First published on 5 Dec 2008. Updated on 11 Apr 2011.
Justin Hemmes yawns widely. His personal assistant says not to take it personally. "He's only had two hours' sleep," she says, as she sets down a caffeine kick on the mirrored coffee table.
Time Out's Bar Awards took place the previous evening and ivy - without question the sensation of 2008 on the Sydney bars scene - picked up a clutch of awards, including the grand prix of Bar of the Year.
"Thanks so much," he beams. "My staff and I are over the moon. We really appreciate Time Out's support."
It's been quite a year for Hemmes who has been opening ivy's many bars and restaurants in stages – starting with Ivy Bar in January and finishing last month with Pool Club, his exclusive Miami-style roof terrace bar. The $160 million project as a whole is like nothing Sydney has ever seen before – both in terms of scale and quality – and he's answered his detractors who wrote him off as a vapid playboy by proving himself as the city's premier bar tsar and businessman.
Yes, Hemmes has a reputation as a high roller - quite literally. Ten years ago, he flipped and sank his $300,000 Scarab speedboat - registration 1JUSTIN - in the harbour, putting all nine passengers in hospital. In 2004, he somersaulted a Subaru WRX on a racetrack, attempting to take a bend at over 200kph.
But these days, Hemmes seems to have successfully turned a corner – though he's not slowed down any – and is definitely getting more serious. As CEO of the Merivale Group and founder of Jam Music label and Good Vibrations festivals, he employs over 1,000 people and is worth something in the order of $500m (though the estimates vary wildly and he declines to put a more exact figure on it). He's added Ivy to his Sydney-focused portfolio of swanky watering holes such as Establishment, Hemmesphere and Tank Stream, restaurants est, Lotus and Sushi-e, pubs such as the CBD and the Slip Inn and nightclubs Chinese Laundry and Tank.
The son of fashion and property tycoons Merivale and "Mr John" Hemmes, Justin was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Now his own man, everything he touches turns to diamond-encrusted gold. But many people still attribute the son's success to daddy's dough, don't they? "Australia is tarnished with tall poppy syndrome," sighs Hemmes Jr. "It's always: 'He's daddy's boy - his father is the one that does everything; he just spends the money.'"
Does that irritate him? "As a kid it did a bit, when I was around 23. But once I did Establishment I knew in my own mind that 'Yes, I'm successful in my own right' and so it makes you calm down... but it's a shame, because you should get behind people that are making a difference and having a go, because it brings everyone up. It's very easy to bring someone down, but it doesn't gain anything. It only creates mediocrity."
Hemmes lives in a separate wing of The Hermitage, his parents' $50 million waterfront Vaucluse mansion, and he is only too ready to acknowledge their help. "Without my parents I would be nowhere so I guess they [his detractors] are sort of right," he concedes.
However, while he admits that he's "never really thought about what it must be like to be broke", he's been brought up to work hard and appreciate that "there's no such thing as a free lunch". As soon as he left university, he started as a dish hand in Merivale, his parents' old Potts Point restaurant, before learning how to deal with customers as a waiter and barista and then doing the books at weekends when he actually wanted to be out partying. Later, he also worked for 18 months on the site of CBD, his first solo venture, beginning reluctantly as a brickie's labourer. "I didn't think of it at the time but I know what dad was putting me through," he says. "You need to know all aspects of business to get the full picture."
Still only 36, Hemmes is now the biggest player in Sydney's nightlife, making his business from other people's pleasure. "I think we've got the balance right in Sydney: we work hard, but then we also like to enjoy ourselves...that's why I'm here. It's not just about business, it's about living as well, and lifestyle," he says. "You could live in London or New York but there's no beautiful beaches to go to. You could live in the south of France but there's no business side to it. Sydney has everything. You can have a very successful and prosperous business because it is an international business city, and you leave work and 20 minutes later you're having a swim at Bondi, on the most beautiful beach." No wonder he only gets two hours' sleep.
More details about Ivy and Establishment.