There's method to the 'madness'
Chris Morris believes in diversity - from share registries to pubs and island resorts to helicopters, writes Ruth Williams.
It was, he says, a "moment of madness". Two years ago, Computershare founder Chris Morris spent $6.25 million buying Queensland's Orpheus Island resort - plunging into the Great Barrier Reef tourism market in the face of a rising dollar and cheap flights tempting droves of Australian tourists overseas. Cyclone Yasi hit soon after the deal was struck, although Orpheus was spared major damage.
But in the two years following that initial "mad" outlay, Morris has boosted his investment in Orpheus and in the region by about $15 million, most recently acquiring a Cairns-based helicopter business to service mining and government clients and to whisk Orpheus Island guests to and from Cairns airport.
"This is not something you go into to make a lot of money - it's more of a passion," Morris says.
Morris now owns seven helicopters - one of the biggest fleets in north Queensland - and has plans for more investment in the region.
"It's just a beautiful, unique part of the world and it will come in cycles like everything else does," he says. "I honestly feel sorry for the people of northern Queensland, they have just been hit by anything possible."
Morris, 65, built a fortune - $555 million, according to the latest BRW Rich List - after creating share registry operator Computershare in 1978, floating it in 1994 and helping build it into a global operation spanning 20 countries. He remains chairman of the $5.4 billion company but relinquished executive duties in 2010.
He's since gone about expanding his hospitality empire, working on technology plays such as the ASX-listed Car Parking Technologies, and occasionally speaking out on issues that trouble him.
These include penalty rates in the hospitality sector, which he says are far too high; pokies, which he detests; and Australia's "disgusting" treatment of asylum seekers.
"Having [them] here and not letting them work is just the most ridiculous thing ... it's all about getting votes and nothing about the poor people that suffer in the meantime," he says. "I've got no idea who I'm going to vote for. You just wish someone would stand up for what they believe in."
Morris' Colonial Leisure Group operation spans three states and includes Victoria's renowned The Botanical, Half Moon in Brighton and the Portsea Hotel, Perth's Raffles and Colonial Brewing Co in Western Australia's Margaret River. The company has kept investing even as households have cut discretionary outlays, especially in Victoria, where spending in hotels, cafes and restaurants is down 5 per cent since the September quarter of 2011.
But as Morris cheerfully admits, his "passion" for hospitality projects has a tendency to trump commercial considerations.
In the case of Orpheus Island, "if I spent the money on a hotel it would make more money", he says.
In Perth, he "probably spent more than I should have" on one of St Georges Terrace's few remaining heritage gems - the 1932 art deco Newspaper House - which he transformed into a four-level bar and restaurant complex named the Print Hall.
On Victoria's Mornington Peninsula, Morris is pressing on with plans for a boutique brewery, organic farm, restaurant and function centre at Cape Schanck, in the face of long-running opposition from some local residents, who have raised concerns about traffic management and its impact on native wildlife.
The process dragged on for years before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal gave approval to the project last year.
"The process of some of this government stuff is so long, it's a wonder that people do anything," Morris says. "It will be a magnificent tourist attraction because it's such a beautiful part of the world. But to make beer you'd be better off to go and rent a factory in Rosebud."
And he steadfastly refuses to install pokies in his pubs, despite declaring that "a lot of people are making a lot of money out of hotels, but the only ones really making money are the ones with poker machines".
"I've personally got a thing against them because they affect the most disadvantaged people in the community," he says. "Once you get poker machines they're not really hotels any more, they're gambling casinos."
Morris says Orpheus' turnover is growing steadily, as are its international visitors. The island, about 80 kilometres north of Townsville, is mostly national park. The resort caters for up to 34 guests at a time.
About 40 per cent of the visitors to Orpheus are from overseas, Morris says, with a big proportion coming from the US and Russia.
He believes Orpheus' visitors - who pay at least $1400 a night for a couple - are not the sort to worry about the value of the dollar. Morris says they are often well-heeled families seeking unique experiences, rather than simply luxurious accommodation.
"It is very much based around activities," Morris says. "We don't pretend to have the accommodation of a Qualia. It's very difficult to do on an island. But we can offer a lot of activities that they can't, and we allow children on, which none of the other luxury resorts do, which always amazes me."
As well as servicing Orpheus, his newly purchased helicopters will shuttle visitors to other eco-resorts properties around the region.
From about $1 million last year, the resort is expected to more than double its turnover this year - still a tiny amount compared with the $100 million-plus revenue generated by his pubs.
But owning both an island and a restaurant and pub empire means his Melbourne staff can travel up to Orpheus when the island gets busy.
"Anyone that went and bought an island, if they didn't already have hospitality, would be even sillier than I was," he says.