my own salaried staff for the first time, and the buck stopped with me. But failure was never an option, nor will it ever be. I must succeed in everything I do and do it to the best I humanly can!"
Admittedly Stephen’s parents encouraged him to purchase his first Investment property aged just 19 yrs old, however, they never dreamt it would become such a positive addiction for this young Entrepreneur. During Stephen’s 20’s he systematically purchased as much residential property as he could humanly attain. The strategy led to success as the money earned from one project was parlayed into the next, and within 5-years Stephen had acquired 18 residential investment properties, and commenced diversifying his portfolio into prime retail and commercial sites around CBD and West End, Glasgow.
The Restaurant Game
In 1998, suffering from a re-occurring desire to push boundaries in business, Stephen decided he would open Scotland’s first Japanese restaurant. Now to understand the significance of this idea you have to understand that, at that time, Scotland ranked as the number one country in the world for heart disease. Yes Scotland was renowned for 3 things that contributed to this No.1 world ranking. 1) A staple diet of deep-fried everything, including Mars Bars and pizza. 2.) A locally made soft drink called Irn-Bru - Scotland being the only country in the world where Coca-cola is outsold by a local soft drink, and 3.) Alcohol consumption. Many a person would have shied away from serving raw fish to the Scotts, but friends and family of Stephen Ellis knew better than to persuade him otherwise. “I loved eating Sushi when I was travelling in the USA, I was always disappointed when I couldn’t get it at home in Scotland. I thought surely there must be other people who feel the same, so I decided to give the restaurant business a try.”
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Stephen’s gamble was spot-on and following accolades, awards and rave reviews he opened his 2nd, much larger CBD restaurant within 12-months in partnership with Jim Kerr, lead singer of 80’s Scottish band, Simple Minds. The launch party was the event of the year, featured in ‘Hello’ magazine with celebrities’ flying-in from all over the country including Billy Connelly and Pamela Stephenson. A fine dining restaurant called ‘The Dining Room’ opened the following year in conjunction with top Scottish chef Jim Kerr (not the singer), and so did celebrity clientele, accolades and more awards. Named the Top Fine Dining restaurant in the first year of opening, the restaurant business was a recipe for success for Stephen Ellis.
It’s clear Stephen has an obsession with architecture and property in general. So it became a game of collecting houses wherever the couple holidayed - so much so that the property portfolio of Stephen expanded into South Africa, Australia, USA and Italy within a few years. In 2002, when Stephen, aged just 35yrs old, and his wife decided to take early retirement it was obvious they needed a project. The couple had always loved holidaying in Italy. They enjoying the culture, food and architecture, so they purchased a 100-year old farmhouse, their adventure began. Not speaking a word of Italian, Stephen quickly learned the hands-on skills of restoring a completely different construction than what he was use to in Scotland, which offered the opportunity to learn new skills, building codes and a new language.
The Ellis family lived in Italy for 4-years. In that time they learned to speak Italian whilst restoring numerous farmhouses, and still return regularly to visit friends to this day. “Italy will always be in my blood, it’s a wonderful country and we met some amazing Italian families who welcomed us with open arms. I feel so lucky to have experienced that in my lifetime.”
Without realising, the building skills learned as a part-time property developer in Scotland, Italy and the USA, would set Stephen up for a career in building good quality homes on the other side of the planet in Australia, where small lot well-designed homes were yet to gain momentum in the market historically saturated with large homes in sprawling suburban subdivisions, where population was low and land was abundant.
Today Stephen concentrates on urban infill projects, because he sees the buyer’s confidence in building homes close to inner-city amenities within established neighbourhoods. People buying our homes appreciate good architecture and clever use of space with our designs, but also want the ease of proximity to the CBD and lifestyle offerings. Although small-lot homes are becoming increasingly popular with developers and buyers in Australia, they are also controversial.
Most important, Ellis said, is to find good mentors that “you can rely on and talk to when you have issues and questions.” Also understand that you will make mistakes, but don’t waste time dwelling on them, you just need to work harder to turn them around quickly,” he said. "I won’t go to sleep at night if there is something I can do today to fix or change an outcome tomorrow”. Throughout Stephen’s life there have been amazing role models that he has looked up to. “My big cousin Steven was a huge inspiration to me growing up, he was the business man in the family and I use to get his designer hand-me-downs, which made me want to dress well when I could afford my own clothes”. "I’ve had other mentors including my German mate Peter who taught me about good wine and fine dining, and other friends who were just phenomenal business people.”
In 2001 Stephen was invited by the Glasgow City Council to sit on a mentoring board to help underprivileged youth, and through his restaurants, Stephen assisted refugees with job skills so they could contribute to the community and be financially independent. He also led primary school groups, teaching them about healthy eating, and learning to try different types of food. Stephen has been on the cover of numerous business magazines, and won countless awards for the numerous businesses he has started over the years. “We don’t have children of our own, so it gives me great pleasure to mentor the younger generation, kids that I see potential in who just need some direction.”
Stephen lives in Townsville, with his Australian wife, Pam, and their Shih-tzu Vegas. You’ll find Stephen at the gym most mornings, and when gets any time off work; he loves to travel and explore new cultures, food and wine. “We always do a ski trip every January, which keeps us motivated to stay fit during the festive season - not easy to do!” he said.