‘Mister Gold Coast’ enters Hellenika and pulls up a chair next to owner Simon Gloftis.
No, it’s not Tom Tate — Mr Gold Coast arguably wields more power and influence than even the mayor himself. But despite building and running some of the Coast’s biggest infrastructure projects and events, this humble mover and shaker would much rather fly under the radar than play the high-flyer.
He’d much prefer playing with his one-year-old grandson, or having a punt and a few beers with some mates in the back bar of his local pub, than swanning about at some black-tie function.
John Witheriff, aka ‘Mr Gold Coast’, arrives for the Ocean Road interview — the latest in our series of chats between restaurateur Simon Gloftis and notable locals — bang on time, dressed in a black suit and crisp, open-neck white shirt. Despite being one of the Glitter Strip’s biggest heavy-hitters, he has an engaging warmth about him and a refreshing lack of ego.
He and the Gloftis family go back a long way. Simon was still a boy when his father, Jim, became one of the first clients of Witheriff Nyst — the law firm Witheriff founded in the early 1980s with lawyer mates Chris Nyst and Steve Amundsen. The practice eventually morphed into the Gold Coast office of national law firm MinterEllison and became a springboard for Witheriff’s pivotal role in big-ticket projects, including the Gold Coast light rail, last year’s Commonwealth Games, and the establishment of the Gold Coast Suns AFL team.
“I’ve known the things you’ve done for a long time and I know how much you’ve done for the Coast,” Gloftis tells Witheriff. “You’re one of those people who’s been everywhere, but you’re a bit more private than some.”
Witheriff: “To be honest, I enjoy a beer and a punt at the back of the Salt Bar in Kingscliff just as much as I enjoy going to any sort of functions.”
Witheriff was born in the old Southport Hospital 59 years ago.
“I’ve lived in the Gold Coast all my life … so I love the city,” he says. “That’s the starting point. I’ve got this great love for the Gold Coast and it’s been very good to me and good to my family.”
Witheriff went to Guardian Angels Primary School and Aquinas College at Southport, before being sent to boarding school at Nudgee College in Brisbane. After finishing Year 12, he studied as an articled clerk and was admitted as a lawyer in February 1982.
Soon after becoming a lawyer, he became a husband. He and Carol, still happily together 36 years on, married when he was 23. Before tying the knot, Witheriff went to get some advice from his old man, Bill, a World War II veteran.
“He was one of only 13 sailors out of 151 who survived the sinking of the HMAS Yarra [off Indonesia in March 1942], and he was of a different generation,” Witheriff says.
“I told him I needed some advice, and we met down at the Huntington Club [in Southport] for a game of pool and a beer. I said, ‘I’ve met this girl; I love her; should I marry her?’
“Dad said, ‘Look mate, I’m no good with affairs of the heart, but answer me this: now and for the rest of your life, are you prepared to give 60 [per cent] and accept 40 in return? If your answer is yes, then marry her’.
“I guess that 60:40 philosophy has become my philosophy in everything I’ve done.”
A year after marrying Carol, Witheriff went into partnership with lawyer mates Nyst and Amundsen.
“That was when I met your dad,” he tells Gloftis.
“Yeah,” Gloftis says, “I remember sitting in the car as a kid with Mum while Dad was inside [in the offices of Witheriff Nyst] getting stitched up by you guys!” He laughs.
Witheriff (chuckling): “Look, I’ve got to say he [Jim Gloftis] was incredibly generous to me. He was starting off and he was a great businessman even as a young man. I was starting off too and I’d run out of work by about 10.30 in the morning. You’d get in at 7 o’clock and your whole desk was clear by mid-morning.
“Jim was doing a few [business] transactions then and he was incredibly loyal to me. I’ll always remember that and always think so well of Jim — he’s a great man, your father.”
Witheriff Nyst became bigger and more successful, eventually becoming the Gold Coast office of national firm MinterEllison. While Nyst moved on to establish his own criminal law firm, Witheriff and Amundsen stayed on as executives with Minters.
With a reputation for commercial smarts and deal-making expertise, Witheriff was already being tapped to join corporate boards as a director.
“I would have been 35 when I started my first serious [external] directorship with the Queensland Transmission and Supply Corporation, which owned $6 billion worth of electricity assets, including Energex and Ergon,” he says.
“I was still on that board when [fellow Gold Coast powerbroker] Terry Jackman approached me and said, ‘Would you join me on the Sea World board?’ At that stage, Sea World was a public company and owned all the theme parks except Dreamworld [as well as the Sea World Nara Resort].”
Gloftis chimes in: “My first proper paid job was [a course ranger] at Paradise Springs golf course, which was owned by Nara.”
Chuckling at how far Gloftis has come, Witheriff has a few fond memories of his own when it comes to his Sea World days.
“Terry [Jackman] and one of the Kirby brothers [of Village Roadshow fame] used to go fishing in the Sea World lake, because they had these massive bream in there,” he remembers. “The park wasn’t open for the day, but they had the rods out early. Let’s just say it was a more relaxed time on the Coast!”
In the mid-2000s, Witheriff was approached by the then Beattie government to join the board of the Gold Coast Desalination Plant at Tugun as part of a multibillion-dollar water grid designed to ‘drought-proof’ southeast Queensland.
“That [the water shortage] was a problem so we got that built,” he says. “It was the first billion-dollar infrastructure project that I was involved in.”
Witheriff, who served for eight years as chairman of the Regional Economic Development Board and 16 years as chairman of the Gold Coast Combined Chambers of Commerce, was then sounded out by the AFL, which was looking to establish a team on the Glitter Strip.
“One thing led to another and we all joined [now AFL boss] Gil McLachlan to announce North Melbourne’s arrival on the Gold Coast,” Witheriff recalls.
“Unfortunately, North Melbourne decided they weren’t coming. They [the AFL] needed another announcement, and the announcement was that they were going to issue a 17th licence.
“So we rounded up a pretty broad cross-section of people and started to put a bid together. We needed about $350 million from government, the private sector, and AFL, and we got a lot of commitments from a lot of people.”
The Suns were granted the licence and the rest is history.
Witheriff was the founding chairman and was instrumental in getting Metricon Stadium at Carrara built.
“By 2015, my view was that we needed fresh blood,” he says. “I’d spoken to [AFL legend and Suns coaching adviser] Malcolm Blight and we both agreed that he and I would go together in 2015. If we were in premiership contention, we might reassess things, but if not, it would probably be time to move on.”
In 2012, Witheriff famously predicted the Suns would win the AFL flag within three years. Reflecting on the Suns’ failure to even make the finals to date, Witheriff cracks a wry smile.
“I had one crack at predicting a Suns premiership window, so I’m not going to predict that again,” he says.
“It [running the Suns] would be one of the toughest jobs that you would ever have. It’s unforgiving. At every level it’s a challenge.
“Their present strategy is the correct strategy. They’re getting together a group of players who play for each other and are committed to the Gold Coast. They’ve got a coaching and admin staff who are all in that same position.
“They’ll build again. This will be a challenging year for them, but I think the community has got an attitude that we’re not going to burden them down with the need to win every game. We’re going to accept the fact that there’s a progression. I think the Suns are going to do good things.
“But it’s a tough competition and a cut-throat business. Eddie McGuire will be very positive and helpful, but he’ll make sure that Collingwood prevails over the Suns every time if he can.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time [as Suns chairman], but I’m very pleased to be an observer.”
In 2010, Witheriff was invited to join the board of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games Corporation, responsible for delivering Queensland’s biggest-ever event.
“My role was infrastructure delivery and procurement, focused on getting as many Gold Coast goods and services as we could,” he says. “We were able to build out Carrara and turn it into a world-class sporting asset. It’s exceptional.”
At the same time, Witheriff accepted a role to chair an investor consortium called GoldLinQ, which was bidding for the watershed Gold Coast light rail project.
“The consortium was made up of Japanese investors and [investment] funds from around Australia and England — we couldn’t get any Australian banks to support us at that stage,” he says.
“But we bid and were successful in obtaining a franchise to operate light rail until 2029. We built Stage 1 and Stage 2 and we’re now planning Stage 3.”
Gloftis, who is part of the Light Rail Business Advisory Group, says the extension south from Broadbeach to Burleigh Heads seems a ‘no-brainer’ given the success of the project to date.
“The biggest issue around the growth of the Gold Coast is how do we maintain a liveable city, and that’s where light rail comes in,” Witheriff says.
“We’ve seen a 43 per cent increase in public transport with the light rail, and that growth looks like it’ll continue.”
In more recent times, Witheriff has been leading a consortium building a $1.8 billion toll road to Toowoomba. The so-called Second Range Crossing is due for completion mid-year.
He’s also director of a consortium building 10 new schools for the State Government at a cost of $500 million.
“There’s just under $4 billion worth of infrastructure that I’m either building or overseeing operations of,” he says. “It’s an interesting challenge.”
Gloftis asks Witheriff what motivates him — to not only dream big, but to keep turning those big dreams into reality?
“What’s sort of driven me is when I was a kid, there were something like 980 people lived in Broadbeach in 1961,” Witheriff says.
“I’m guessing there’d be more than 980 people in Simon’s Nineteen at the Star on one night these days! That’s the massive growth we’ve seen in this city in a relatively short time.
“I guess the real issue around the Gold Coast for me is it’s going to grow — I think that’s certain. And we’ve seen such growth — imagine what’s going to happen over the next 40 years?
“We need to be able to move around, and that’s why we need a public transport system. We need things to do, which is why I was committed to getting the Suns and all that infrastructure [at Carrara]. And we also need something to do in a cultural sense, which is why the mayor’s initiatives with the cultural precinct are so critically important.
“To the extent that I can contribute to that, I’m privileged. I get back to that 60:40 philosophy — don’t worry about what’s in it for you; get in and roll your sleeves up.
“My experience over my 35-year marriage and everything I’ve done is that you’d be amazed what comes back to you. In fact, it comes back to you in spades. Instead of giving 60, you get about 120 back.”
Gloftis: “I like that. It’s a really nice philosophy. My old man’s always said pretty much the same — don’t worry, it’ll come [the returns]. It’s good to hear.”
One thing that interests Gloftis is where the Coast is at in its life cycle.
“Now, on the Gold Coast, people ask me a lot, ‘Where are we right now?’” he says.
“People say we’ve grown up, we’re this, we’re that. Where do you think we are, John?”
“I think it was recognised through the early part of this decade that unless we could get jobs, meaningful things for people to do, you end up with a decay of your social environment,” Witheriff replies.
“Crime rates went up around the Coast in 2010-11, and so the diversification of our industry base is critical. Tourism will always be a core industry. I think we’ve diversified, but if there’s a major downturn again in the construction sector, the Coast will feel it and feel it much more than other places.
“But I think at the moment there’ll be a slowdown, but not a dramatic one. The low dollar is going to continue to see our tourism industry supported. I don’t think there’s been a sufficient boom on the Gold Coast for us to do it tough. I think there will be a slowdown — I think it’s cyclical — but I don’t think it’s material.
“We’re not going to see a 2008 to 2011 slowdown. I’m quite bullish on the Gold Coast over the medium term. And what that means is there’s going to be a good economy and there’s going to be continued construction and, I think, plenty of opportunity, particularly for young families.”
Gloftis observes that whereas once many local high school graduates left the Coast to go to university in Sydney or Melbourne, many are staying put to attend one of our three excellent tertiary institutions — Griffith, Bond, and Southern Cross.
“They’re [not only] going to uni here, but also coming back [from Sydney and Melbourne], moving back here to live a life — not just for holidays or to visit the family,” he says.
Witheriff: “That was an aspiration for people from my generation. I remember having lunch with [former Gold Coast Bulletin editor] Bob Gordon and Tom Tate in the early to mid-’90s and we were talking about that very subject. Tom had a young family and I had a young family, he was the president of the Surfers Chamber [of Commerce] and I headed the Regional Economic Development Board and Combined Chamber.
“We were talking about the fact there was a need to ensure we created and diversified the jobs market and got an education sector going. I get great pleasure in watching his commitment to that now that he’s the mayor.”
So what’s next for John Witheriff?
Well, first and foremost, he and Carol are looking forward to welcoming a second grandchild into the world, with son Nick and his wife Bayleigh expecting their first-born. He or she will be a cousin to little Billy, the son of Witheriff’s daughter Lucy and her husband, Wallabies rugby union player Rob Simmons.
“It’s a whole new role for me being a grandfather, but it’s something I really love,” Witheriff says.
“With Rob away for six months of the year touring with the Wallabies, I’ve got to spend a lot of time with Billy and it’s been an extraordinary opportunity. How lucky am I to get to know this little guy?
“I’m lucky enough to get a whole lot of invitations to events, but I’m generally down [at his home at Casuarina] with my grandson and the family or having a punt with a couple of larrikins at the back bar of a pub.”
As for business, Witheriff is busy working on planning for Stage 3 of the light rail, finishing the Toowoomba road project, and running Minter Ellison.
“I seem to get approached by investors these days, but the question for me is whether to take on another big infrastructure project,” he says. “I’ve been lucky enough to tick most of the boxes in business. Perhaps some charity work? Who knows, I might get tempted to do another project.”
Gloftis: “John, I talk to a lot of people and many of them believe you’re one of the guys who really runs the Gold Coast. Yet you’re a pretty humble character. It must be nice to think that people genuinely believe you have made an impact on the Coast?”
“I often speak to groups of lawyers,” Witheriff says, “and I find a graduate has a view that they don’t know anything, a lawyer thinks they know everything, and a [law firm] partner certainly knows everything! [He laughs.]
“When you’re 30 years in [to a law career], you realise that you actually know nothing and that you’re a cog in a wheel. To the extent that you’re clever enough, you can work out where you fit into that wheel.
“I probably went through a phase where I had a bit of an ego and needed a convertible car and whatnot. But I’ve now realised that I’m just a cog in a wheel and I’ve found a way I can make a contribution. That probably sums me up.”