07 February 2019
With Providence continuing to grow and new projects coming online in WA, Amex recently undertook a major change with an entirely new brand - Okeland Communities.
Sometime in the next few weeks, somewhere in Providence, the pop of a champagne cork will signal a major milestone for one family as they become the 1,000th to move into their new house and call the growing community home.
For Providence’s first family it will be just another moment to celebrate and reflect on the 15-year journey that has seen them defy the naysayers to build a community that defines itself not by the strength of bricks and mortars but by the strength of friendships.
Since 2003 the Shephard family have been the guiding hand behind the evolution of some cow paddocks out the back of Springfield into the established, welcoming community we have today.
With Providence continuing to grow and new projects coming online in Western Australia, the family recently undertook a major change by replacing their long-standing company name Amex Corporation with an entirely new brand - Okeland Communities.
Okeland Communities is, and always has been, a family business operating under the guidance of founder David Shephard until his death in 2012, and now run by his sons Adam and Cameron. The company has its roots in the property industry as far back as 1971 when David began building homes and doing small developments in Perth.
Despite being proud West Australians, it has been the Ripley Valley where the family have stamped their authority on the Australian property industry with a project that not only draws buyers from across the region, but is the living legacy of David Shephard’s lifetime commitment to creating projects that break the mold.
How it all began
While Ipswich has been the growth engine of South East Queensland for a number of years, in 2003 when David and his sons first set their sights on the land that would eventually become Providence, it was a different story.
“This was 15 years ago and the outlook for Ipswich property was pretty grim,” Cameron said. “I think the thing that probably attracted us most was the physical setting and being able to visualise a close-knit community being created in this valley setting.
“We knew that villages and towns nestled in valleys are able to foster a really strong sense of community because the physical constraints of the environment bring people together.”
At 7,000 homes, the Providence community was, and still is, the largest community ever developed by Okeland Communities.Today, Okeland employs more than 20 people, has operations in Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane, and undertakes a mix of wholly-owned and joint ventured projects.
“When we first acquired the site for Providence we were on the tail end of a smaller project in Perth (Livingston Estate) that Dad had first started working on 15 years earlier, so nearly 30 years ago now,” he said. “With Providence he saw his first opportunity to apply the things he had learnt on that project, and do something with real scale.
Adam still remembers the skepticism of the some of the State’s more established developers, who didn’t believe a family-run business from the other side of the country had the skills or resources to deliver a large-scale masterplanned community.
“There was a lot of doubt, there were a lot of naysayers out there who thought that there was no way that we could pull this off, given its scale and complexity.”
The long wait
It was David Shephard’s vision of building an “authentic” community from the ground up that sustained the family through nearly a decade of false starts and endless town planning meetings before Providence was able to begin.
While frustrating at the time, the interminable delays (mainly a result of the significant planning process required to create the Ripley Valley Priority Development Area) it gave Okeland and their team the chance to fine tune their vision for Providence.
“It took longer than we all expected to get the thing out of the ground, but it also gave us a lot of time to actually develop that vision and bring a team together and communicate that vision to them,” Adam says.
All the waiting and planning paid off when it was finally launched in May 2014 with nearly 200 buyers securing their piece of Providence in the first six months. Nearly five years later and Providence recently settled its 1,000th lot sale with the owners already starting to build their dream home.
Over this five years the company has overseen the construction of the hugely popular Splash ‘n’ Play facility and unveiled the imposing Community and Sales Centre that greets every visitor as they enter the estate.
While the Shephard brothers are proud of the physical, built environment they have created at Providence, it is the intangibles - the sense of community and belonging - that they see as their primary achievement.
“This great sense of community that any resident will be able to explain doesn’t come from the buildings, but the people, and it is no accident,” Adam explains. “While the completion of homes, roads, parks and facilities create the place, it is the people that create the community.”
“A lot of developers mistake of just pouring money into parks and facilities for building a community,” Cameron said. “We didn’t just want to be formulaic, we wanted to create an authentic community where people came first.”
“For us the priority is the stuff you can't see, it's the creation of that vibe that nobody can describe when they drive into Providence; but it's there.”
For the Shepard brothers building a community that puts families first, starts with building a culture in their own company where the priorities don’t come from anonymously dictated memos from head office, but are learned around a table sharing a meal and telling stories.
“We've got people in the company like (Providence Project Director) Michael Khan who've worked with us for 10 years and for that period of time he's been immersed in that storytelling,” Adam says.
“The old man passed away seven years ago now, but he always loved to tell stories and I still remember him telling us about everything he learned doing Livingston Estate (the Perth project before Providence); those stories get retold to Michael and to Michael's team and the organisation is built around those stories.
“Very quickly they understand that while still important, we are not just driven by cash flows and feasibilities and sales targets, they understand that the culture of our organisation is different to that.
“It's a culture that's very, very difficult to get in a big pubic company because you don't get the Project Director or the Community Development Officer sitting in the room with the directors of the company and hear the stories about where the company has come from and where it is going.”
Getting the balance right
Some of the most important decisions made by Okeland over the last five years revolve around creating an environment that is conducive to the creation of a community. It is easy for developers to simply throw money at a project to create the impression of a connected community. It is also easy to stand back and do nothing. Getting the balance right can be tricky.
Key to the process of creating a new community that was the hiring of Felicity Hill as the Community Development Officer. While an employee of Okeland, the Shephards see Felicity’s role as working for the community.
“Felicity wasn't someone who came out of property industry, she was a true community development officer that came out of the community services sector… it is an important distinction,” Adam explains.
The Shephards highlight the continued success of the Heart & Soul Festival as an example of how a develop can facilitate something before handing it over to the community so they can ‘own’ it.
With the community expected to double again over the next few years Cameron said Okeland was constantly balancing its desire to inject itself and resources into the continued growth of the Providence community and allowing the community to take the lead and let things evolve more organically.
“We see our role as sponsoring networks and relationships between the people that live here and creating frameworks by which people do genuinely communicate with each other and those networks will transcend the size of the place.
Cameron believes one of the great challenges for Providence over coming years will be maintaining the close intimate links that have developed as Providence grows.
“There is a real awareness that it's easy when you've got 500 families and it's harder when you get to 1,000 families. But what happens when you've got 2,000 and 3,000 families? How do the intimacy of the place translate at that scale?”
“I think it is a case of ensuring we continue to provide the linkages between the existing residents and the new residents to ensure everyone can find their pace in the community.”
Always looking forward
While the brothers still live in Perth with their families, they take every opportunity to head to Providence, with the annual Community Awards one of the highlights of the year and a good time to reflect on the progress they’ve made.
But, like their father, the boys refuse to rest on their laurels, with an ambitious development program to deliver over the next few years, including the new sports precinct, an overhaul of the community centre, the new school precinct opening in 2020 and the Town Centre.
While these major projects occupy time and resources it is continuing to develop the pride of place that residents feel that gives them the most joy.
“I was just on the community Facebook page this morning and the commentary around the Heart & Soul Festival was so positive and uplifting,” Cameron said. “When people are saying how lucky they are to live here, how proud they are of the community; I know it would make our father very happy.”