Above and Beyond: Shaun Bonétt
His digital gift card company has become a unicorn; his property investment juggernaut continues to reshape Australia’s retail landscape, but Shaun Bonétt won’t rest on his laurels. In fact, it seems as though he won’t rest at all.
There is, in most careers, a moment when one reaches a plateau. When this happens, such a limit or ceiling is a good excuse to settle into a comfortable groove for several years or, better still, to retire.
However, there are some people who reach that ceiling at such a trajectory and velocity that they simply smash through it and keep going into stratospheres unknown even to those craning their necks to watch the action.
Such is the professional journey of Shaun Bonétt, the Australian entrepreneur, property developer and Founder, CEO and Managing Director of Precision Group. One of Australia’s leading and most successful private property investment groups, Precision Group has had a hand in some of the biggest retail and commercial developments in Australia.
"It started with one small shopping centre in South Australia, and over almost three decades became a thriving portfolio of property assets and diversified interests in other innovative businesses," Shaun says.
Precision’s A$1.2 billion portfolio includes such heavy hitters as Adelaide Central Plaza, Port Adelaide Plaza, Brisbane’s MacArthur Central (including what was – at the time of opening – the largest Apple store in Australia), Chevron Renaissance on the Gold Coast, Pran Central in Melbourne and Auckland’s Shore City Shopping Mall in Takapuna.
I credit my success to my mother and father, who were the source of amazing inspiration as I grew up. They taught me to believe I could achieve anything I wanted in life, and that hard work was good for you.
Shaun’s Midas touch continues within the walls of these retail meccas, where the digital gift card industry has exploded over the past few years. One of the most successful players in that arena is Prezzee, Australia’s first e-Gift card app and one of several investments Shaun has outside Precision Group’s core business.
Launched in 2015, Prezzee has galvanised the digital gift card domain and in 2021 achieved unicorn status after being unofficially valued at A$1 billion. Another ceiling shattered, but even though it’s evident Shaun knows how to spot a winner, he insists there’s no formula for his success.
"There’s no secret. It comes down to having the right product, deeply understanding your customer, and hard work," he says. "It’s been a wild and rewarding ride and it gets better every day."
The extreme heights of Shaun’s career are a far cry from the far-flung suburbs of Adelaide where the ride began in the late 1980s. At that time, the young Shaun was busy with his Arts and Law degrees at the University of Adelaide while he worked as a part-time law clerk. Any money was put towards a deposit on his first property.
"While many university students were probably partying their way through law school at that time, I was intensely saving," he says. "Not that I didn’t do some partying."
Shaun and his family had emigrated to Australia in late 1978, when his father, the late Anton Bonétt, accepted an opportunity through the World Health Organisation. Shaun’s mother, as well as his brother, still live in the city today.
"I credit my success to my mother and father, who were the source of amazing inspiration as I grew up," he says. "They taught me to believe I could achieve anything I wanted in life, and that hard work was good for you."
Through that very hard work, Shaun was eventually able to purchase a house in Unley, just south of Adelaide’s CBD. It was to be the first of many investments Shaun would make as his career in corporate law took off.
By 1994, Shaun was an irrepressible young corporate lawyer who had had enough of dealing with insolvencies, bankruptcies and what seemed like a never-ending line of people’s financial miseries. It was the height of the Australian recession of the early 1990s, but many of the country’s entrepreneurs believed they were immune to risk.
"I don’t think any entrepreneur I acted for at the time had ever contemplated the possibility of their business collapsing," Shaun recalls. "They all believed they were bullet-proof."
They weren’t. Shaun witnessed many companies tank. "When you see a company enter into administration, you realise just how many lives are being ruined. There had to be something more," he says.
"It was not what I thought life should be like, and really, from that reflection came the strong desire to be involved in a business that created things, built things, made things better."
I learned how important it is to have the right team around you and additional financial resources to draw upon if necessary.
At the time, nine out of 10 properties and businesses in Adelaide were being put into receivership. But as is so often the case, out of this challenging environment came opportunity: a lot of banks were willing to do deals with new players.
"I began a small investment and redevelopment property business, focused on finding distressed asset opportunities that could be turned around," he says.
A willingness to take on risk led to the commercial property market, where Shaun joined a childhood friend’s business venture. With the help of the bank, they invested A$6 million in a neighbourhood shopping centre in Newton.
Within a few years Shaun had bought out his partner and started expanding his empire, facilitated by a national property boom.
"I learned how important it is to have the right team around you and additional financial resources to draw upon if necessary. I also learned to identify the important issues to pursue and allow the inconsequential matters to fall by the wayside."
Along with structured finance packages, at a relatively young age Shaun was able to acquire a healthy portfolio of assets. It wasn’t long before those opportunities became bigger and bigger, and soon the 24-year-old made the decision to go into business for himself. "My background as a commercial lawyer gave me the confidence to go it alone," he says.
Driving him was a simple dream: he didn’t want to fail. "I envisaged my journey as a high wire act," he says. "Striving for excellence in an environment where there’s little room for error."
Aiding him was his inherent belief in the power of relationships. Ever a people person, Shaun has made sure that everything he’s created has been done with people in mind.
"By focusing on relationships, I was able to build my business deal by deal," he says. "In my mid-20s I found myself at the negotiating table with some of Australia’s most prominent financial people. In a lot of other countries, young entrepreneurs wouldn’t be given a chance."
By focusing on relationships, I was able to build my business deal by deal.
As he gathered a team of like-minded people around him, Shaun became ever more confident of his business’s mission: to make a difference in whatever it did. The choice of the name Precision Group was made to exemplify Shaun’s aims.
Just four years later, Precision made its first major acquisition: the Port Canal Shopping Centre and the adjacent Customs House office building in Port Adelaide for A$36 million, with the backing of global financier GE. In 2019, Precision set about expanding Port Canal (now known as Port Adelaide Plaza) to over 29,500 square metres, the most significant retail development in Port Adelaide in years.
"Our business’s first decade was spent managing tight financial structured arrangements, always seeking creative ways to do things more efficiently," Shaun says. Throughout those years, Precision acquired and developed shopping precincts and hotels in Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, the Gold Coast and New Zealand.
The Group’s equity steadily built until 2002, when it was able to pay off its start-up financing and attract the attention of Australia’s largest financial institutions such as NAB and Commonwealth Bank.
The value of trust
Two decades since that breakthrough, Precision Group has become one of Australia’s most successful private commercial property investment and management companies, with a portfolio of retail, commercial and hospitality properties that reflects Shaun’s social outlook.
Its focus on relationships has remained a constant throughout – relationships with retailers, industry peers and the wider community alike.
"When dealing with people, there’s only one approach. Do your best by them," he insists. "When you treat others as you would be treated yourself, you can find solutions from their perspective. This creates trust, and there’s nothing more valuable than knowing that someone will do what they promise."
It’s with this philosophy in mind that Precision works with its key stakeholders, helping them achieve their business goals and objectives by providing exceptional commercial and retail properties for lease. Through collaboration and leadership, Precision Group provides effective asset management solutions that create substantial risk-adjusted investment.
When you treat others as you would be treated yourself, you can find solutions from their perspective. This creates trust, and there’s nothing more valuable than knowing that someone will do what they promise.
Such is Precision’s standing and financial fortitude that it was able to endure even the dark days of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC), a catastrophe that left many competitors in the dust.
"It came without almost any warning," Shaun recalls. "We had to stick together and tell ourselves that if we continued doing the right things, we’d get through it."
Once again, relationships were the key to riding out the storm. "Meaningful relationships and compassion give me the greatest moments of joy in the good times, guide me through the bad times and provide me with a sense of tranquil calm whenever life slows down," he says.
These principles enrich Shaun’s life daily and have guided him forward in the most challenging of times; the GFC was just such an occasion. "Winning is not in how many successes you have, it’s in never giving up. It’s in staying loyal to your values and by adding meaning to your relationships."
Across the pond
With companies going under left and right, Shaun made the decision to focus on Precision’s financiers. "When the builder we’d contracted to construct the largest Apple store in Australia went into liquidation, that’s when I realised it was time to pivot," he says.
After six months of courtship, Precision became the Bank of China’s first local customer in Australia. "Their refinancing of the majority of our property portfolio allowed us to move forward with confidence," Shaun says.
"I was humbled by how ethical and relationship-focused the Bank of China was, emphasising their long-term approach with customers, which was completely aligned with my values."
Change is enabled by responding to opportunities. Embracing an attitude of incremental change will allow us to stay ahead of the curve.
The relationship has matured with Precision as it continued to diversify and expand overseas, such as with the purchase of Shore City Shopping Centre in Takapuna, Auckland. As the business grows in the dynamic retail sector, Shaun says success will be a matter of flexibility.
"Over the next three to five years my aim is to simplify complex deals and take advantage of assets the market doesn’t want," he says. "Change is enabled by responding to opportunities. Embracing an attitude of incremental change will allow us to stay ahead of the curve."
Sometimes, staying ahead of the curve is a reactive matter. Matt Hoggett was a Myer customer like any other the day he attempted to make a purchase at the department store with the gift card he’d received for Christmas. But the card sat forgotten in a drawer at home. Matt may have gone home empty handed, but he and his wife Claire Morris had an idea.
The next 18 months saw the pair develop a business plan and prototype for Prezzee, a digital gift card that would always be on hand for the cardholder. In 2015 the couple began to pitch the concept to some of the biggest names in Australian retail, including Shaun and Precision Group.
That pitch – a gift card that would work at a huge range of stores around the world and was completely without a physical form – flew in the face of what had for years been a staple of retail. It wasn’t just a shard of plastic to stick in a card on a birthday or Christmas; it was a global virtual gift card platform.
With a Prezzee gift card, the recipient can choose exactly what they want and no plastic is produced. It’s a product for our time.
For Shaun, the Prezzee concept was an amalgamation of his passions: a win for shoppers and retailers alike, and a universal gift that could foster relationships. Immediately, Precision became the start-up’s principal investor with a 55 per cent stake in the new company.
"I believed in Prezzee and committed to backing the concept all the way," Shaun says. "With a Prezzee gift card, the recipient can choose exactly what they want and no plastic is produced. It’s a product for our time."
Precision’s involvement ensured Prezzee reached market in time for Christmas 2015 and provided other retailers the confidence to join in a new approach to the gift card market.
"We had retailers signing on in the early stages, which in turn gave me the confidence that Prezzee was on the right path," Shaun says.
Indeed, the platform already counts HSBC, Coca-Cola, QBE and Atlassian among its 8,000 corporate clients, and in late 2021 partnered with Mastercard during a period of international expansion.
The gift that keeps on giving
To say Prezzee has been a success is something of an understatement. An instant hit in its native Australia, Prezzee launched in the US in late 2020, the year it processed around A$620 million (US$450 million) worth of online gift cards. That same year, Precision increased its ownership of Prezzee to 85 per cent.
"Prezzee sees growth from existing customers and products and markets rather than new products or markets," Shaun says.
The eGift card’s ‘white label’ deals with US retailers such as Macy’s and Uber Eats helped Prezzee enjoy a 400 per cent increase in revenue after it was launched in North America.
Shaun’s Simple Rules for Achieving a Unicorn
In a career as successful and rewarding as Shaun Bonétt’s, you’re bound to learn a few lessons along the way. Here, Shaun shares three of the most important understandings.
1. In times of adversity lie the greatest opportunities. "When you feel trapped, looking for the door is the easy way out," he says. "My career is a story of making the most of a bad situation; taking the road less travelled will often bring eventual and sometimes unexpected rewards. There’s nothing more enjoyable than moving something from negative to positive."
2. Stick to your path. "Too many people allow failure to define their lives prematurely. A resilient and patient attitude allows you to create an edge over those who give up too easily," Shaun says. "You chose your path for a reason. Unless you’re completely and utterly off track, why would you seek to change your direction?"
3. When you have the right people with the right temperaments in the right place, you create the conditions for greatness. "Nothing will grow if it’s in the wrong environment. A determined ‘underdog’ can thrive if you give them the right opportunity."
"We achieved a record FY2021 in every metric," Shaun says. "Headline sales finished 222 per cent above FY2020. We have more than 800 retail partners and a global reach of over 20 million customers."
And there’s vindication on a personal level, too. Shaun’s hopes that Prezzee would become a universal gifting concept have come to pass. "We’re being asked by partners, customers and retailers to offer the service in countries we’d not even planned to operate in," he says.
"We launched a Chinese New Year offer in some of our markets earlier this year and saw great take-up, so it’s the first step in looking how we serve the digitally savvy Asian region, where gifting is a big part of their culture.
"One of the unique elements of gifting is it does not need to have geographic boundaries. We all have people in our lives that are not physically close to us or who live overseas. We don’t want to restrict who you can connect with and spread joy with, and Prezzee wants to be able to offer that to everyone, everywhere."
Rainbows and unicorns
If you build it, they will come. And so it was with Prezzee, which is heading for A$2.5 billion in revenue for the 2023 financial year – double what it achieved in the 12 months prior.
"Despite the current macro challenges, Prezzee is well placed to continue to thrive," Shaun says. "The opportunity ahead is huge."
And so is Prezzee itself. In 2021, the company achieved the venerable ‘unicorn’ status, being unofficially valued at A$1 billion. According to Shaun, Prezzee’s success is a win for human connections.
"Prezzee is revolutionising the gifting economy with an emotionally intelligent platform that connects humans in the moments that matter," he says.
"We all know it feels good to receive but better to give. It’s a human emotion, a ritual ingrained in all forms of society since the dawn of humanity. It’s a symbol of appreciation, gratitude, friendship and of course, love. It’s a connection to bring people together, and that’s why Prezzee exists."
We all know it feels good to receive but better to give. It’s a human emotion, a ritual ingrained in all forms of society since the dawn of humanity.
Accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the gift card industry continues to grow globally. The US market alone is worth close to A$614.4 billion (US$385.30 billion), with one third of that spent on digital gift cards. Prezzee’s goal is to capture 10 per cent of that market.
"I know we have the right strategy and team in place to drive our short-term opportunities, along with our medium- to longer-term sustainable and profitable growth levers," Shaun says.
It’s not just the company’s bottom line that’s growing, either. Team Prezzee has grown from 100 to 300 in the last 12 months, with 24 per cent of its software engineers identifying as female. "We’re competing for talent across the fintech sector; therefore, our culture and values must be rock solid," Shaun says.
"The employees we’re attracting and onboarding are focused on just how genuine the values are and how deep our culture runs."
That’s just as well, as the company plans to drastically expand its operations in the UK and mainland Europe, particularly Germany and France, as part of its ‘measured’ growth strategy.
Enjoy what you do
"I remain very optimistic," Shaun says of the road ahead. "Both Precision Group and Prezzee have adjusted and adapted to the challenges of recent times. The new normal is simply to expect new challenges to arise continuously.
"I’m confident both companies can manage through them to achieve positive business results while making a real difference in society."
And that’s something Shaun is committed to even when he’s not wearing either his Precision or Prezzee hats. In 2005 he established the Heartfelt Foundation, an online platform that allows users to easily donate to charities in need of help getting established or staying afloat.
"It was a way to give something back to the communities in which Precision Group operates," he says. So far, beneficiaries of the Heartfelt Foundation include Pathways, Gawler Foundation, Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation and Bear Cottage.
Add to that his roles as Deputy Chair of Life Education Australia and Patron of the Princes Trust Australia and you have a portrait of someone who puts his money and time where his mouth is when it comes to leadership.
If you don’t enjoy what you do, then you should go and find something else.
"I’ve learnt to cherish the human spirit, both in myself and others," Shaun says. "Being kind to people doesn’t equate to being a pushover. Approaching relationships from a place of empathy should always be our goal."
And it’s from this place that Shaun will be taking part in The CEO Magazine’s Executive of the Year Awards 2022. A sponsor of the 2021 event, Shaun has this year joined the judging panel. There, he’ll contribute his wealth of experience and empathy to celebrating and encouraging Australia’s business leadership, particularly those who’ve found their way to the top by following their passions.
"I think you need to have passion," he says. "If you don’t enjoy what you do, then you should go and find something else."
It’s just another area where Shaun leads by example, and as Precision and Prezzee continue to grow and succeed, his is an example worth following.
"I’m a self-proclaimed entrepreneur," he says. "I’m very passionate and committed to my purpose and my work, and it only grows stronger every day. It’s very much a part of my DNA."