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Published 23 May 2013 00:46, Updated 27 May 2013 10:24
Jamuna Gurung and Shesh Ghale came to Australia as business studies students in the early 90s and have since built a combined wealth of $265 million. Photo: Josh Robenstone
Education providers Shesh Ghale and Jamuna Gurung have followed the well-worn path of immigrants to the BRW Rich 200: seeing a gap in the market of their new country and seizing the opportunity.
But in other ways Ghale, 55, and Gurung, 51, are not typical at all. Younger than most and Asian, they are more representative of where the Rich 200 is going than where it has been.
The couple have a combined wealth of $265 million made from a large commercial property portfolio, their private education college, the Melbourne Institute of Technology (MIT), and a nascent hotel development in Kathmandu.
The education business is coming out of a rocky patch – enrolments have improved by 8 per cent to 10 per cent in the past year – and the pair are going ahead with a $40 million redevelopment of the derelict Argus building in Melbourne’s CBD.
“We like Melbourne, we are crazy about it – I get homesick for Melbourne when I’m not here,’’ Gurung tells BRW from MIT’s campus in Lonsdale Street.
“We used to walk around the city on the weekends and we just loved the old Argus building and wanted it for the MIT campus, but then La Trobe University bought it. When it came back on the market, we thought, why not?’’
While best known for their education business, Ghale and Gurung are shrewd property investors. Most of their commercial buildings occupy key sites in Melbourne and there’s also one in Sussex Street, Sydney.
The couple have been married for nearly 35 years and grew up in Nepal. Supported by parents with faith in education, they got through their schooling: Ghale with flying colours and a scholarship to the Soviet Union to study road engineering.
But it wasn’t easy. “One step wrong and you’re gone,” Ghale says. “Everything is luck and hard work. Initially, more hard work than luck.’’
The couple came to Australia in the early 1990s – Ghale in 1990, Gurung about six months later in 1991 – leaving their 10-year-old son in Nepal until 1992. They came as business studies students with no thought of staying permanently. They certainly didn’t plan to establish a private college.
Gurung says: “When we came to Australia, you couldn’t actually stay.’’
“We didn’t have a goal,’’ Ghale adds. “We came here and got business degrees. We learnt about business academically.”
But in 1995, a one-off opportunity allowed them to apply for permanent residency and, after that, their lives changed. “We didn’t need lawyers, we just filled out the forms,” Ghale says. “Within two months we had permanent residency, and once we had that, we had rights and everything changed.’’
Ghale got a job at a private college, while Gurung continued her business degree at Swinburne, where she specialised in marketing.
The education market for foreign students grew exponentially in the 1990s. Australian universities were sending staff to nearby Asian countries to market their courses. In the wake of Bond University, Australia’s first private university on the Gold Coast, a string of small private colleges emerged.
The international student market, worth $700 million in 1990, now contributes $16.3 billion in export income to the economy.
Ghale, armed with a master of business from Victoria University, started working for one of these small colleges, Australian Academy.
“I was really thrilled ... I thought maybe in two to three years I would get enough experience and we could do something like this,” Ghale says.
“All of a sudden at the end of 1995 this college closed down and I lost a job. It was a big setback for us. I was looking forward to learning things.’’
Gurung adds: “It was the end of the recession. There were no jobs here.”
The couple’s plans changed quickly.
“We thought, ‘why not try it?’ I started working on submissions to the government to start the business,’’ Ghale says.
“We did not have the money but it seemed to us that lack of capital is not an impediment to doing business. You need to have knowledge and see the opportunity. And you need courage.’’
MIT now has 2400 students and offers English language courses and a suite of commerce and information technology bachelor’s and master’s courses in association with the University of Ballarat. While Ghale, as chief executive, runs the financial side of the operation, Gurung is managing director with responsibility for MIT’s Melbourne and Sydney campuses. She is also marketing director.
Working and living together can carry risks, but the couple say their personalities complement each other. “I’m so consumed by my work I don’t talk to him at work sometimes for days at a time,” Gurung says.
“She’s the one who never gives up,” Ghale says. “She gives me courage. Often I say ‘no’, she says ‘yes’. We’ve been 15 to 16 years in business and over 30 years in our marriage. We know each other. She has resilience. If she says it can be done, it happens.’’
Gurung says: “I thrive on challenges. Shesh is the other way around and does well when everything’s normal. That’s why we work well together.’’
She stresses that she is very conservative in running the business, keeping costs as low as possible – a move that helped the couple weather the storm that hit the education sector after a government clampdown on visas and controversy over racism.
They say they did not grow as quickly as others during the education boom between 2005 and 2009, so there was “less fat to lose’’ when the crunch came. But a couple of very hard years followed. “We used to have 400 Indian students and it came down to as few as 30 to 40,’’ Ghale says.
Forced to look for new markets domestically and in South-East Asia, they found the situation “a blessing in disguise ... It completely opened up the domestic market”, Gurung says. “We used to have about five domestic students and we grew that to 150.’’
Adds Ghale: “That means the risk in business was diminished and we developed revenue streams that a few years ago we couldn’t have thought of.”
Ghale and Gurung were clearly high-achievers before they left Nepal in 1990. Could they have achieved similar heights without leaving home?
While it’s impossible to know for sure, Ghale says the political climate in Nepal was becoming increasingly restrictive. “It would be very difficult to achieve the level that we have achieved here,” he says. “The system would not have helped. In the next few years, all our friends left too.”
“We came to a good country and the system was good and we came to see the opportunities were good too.”
But they have not forgotten their old country. They returned in 2007 and 2008 after the regime changed and an opportunity arose to purchase a 6000-square-metre parcel of land, owned by the Nepalese royal family and situated next door to the extensive grounds of their palace.
After years of deliberation and negotiations, they have a plan for the site. A 25-year contract with the international hotel group Starwood will result in the Sheraton Kathmandu, a 225-room, five-star hotel.
Gurung says: “Rather than building a commercial property, a hotel helps with local employment and brings foreign currency to the country.’’
The hotel is expected to have an end-value of $110 million, slightly more than the $100 million that Nepal attracts in foreign investment each year.
“When you reach a certain position, you want to do something for your home country,” Gurung says. “Nepalese are leaving in droves – thousands of people every day – so we wanted to do something constructive.’’