John Rabie is the entrepreneur who transformed the way South Africans build houses. With humble beginnings, he is now known as the man who took 1.25 million square meters of marshy wasteland on the outskirts of Cape Town and turned it into the $1.95-billion Century City.
It’s hard to believe that this co-founder of the Rabie Property Group is the same humble man who was painting buildings in Sea Point 40 years ago, along with his longtime business partner, Leon Cohen.
“I started as painter with Leon. We formed a painting business. We said to ourselves, ‘hang on a second, let’s start building’. In those days, there was plenty of land in the southern suburbs in Constantia,” says Rabie.
From his office in Cape Town’s foreshore, filled with memorabilia of his property developments and school photographs, you can see why Rabie has stood at the test of time.
“It took me 40 years. There is no instant gratification to wealth. Property development is not a one-day game, it’s a five-day game,” says Rabie, using cricket analogy. “It’s taking a view for the future. Because we build buildings not for five years but because we want to live in them for 10 or 20 years.”
Along with Century City, Rabie has been involved in other developments around Cape Town, including Marconi Beam, Westlake Estate, Royal Ascot and Big Bay.
Rabie is also responsible for cluster house developments. This started when Rabie didn’t have the capital to build the houses from scratch. Instead he came up with the idea of plot and plan, which allowed house hunters to pay a deposit on a plot of land for cheap and wait for Rabie to build it.
“In those days people bought their own little plots and then they built their houses. So we said ‘ok, we can build these houses on your plot for cheaper’. Then we said ‘hang on a minute, let’s take it to the next level’. We acquired five plots on Constantia, I think we paid R10,000 ($850) for a stand at the time – can you believe that, in Constantia of all places? We said ‘let’s build a house, finish it and furnish it and landscape it’.”
The idea took off in the 1980s and Rabie’s team was building five houses a month. Soon it was building villages, over vast areas of Cape Town’s southern suburbs. It then moved on to show houses, giving buyers an idea of what the house would look like, right down to the kitchen sink.
“You know, what people struggle with is the design. How the house is going to look when the building is done, the vision. We had a beautiful brochure with eight or 10 designs, because the individual owned the plot we could sign a building contract and build that house that they chose.”
Back in his office, Rabie admits to being a hoarder. He has dozens of books with newspaper clippings and advertisements. It is a personal archive of 40 years of developing property. His proudest moment came in 2004, when he bought into a project that wanted to turn a marshy wasteland of 1.25 million square meters into a mini city.
“The biggest boom to hit this country was in 2001 to 2007 – the world exploded. That was the biggest property boom we’d ever seen,” he says.
“It changed Rabie Property Group, because we now had a city.”
Fourteen years and an investment of more than $1.95 billion later, Century City has taken shape. These days it is a city-within-a-city; a place where one can work, live, shop and relax. The precinct hosts more than 500 businesses, 4,000 residential homes and is known for its clean and safe environment.
“The great thing about Century City is it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, as the markets change you can change it to have a bit more commercial, a bit more residential areas. When I go inside the conference center or along the canals, I have to pinch myself,” says Rabie.
One of the latest developments in Century City has been the introduction of a Marriott hotel, the signature brand of the world’s largest hotel group, Marriott International. This brand was ushered in through the recent conversion of the African Pride Crystal Towers Hotel to the Cape Town Marriott Hotel Crystal Towers.
“It’s extremely positive for Century City to showcase a global giant like Marriott. The credibility of the brand internationally adds gravitas to our tenant directory, and we will no doubt see many more visitors from around the world coming to Century City because of the presence of a hotel under this brand,” says Cohen.
By 2010, Rabie had thought he had done all he could do in property. He was traveling abroad when he noticed a trend of inner-city revival. He saw major cities, like Sydney, were rejuvenating derelict buildings in city centers and repurposing them for residential living.
He immediately thought Cape Town could do the same. So, he embarked on co-founding Signatura, the private label property company, to do just that.
“No one was thinking of inner-city revival at that time. It was going to be very important for Cape Town to have hospitality linked to residential – in other words, intertwined. Our first project was the Radisson. We converted the office into the hotel and put 175 apartments on top, but the apartments have the use of the hotel facilities, the gym etc. That was hugely successful,” says Rabie.
Signatura recently completed the upscaling of central city landmark, the Safmarine building. It was transformed into an ambitious $100-million residential and hotel development known as The Radisson Blu Hotel and Residence.
It caters to South Africa’s growing upper middle class who are eager for luxury living close to the city and the ocean. What stands out for Rabie is the way in which social media has changed the way people buy property.
“We used to have to put flags up on Sunday at 10 o’clock. We’d get dressed up in our work clothes. That’s how we did it. If you didn’t get people into show houses on a Sunday, you didn’t sell. With social media, it changed dramatically. You hardly see us advertising in the press anymore because social media is so incredibly strong. We get 10 to 15 leads every day from people on the internet wanting to know about our developments.”
In five years, Signatura has rejuvenated more than 20 buildings in and around Cape Town – achieving over $500 million in sales.
It seems Rabie made the right decision to give up painting houses to build them instead.