THE ROBB READER - JUNE 2017
By Michael Stahl
John Castran, 60, is widely respected as an authority on Australian alpine property values and development. His Castran Pty Ltd agency, founded almost 35 years ago, also specialises in the marketing of inner-Melbourne developments under the direction of his son Lachlan, but regularly features in major sales in the alpine areas, such as the recent marketing of the prime Alpine Resort Management Board site in Mt Hotham. Early in his career, Castran gained an associate diploma in real estate valuations at the RMIT, one of many similar qualifications in the 1980s. He is a specialist retail valuer and past member of the VCAT. The following decade he became engaged in compulsory acquisitions in Victoria’s coal-rich La Trobe Valley on behalf of the State Electricity Commission. Castran is a keen and adventurous skier and, in 2009, was resuscitated after being buried in an avalanche.
Which love came first: the skiing or the real estate?
It goes back to my father. He’s 92 and was skiing until he was 82. He grew up in Canada and had a great passion for skiing. He came to Australia and did his medical degree, and became the doctor at Mt Hotham more than 40 years ago. He had the little caravan up there, had an anaesthetic machine and a few bits and pieces to stitch people up. We lived in Melbourne, but we’d spend a lot of the ski season up at Mt Hotham. My father’s great love was skiing – especially tax-deductible skiing!
You don’t just sell land, you’re a significant owner.
With my indoctrination, in 1980 I purchased a piece of land called Dinner Plain. It was 230 hectares and the only piece of freehold land in the high country. I joined up with [Professor] Peter McIntyre and Geoff Henke [AO] and we created the highest freehold village in Australia. We built most of Dinner Plain and most of Mt Hotham. In the early ’90s we teamed up with BCR Asset Management. They put in the jet airstrip just below Dinner Plain, the highest jet airstrip in the country. BCR also purchased Mt Hotham and Falls Creek lifts, and was the catalyst to reinvigorate skiing in Victoria.
Alpine property seems to be a creature all its own.
Well, 98 per cent of sales now are private, but the one big difference is it’s leasehold, so the Crown owns the land in all the major ski resorts – bar Dinner Plain. At the grassroots level, there are club lodges, mostly built 40, 50 years ago with what I call ‘sweat equity’. They’re usually in very good areas, because the villages grew up around them … The next step up is studio apartments at Buller, Falls Creek, Hotham, Thredbo, generally $150-$200k … then up into two bedroom/two bathroom, $400-$550k. Then you have the ‘big banger’ division. The Grollo family (owners of Mt Buller) have an unbelievable new flagship, Whitehorse. They’re ski-in ski-out, with a garage. They’ve sold seven of those, all at around $1.5 million.
What’s your view on the ‘property bubble’?
To say the market isn’t heated would be absurd. But where once our economy was controlled by government monetary policy, these
days it’s controlled by journalistic policy, and policy handed out by our banks. The market’s pretty well heated, but if you take a lot of the investor stock out of off-the-plan sales, for argument’s sake, a lot of the heat will go out of this market … The investor market is maybe 30 per cent of the whole market and if you pull the rug out from under that, supply will come down, but you’re going to deaden down the market. In the end, the banks control the market.
In 2009, you survived an avalanche in New Zealand that claimed the life of your friend, Llynden Riethmuller.
We go heli-skiing regularly and we were in a place called the Ragged Range – my son Gus, myself, and Llynden. We’d done numerous runs that day and it was time to follow the guide down. These runs are several kilometres long. Blue sky, powder snow waypast your waist … I went down, Llynden following, and then Gus. All of a sudden I could feel the wind blowing through my ears a lot louder than normal. The avalanche runs at about 100km/h, and so suddenly you’re doing 150km/h … The upshot was that I was [buried] for 17 minutes. [The guide and Gus] got Llynden out in seven minutes, but he was blue, he was gone. My son dug for me, they gave me mouth-to-mouth and I kicked into action again. I swear to you, Llynden’s last words, as we’d been skiing down, he said: “Mate, this is as close to God as I’m ever going to get!” Then three minutes later, he was dead.
Aside from skiing, what’s your idea of quality time?
On Easter Saturday at Dinner Plain, we run a polo match – the Geebungs versus Cuff ’n’ Collars, based on the A.B. Patterson poem. It’s the mountain cattlemen versus the Victorian Polo Association and there are no rules. We run it on Cobungra cattle station. The mountain cattlemen round up high country brumbies … We get about 3500 people now coming to the polo. It’s kind of like a cult following, this will be our 25th year … Aside from that, we’ve got a boat that we keep down in Tasmania, way down south. You can live in luxury on a boat and wake up in these unbelievable wilderness areas. I’m not into sitting up in a hotel. I’m a participator.