“So, I don’t know how much of it you want to use but there it is,” says John Nicolades, CEO of Bridge Housing and the focus of HousingWORKS’ ‘Career in Housing’ profile. He provides us with what he calls “a meandering history of Nicolades” across 36 years, although, during the course of this interview, we come to realise he has a tendency to undersell himself.
John Nicolades has been talking for over 15 minutes and, in that time, he’s only answered a single question: “How did you come to be involved in the housing industry?”
Reading back over his response post-interview, this is anything but a meandering history; it is precise, articulate, thoughtful and, considering the path our conversation traverses, forthright. This is not to suggest John enjoys talking about himself. On the contrary, it’s a roadmap that takes this interviewer beyond the mere chronology of his employment and offers some deep insights into what has made him the person he is today.
John grew up in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, roughly two hours (Monash Freeway traffic notwithstanding) east of Melbourne and a vast, lush gateway to Gippsland. Once the ‘spark’ of Victoria – quite literally, the Latrobe Valley was home to the state’s electricity – it’s now a region better known as a cautionary tale of what happens when a constituency relies too heavily on a single industry then fails to heed warnings that the industry exists only on borrowed time.
With the exception of Newcastle after BHP left town in September 1999, if Australia has anything resembling America’s rust-belt, it has to be found in towns like as Moe and Morwell, as the giant smokestacks of Loy Yang A and B and the Hazelwood Power stations literally turn off the lights and lock their doors for the last time.
The son of first generation migrant parents, John’s in no doubt that his world-view has been shaped by his first-hand experience of racism. “And that wasn’t simply because of what happened to me,” he explains. “As a kid I saw what was happening to Aboriginal people, and getting a sense that there was a hierarchy; that there were people who were very poor and faced discrimination because of their colour or origins.” he continues. “So it wasn’t just a feeling. I think that really influenced me.”
John’s father was also a huge influence on his son’s life. “He was an old Greek socialist so he would talk to me about the world,” he remembers fondly, recalling how his father often had the courage of his convictions in moments of truth.
“He was running cafes in country towns,” John explains. “He was a struggling small businessman but I have distinct memories of Aboriginal men and women coming to the café and my father always giving them food and so forth. All those little formative experiences, and being one of the few Greeks in a country high school – this was back in the ‘60s – I always had a sense of social justice or seeing that, sometimes, the world deals people an unfair hand.”
After finishing high school, John’s passion for social justice only intensified. “By the time I was in fifth and sixth form at high school – towards the end the Vietnam War – and into university, the older I got, the more I started to understand why these things were happening, through structural disadvantage or racism. I‘m very curious by nature and like to understand why things happen.”
“You develop a sense of consciousness, and I am a big reader,” he continues. “And then, in my first year at university, the Whitlam Government dismissal happened. All those formative things made me think in my second year of university that I wanted to do something practical. So I enrolled in social work at Monash University as a graduate because, at the time, I’m thinking, I could do social change through my work.”
John describes his decision at this stage as being “a bit naïve” in hindsight but his commitment to achieving social change has been exemplary. His earliest roles included establishing one of the first housing associations for single parents in Melbourne’s inner-northern suburbs, as well as helping establish one of western Sydney’s first community housing providers and running numerous campaigns to establish more affordable housing in Sydney’s gentrified City West. He’s also been involved in policy work; for the Uniting Church; ran a range of community-based programs including childcare, neighbourhood centres, and home and community care programs and tackled executive-level roles for the NSW State Government.
It would be a hard marker that suggests, over three decades, John’s had only a fleeting impact on social justice.
A return to part-time studies in the early 2000s may arguably have been a significant junction in John’s career. “I wanted to join up the dots between the softer parts of housing, which was around service delivery but, by understanding the economic context, help me to be more financially literate,” he explains. “So, when people were saying they net present value, I could understand what net present value actually means [laughs]. Or when we’re doing development feasibility, throwing around terms like internal rates of return, that I at least have a grasp of what all of those terms mean.”
“Following on from that, I ended up in consulting,” remarks John. “I was asked to baby-sit at Bridge Housing’s previous sister organisation, SWISH (South West Inner Sydney Housing Cooperative), while they were advertising for a new Executive Officer. While I was doing it, I thought, ‘Well, this looks interesting, other providers are growing and this is a time of big change in the sector in New South Wales.”
“I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring and see…” he trails off. “I thought I’d give myself three years to see whether we could turn around what was a failing organisation and, since 2005, I’ve been leading what was SWISH and then, ultimately, Bridge Housing – first as Executive Officer and then as CEO.”
After more than 30 years in the sector, John still finds plenty of motivation in his work at Bridge Housing. “I think housing is a really fascinating area to work in,” he eagerly admits. “In the morning, you could be speaking to bankers to work out financing and then, in the afternoon, you’re speaking to a group of tenants – and that spans so much of the world that you’re in.”
“I like people,” he confesses. “It’s great running an organisation where I can see my staff enjoy the work that they do, and develop, and try and create a good workplace for them so they can realise their own ambitions. So, the other motivation as a leader of the organisation is building an organisation that provides good quality services but understanding the way you get that is by treating your staff well – you need to treat them as individuals.”
You just see the joy of people getting access to secure accommodation who have been marginalised in the housing market.
What’s also clear is John still hasn’t lost the sense of satisfaction and achievement through providing safe and secure accommodation for people gives him. “At a personal level, you just see the joy of people getting access to secure accommodation who have been marginalised in the housing market. You see what the individual outcomes; where it’s helped people either complete their education, or provided a secure environment for their children to be able to complete their education at one school without having to constantly move and disrupt their lives.”
Away from the pressures of the office, the kitchen – or reading – is where you’re most likely to find John. “I like cooking. I’m a bit of a movie buff. I like reading – mainly about politics, history and economics. I’m not so great on novels so that’s an area of improvement for me.”
Swimming, walking and weight training in the gym also take up John’s time. “I like weight training. It’s a good way to get rid of your stress levels. And I would recommend it to anybody, particularly when they’re around my vintage [laughs].”
I like music and I like dancing. My music tastes tend to go to R&B soul and jazz music – anything that’s got a good, nice beat.
“Surprisingly for some people,” he adds hastily, “I like music and I like dancing. My music tastes tend to go to R&B soul and jazz music – anything that’s got a good, nice beat and gets you up and moving.”
When it comes to his legacy, John is circumspect. “I’m hoping…” he says with trepidation. “…that I’ll be remembered as a quiet achiever who made a contribution towards affordable housing and the sector, and helped to grow the sector; as somebody who helped build Bridge Housing into being a community housing provider with a good reputation.”
“Probably, most importantly, I’d like to be seen as respectful to people irrespective of where they are within hierarchies of organisations, or where they come from. And, as somebody who has based his life and behaviour on a set of good positive values.”