Across continents, class systems, and industries, Kokoda Property Founder and Managing Director Mark Stevens has broken the mould.
The first in his family to graduate from university, Mark has gone on to become one of Australia’s foremost businessmen and high-end property development leaders.
With a $1 billion project pipeline and projects in multiple states, Mark shares the Kokoda Property purpose – one forged through resilience and grounded in a deep appreciation for family.
- Tell me about where you grew up?
I grew up on a poultry farm in Springvale in a working-class family. Dad laboured and we lived next door with Mum looking after us. The outer south-east of Melbourne was all I knew, so for the first 18 years I went to school and helped out on the farm.Eventually I took a leap and moved out of home… into a mate’s garage in Springvale. I didn’t get far!
- What did your family teach you about home growing up?
Both of my parents had pretty tough upbringings in the United Kingdom. Mum was left when she was 2 and lived in an orphanage until she turned 18. My grandad passed away when dad was just a kid, so by the time he was 14 he was working the docks in Liverpool.Mum and dad married young, and soon after they came to Australia on a Ten Pound Pom. They settled in a caravan park in Eildon and dad walked 18Km to work each way. Our finances were pretty tight and we definitely had hard times, but us kids were always looked after.
- How did experiencing hardship shape your values, and how have you carried them into your work at Kokoda Property?
I’m firm believer that we seek to give in life what we didn’t have growing up. Mum never knew her family, so she invested everything into building a home that was founded on resilience and love. I had a really memorable, colourful childhood. We didn’t have luxury, but we did have each other. I’d like to think I’ve tried to tie these together at Kokoda and create a sense of luxury that’s grounded in togetherness.
- How did you go from being a farmhand in Springvale, to founding a multi-million-dollar luxury property development business?
I was the first person in my family to go to uni. Although I wasn’t always the most studious, I was resilient. I graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce from Monash University and my family were so proud of me.
- What inspired you to study business and accounting?
I gravitated towards math at high-school because if I did the equations methodically, everything balanced. I suppose growing up felt a bit imbalanced at times, so discovering the balance of those equations was important for me.After I graduated I started working as an accountant at Country Road, and later at Roger David. I worked like a Trojan at Roger David with some awesome mentors. While I was there, I gained an internal confidence that my background didn’t need to define my future. I left when I was 31 and became the Chief Financial Officer and later Chief Operating Officer at Jeans West.
- What was it like stepping into a senior finance role in the fashion industry?
It was a massive transition. I walked into a business that was almost insolvent and lead a reconstruction process with a dozen advisors. We seconded the board room, fixed the balance sheets, and by the end of that first 12 months we’d steadied the ship.After that first year, I distinctly remember going to dad’s house and picking up a book on the coffee table called “Rich Dad Poor Dad,” by Robert T. Kiyosaki. I’d never enjoyed reading, but I tore through the book in three days. It had a magnetic quality – I couldn’t put it down!It was a real crossroads in life. I’d been offered an opportunity with another fashion retailer, and my wife had just had our daughter. I looked at this book and looked at my life and thought “do I want to be in control of my destiny or not?”
- What was your critical path from fashion to property?
I finished “Rich Dad Poor Dad,” and threw myself into an intensive course learning how to acquire a property for equitable gain. I spent the next six years at Jeans West as the Chief Operating Officer honing my property skills on the side, resolute that I’d make something of it.For the next five years I worked about 120 odd hours a week – 60 of them at Jeans West as COO, and the remaining 40 acquiring sites, building properties, and renovating.Eventually, something had to give. I resigned from Jeans West and started Kokoda Property.
- What did you learn working in the fashion industry that you’ve brought across to property?
The key is to know what business you’re in. A former colleague of mine used to always say “we aren’t in the business of fashion – we’re in the business of making money. The vehicle we use to do this is fashion.”At Kokoda, we’ve adopted that and made it more holistic. We’re a profitable business, our vehicle is property – but our purpose that drives us is our people.And lastly – never, ever judge a person by what they own or how they dress.
- What did you learn about yourself during that transition?
Overnight I went from being responsible for more than 100 people at Jeans West, to working by myself. It wasn’t long before I missed working with a team.Kokoda began building townhouses, and then we moved into large scale multi-residential property. As the business grew so did the team. Beyond building physical spaces, I realised the importance of community. That the most important thing for us was the impact we could have on people’s lives.
- In light of that, how would you summarise Kokoda’s reason for being?
For me, development and Kokoda are vehicles for community and connection. That’s our “why,” and everything else; the satisfaction of seeing a project finished or any financial gain pales in comparison to being part of the Kokoda story.People are hard wired for love and connection, that’s something my family has absolutely instilled in me. I don’t believe we seek to be perfect, I believe we seek to be whole, and if wholeness is a type of luxury – then that’s what we’re striving to deliver.
- How has your upbringing set you up to succeed in property development?
I’m fiercely proud of my heritage. I’ll always have an affinity for people who’ve come through the school of hard knocks and maintained their humility. People who’ve kept their integrity and haven’t changed who they are just because they’ve made a buck or two.Everyone wants to be measured for who they are, not for what they’ve got, so I refuse to accept people for anything less than that. At Kokoda, our projects and our community are a celebration of people. I hope that integrity, honesty, and resilience is translated in everything we put our hand to.
- How is Kokoda’s offering unique?
We make a huge investment in terms of resource, time and money into our people. We put a focus on it internally, and it’s had incredible outcomes for our purchasers. I set high standards in terms of what I expect delivered when it comes to quality and finish, and I know our team are invested in Kokoda enough to execute that. That’s my litmus test for how I sleep at night!
If you could summarise Kokoda’s “why,” what would it be?
Make a difference every day. To the people in your life, to the environment, and to yourself.