Inside the luxe life of Justin Hemmes
Depending on who you ask, Sydney pub tsar Justin Hemmes is either a genius entrepreneur who isn't driven by money, or a dogged empire-builder for whom cash is king.
Perhaps it also depends on the day of the week, given you might just find the 46-year-old billionaire on a construction site on Monday, overseeing work on his latest entertainment venture, and then on his private jet with a bevy of beauties on Thursday.
"Money has never come into play for me," Hemmes said in a 2015 interview with The Sunday Telegraph.
But as Hemmes' empire Merivale is hit by a $126 million class action alleging systemic and widespread staff underpayment, questions have been raised about that virtuous declaration.
The Hemmes family was already fairly wealthy, with patriarch John and his wife Merivale leading Australia's fashion scene from the 1950s onwards, as well as dabbling in property investment that made them millionaires, before Justin took the reins.
But it was by and large his bold vision and dogged work that took the family's worth from millions to more than a billion.
He is celebrated as a savvy businessman possessing a "startling" attention to detail, with an uncanny knack of being ahead of the curve when it comes to anticipating what Sydney's cool and cashed-up set want.
That's allowed him to build an empire of more that 70 venues across the city, from the iconic Establishment and The Ivy to Coogee Pavilion and The Newport, under the Merivale Group umbrella.
The company is now worth more than $1 billion.
But a number of former staff allege Merivale's success and the Hemmes family's wealth has been built on their blood, sweat and tears.
AN OBSESSIVE ENTREPRENEUR
On the evening of March 1, 2015, surrounding by his beloved family, John Hemmes died after a long battle with cancer. It left his son - his best friend - devastated.
John fled Europe after World War II with $20 in his pocket, the well-told story goes, and wound up in New Zealand, where he worked in an abattoir.
He was on a boat on his way back to Europe when he met a beautiful young Australian woman, Merivale, and the pair wed two weeks later.
She was a milliner and they sold her creations in retail stores, before launching their own fashion ventures - buying buildings here and there that eventually skyrocketed in value.
"I'm going to miss this beautiful, remarkable man," Justin wrote on social media after his father's death.
"My best friend and mentor in life. Love you to the stars and back a thousand times. You have left an incredible legacy, pops."
He was grieving but Justin, who had taken charge of the family empire long before his hero's passing, got right back to work.
The week after John was laid to rest, Justin spent a reported $50 million on a tired old pub on Sydney's northern beaches, the Newport Arms.
"Well, he certainly wouldn't have wanted me to stop working," he told The Sunday Telegraph at the time. "He wouldn't have wanted that at all."
After an extensive and exhaustive renovation, The Newport would become one of the shiniest jewels in the Merivale crown.
Taking calculated but significant financial risks was nothing new to the younger Hemmes, who last year entered the The Australian Financial Review list of Australian billionaires.
In 2008, he swung open the doors on an ambitious and costly new venture - a CBD nightclub and entertainment precinct called The Ivy, that had taken several years to bring to life.
Hemmes' passion project cost the family $180 million, comprising a massive club, a rooftop pool bar, a private penthouse suite, function venues and multiple eateries.
But just as he hoped to make a name for himself, the start of his own Merivale legacy, the global financial crisis swept in and pushed Hemmes to the brink of ruin.
The Sunday Telegraph reported that The Ivy "came within a hair's breadth of being absorbed by the banks".
Of the project, Hemmes told Redvisitormagazine: "It almost broke me. It almost didn't get up and I would have lost a lot of money."
But he and his sister, Bettina, threw themselves into the project, determined that it survive, and it did, becoming Sydney's landmark venue.
He was in his mid-20s when father John tasked him with running the family's first major hospitality venue, Hotel CBD, and he put his own forward-thinking stamp on it.
The mixed-use venue, merging high-end dining with late-night partying and A-list functions, would become a blueprint for Merivale's future success.
Sydney's property and investment elite are once again watching Hemmes as he undertakes his loftiest endeavour to date.
He's planning a $1.5 billion redevelopment of The Ivy site in the CBD - what he calls Ivy 2.0 - comprising a mix of entertainment, residential, commercial and accommodation offerings, including high-rise towers, it's believed.
"It's in action but it's a long way away," he told Gourmet Traveller last year of the project, the details of which remain largely under wraps.
But it has again painted a picture of a man who has achieved things many once thought he never could.
A NOTORIOUS PLAYBOY
In pursuit of the fast life, Hemmes was notorious for pushing the envelope.
At 25, he was lucky to survive after flipping and sinking his speedboat on the harbour, injuring nine mates.
He reportedly crashed a sports car and later lost his licence for repeatedly speeding in his Ferrari. Hemmes was for a time an aspiring race car driver and launched his own recording label.
There was barely a social function that didn't feature him among its photographed guests.
In 2011, CNN described Hemmes as "Sydney's ultimate playboy" and a "hedonistic bar tycoon", who started a long-running music festival for fun, dated models and partied hard.
He seemed to be settling down, moving home to the family's Vaucluse mansion, The Hermitage - a sandstone marvel on the harbour built in 1831 - and overseeing its multimillion-dollar renovation.
He threw himself into business, buying a string of high-priced venues and restoring them, from The Beresford in Surry Hills to the Paddington Arms in Paddington.
It seemed that everything, or every venue, Hemmes touched turned to gold. But along the way, he continued to attract the occasional unflattering headline.
There was an allegation that his security company detained a patron from The Ivy in the venue's basement and assaulted him.
The club was hit by liquor licencing restrictions after a string of reported incidents.
In a 2015 lawsuit, CCTV footage emerged of Hemmes directing the strip search of a staff member who he suspected of stealing.
"Do you know who the f*** I am?" he asked, while his private muscle - including a security guard who's a former cage fighter - watched on.
And there was a messy, public and costly dispute over another landmark venue, Coogee Pavilion, during Hemmes' purchase of the site.
The family itself has endured embarrassing headlines from time to time, from matriarch Merivale landing herself in hot water in the 1990s for illegally removing trees to improve the harbour view at The Hermitage, to the emergence of John's love child before his death.
On the latter, the man sought several million dollars from the estate after his death and eventually received $1.7 million.
It emerged during those proceedings that the young man had tried repeatedly to have a relationship with his biological father, but was brushed aside.
Hemmes' break-up with Kate Fowler in 2018, with whom he has two daughters, Alexa and Saachi, was amicable and the pair successfully co-parent, but navigating that separation was done so in the full glare of paparazzi and gossip columnists.
Hemmes has been fairly successful in shaking off the playboy reputation as Merivale's fortunes continue to rise, year after year.
But money isn't what it's all about, he has said on countless occasions.
In a feature article in Gourmet Traveller late last year, Hemmes repeated a sentiment that he's shared multiple times - that his driving passion is making people happy and comfortable.
"It's about creating an environment that people feel comfortable in," he told the magazine.
Earlier last year, in an interview with the AFRover his newly minted billionaire status, Hemmes again spoke about his goal of making people happy.
"Everyone has tough lives, unfortunately, and you need escapism - people are coming to us to have a good time … and all we have to do is help them," he said.
"It's the best job in the world."
It seems - based on the past few days of shock allegations from former staff - that it depends who you ask.
Earlier this week, news.com.au revealed details of a $126 million class action against Merivale on behalf of staff who allege they were overworked and underpaid.
In the process of that reporting, we have exclusively uncovered copies of rosters, pay slips and internal digital timecards that allegedly show permanent staff worked 50 to 55 hours per week on average while only being paid for 38 hours of work.
And news.com.au has heard from a number of former staff who allege their unreasonable work schedules had a significant toll on their mental and physical health, with one saying they "felt like a slave".
"I used to work for them with my ex-wife - we broke up because of them," one chef claimed.
"We used to work 11 to 13 hours per day with only a 30-minute break. My ex-wife decided to leave the country."
Another chef became so physically unwell from the long hours that his doctor ordered him to stop working, it's alleged.
An employee with Merivale's functions division said it was not uncommon to work 60- to 70-hour weeks in peak periods.
"It was not unusual during events season to be required to (work) multiple events in a day," the worker said. "Between set-up, running the event and then packing down, I might begin work at 7am or 8am, and not (finish) until 3am, 4am or even 5am the next morning."
A chef at The Newport told news.com.au they worked a minimum of 50 hours but usually closer to 60, and alleged they rarely received breaks.
"It was a nightmare and it broke me. I basically had a breakdown, quit and left Australia," the chef said.
A Merivale spokesperson strongly denied all allegations of mistreatment and said the company "regularly reviews its compliance regarding employee entitlements".
"Merivale has always acted with the interests of its workforce squarely in mind and does not anticipate that its employees will in any way benefit from these proceedings," the spokesperson said.
"Nevertheless, if necessary, Merivale will vigorously defend any claim."