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The man behind Merivale

Think Local

Entrepreneur Justin Homilies is a bit of an enigma. Being the CEO of Sydney's billion dollar hospitality company. Merivale, you'd expect him to be a ferocious bad-ass. But although the astute businessman's $1 billion portfolio boasts more than 60 Sydney venues, he's actually a bit of a cuddly teddy - bear.

    We chat about his new venture, The Newport, for several minutes but at the mere mention of Alexa, his seven-month-old daughter with girlfriend, New Zealand model Kate Fowler, he goes all gooey, cooing. “She's the happiest baby I’ve ever seen.”

    Justin claims being a father has taught him patience, explaining, "She's teaching me to calm and just stop. Prior to Alexa coming along, I don't think I've sat still for longer than an hour in my life!

"Just to be holding her and playing for hours is pretty unusual for me. Everyone says it gets better but I find that hard to believe. I'm loving every second."

    It's claimed he bought The Newport for around $50 million and Justin says what piqued his interest was the location, the fact it's an iconic landmark and the fond memories it holds.

    "My parents used to visit The Newport Arms," he explains, "and dad would go diving and spear fishing off Long Reef and they'd go for a drink there after. Mum loved the gardens."

   Justin's first visit to The Newport was about 25 years ago - by dingy.

   “It was very dark and very late, and I don't have a great recollection of it!" he laughs. “It's got incredible water access and I climbed up the bank, and scrambled up where the stage was."

Although the renovation - which, he's working on closely with sister and interior designer, Bettina, includes a sophisticated cocktail lounge, giant playsets, florist Juice shack and charcuterie - is expected to take three to five years, it's received massive fanfare since opening its doors on Good Friday.

    “We hit the ground running and we're busting ourselves to try and get it right," explains Justin. "We currently employ about 380 people and our focus is on making it a community-focused project.

   "The enthusiasm, personal feedback and support we've had has been exceptional, with the amount of people who come up and say, 'thanks so much' being quite overwhelming, In a good way.

   "It takes a lot of class and sophistication to say that and when it comes from the parents and grandparents who have been coming here for 30-40 years, saying we're doing the venue justice, it makes it worthwhile.”

    As well as live music every day and the popular Sunday Sessions, Justin has roped in the lauded chefs from Coogee Pavilion, Zac Sykes and Jordan Toft, and more recently Papi Chulo's Manly-based culinary kings, Christopher Hogarth and Patrick Friesen.

  "It's been a joint effort," he explains. "The beaches venues, like Coogee and Newport, are very special because of their location, and so you get that wonderful mix of generations of families, and people being relaxed, so it's a casual affair. Whereas in the city it's more corporate and people coming from the workplace. I have to say, it's a lovely balance for us.”

For the past eight months Justin has been flitting between The Newport and his waterside Vaucluse home, and reveals there have been times he's missed his girls so much he's sneaked back for a cuddle in the middle of a night, once scaring Kate so much, "she jumped out of her skin!"

    He recently splashed out on a seaplane to make his commute easier. I ask if he's thought about launching a fleet of them for the ultimate nautical Merivale experience from the CBD to the peninsula - a really posh pub crawl, if you like?

   "Not unless they introduce a waterway along George Street," he jokes wryly, a nod to his gazillion CBD venues including the Establishment, Hemmesphere and Ivy."

    So what's next? "I've always wanted to sail around the world," he says wistfully, "to sail around the world in a yacht fishing and diving and stuff - but I don't know if it will happen. I’d probably go stir crazy.”

    It would make a great film, Sydney entertainment mogul-turned-salty seadog.

    Seeing as the grizzly beard he's sporting is a bit Tom Hanks in Castaway - and that one of his entertainment rivals, King Cross club baron John Ibrahim, has been immortalised on TV in Underbelly - I ask who he would choose to play him on the silver screen. "Ooh, good question. Maybe Ryan Gosling. Or Tom Hardy. Or Christoph Walz from Inglourlous Bastards."

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