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Tim Gurner thought he was blessed when, a decade ago, he put everything on the line to go out on his own. The then 30-year-old developer wanted to create properties with a difference; properties that smelt great, where the car-park entrance looked like a six-star hotel lobby, and where the concierge knew your coffee order.
A standard apartment might cost in the millions of dollars, but he thought the market was ready. And, he was right. In its first 12 months, GurnerTM sold 1800 units off the plan and turned over $980 million. To the outside world it looked like everything Gurner touched turned to gold.
A couple of years after his eponymous firm entered the market, the cost of construction in south-east Queensland shot up by 50% as developers raced to build apartments. So, the quotes Gurner was getting to build a third tower in his “FV” Fortitude Valley development were suddenly $50 million over the $70-million budget. Having pre-sold the units, Gurner faced an almighty shortfall.
He looked set to join a long list of property developers who launched vertically before crashing back to earth. The story of how he came out of that stall is now the story of why he is launching a wellness brand that he claims will be like no other. He wants the biohacks he used to prepare himself for those enormous corporate g-forces to be available to all who can afford them. Memberships to his nascent chain of wellness clubs, to be called Saint Haven, will cost up to $23,348 a year. Gurner has invested more than $7.5 million in the first club which he expects to open in Melbourne in February 2023. He says he has secured eight to 10 venues in Australia which he plans to open over the next five years. Gurner estimates that by year five, if all 10 clubs are open, they will generate approximately $100 million in annual revenue. After that, he says, he plans to expand to the US.
Gurner is confident the market is ready. Back in 2015-2016, facing the potentially ruinous loss on “FV”, Gurner and his team met almost daily around an oval Carrara stone table to find a way out. They had tweaked a few things and eventually got a cheaper quote, but they were still $20 million over budget. The Queensland market was now souring in the face of a flood of new units. Banks stopped lending to foreign buyers and were reluctant to lend to investors. Valuations were falling and buyers wanted their deposits back.
Six months out from completion of the first of the FV’s three towers, Gurner knew he was going to need to work harder than he’d ever worked before. He called his personal trainer and de facto life coach, Nam Baldwin. “I’m entering a war,” Gurner recalls telling Baldwin. “In six months’, I need to be insanely physically fit. I need to be insanely strong mentally. I need to be able to endure a lot of stress, a lot of pain. I need to be pushed. I want to be able to work 24 hours a day and not break.” Baldwin, who built his career around teaching big-wave surfers to remain calm at the bottom of a wipe-out, was unfazed. “Okay, no worries. We’re going to do some tests. We’ll do a strict regime of strength, cardio and mental training. No alcohol,” he demanded from his client.
After the tests, Baldwin put Gurner on a regime of serotonin, dopamine and Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) supplements. Protein powder, creatine, collagen, Athletic Greens and Bulletproof Coffee were added to his diet. He was already doing mindfulness and breathwork, but he doubled down on the daily routines, such as ice baths and red-light therapy. He started wearing an Oura ring to continuously monitor his physical activity and sleep patterns. Baldwin would be alerted when Gurner wasn’t in a “good place” and talk him through what his mind and body were experiencing.
Six foot one, with 10% body fat and weighing in at 83kg, Gurner already looked like an athlete who’d scored a modelling contract. As the deadline for the FV tower loomed, he looked and felt more and more like an Olympian.
“I felt bulletproof. I was invincible. I was doing every single purchaser inspection, every valuer inspection. I was walking the building 40 times a day, 30 storeys up and down,” he recalls. He was choosing the logos for coffee cups, doorknobs for the bathrooms, timber for the saunas. “I was working at least 18 hours a day. The mental pressure from the banks, the pressure from the buyers, the physical endurance … I remember that after two weeks, Brooke [Formosa, his sister-in-law who holds a senior position at GurnerTM] said, ‘How on earth are you surviving this?’ I can’t explain it apart from Nam [Baldwin]. I feel strong. I feel good.”
Nutrition played an important part, recalls Baldwin. “The bedrock was organic whole foods,” he tells Gurner in his gentle radio voice. “Arguably supplementation is not the fix, but with the load you were under, operating like an Olympic gold medallist day after day, it gave you that little bit extra.”
“Anything that is out there, I’ve done it. From micro-dosing mushrooms to infrared saunas, to steam baths and Oura rings… lymphatic drainage … everything. I want to try everything and see what works for me.”– Tim Gurner
Gurner’s team were hammering the phones ahead of settlement, calling all 600 investors to make sure they had their finances ready. To help cope with the stress, they would stop work every day at 3pm and do 15 minutes of mindfulness, focusing on their breathing to help clear their heads. In the end, they scraped through, only losing a few buyers. To the outside world, Gurner’s private company appeared to be a rampaging success; the insiders knew they’d dodged a bullet. There was plenty to learn from that near-death experience. “I came out of it a lot stronger,” says Gurner. “We talk about that time being the critical time of our business. It set up our future success, being so careful with every dollar. It would have taken down a lot of people. I needed a loyal team willing to work tirelessly to get through it. The time they put in to save the business was amazing.”
Gurner’s wife Aimee says he remained remarkably steady. “Obviously, it came with enormous, ongoing stress,” she says. “He lives and breathes it. Even when he’s with me and the girls he is never off.” Every January, the family retreats to their farm at Kangaroo Ground, northeast of Melbourne, where Gurner plans for the year ahead. In 2017, exhausted as he was from the FV experience, he was amazed at what he’d achieved.
Gurner has been hitting the gym since he was a tall, skinny 15-year-old who wanted some muscle. Physical strength gave him confidence. His first business, which he started in 2004 aged 21, while still studying at university, was a small gym in the Melbourne suburb of Elwood called “My Wellbeing”. He sold that after 18 months and got a job with property developer FKP, then later, with veteran property developer Morry Schwartz’s Pan Urban.
“It didn’t take long to realise that he was a person of extraordinary talent,” recalls Schwartz. “He stayed around for five years, and we did very, very well. There was nothing that he didn’t get in a second. He was across everything … he drove me to do things that I hadn’t done before like following the buyer all the way through, making sure the finance was there way ahead.” His work ethic and intelligence were obvious, says Schwartz, “but that’s still not enough to create a Tim Gurner”.
“You had to add another element, which is courage. He was very gutsy.” Schwartz soon gave Gurner equity in his projects. He mentored him on how to be a boss, how to dress and the finer things in life and maintained Gurner was always in the office before he schlepped in at 8.30am, having already been to the gym. “Besides all of that – you’ll be surprised about this – the nicest thing about having Tim around was that he was a lot of fun. He’s just this kind of effervescent person.”
Gurner had never stopped trying to improve his health, but after FV was done and dusted he turned his attention to the wellness business. In 2017, he decided to create a luxury fitness, longevity and social club like no one else had. In 2019, the worldwide wellness market was estimated to be worth more than US$4.4 trillion ($6.9 trillion) and was forecast by the Global Wellness Institute to grow 10% a year. Consumer polling showed that “brain enhancers”, anti-ageing products, nutrition coaching and meditation/mindfulness were going to be a huge part of that growth.
Gurner’s wellness plans were sidelined by his property business’s relentless momentum. Investors were keen, landowners were approaching GurnerTM with great projects, and builders and buyers were scrambling to get involved with the brand.
At the start of every year, Gurner vowed to slow the growth and turn his attention back to the wellness industry. And, every year, the plan was shelved. The time finally arrived in January 2021. Gurner had done well during the Covid pandemic, buying when others were selling.
“Some people will make money and then spend it on fast cars, drugs and alcohol, holidays. I don’t spend money on anything except my family, our holidays, and my wellness. Every dollar that people spend on a cocktail, I’m investing in my health. I don’t know how much, but I would have spent over $1 million on wellness, testing everything. Anything that is out there, I’ve done it. From micro-dosing mushrooms to infra-red saunas, to steam baths and Oura rings … lymphatic drainage … everything. I want to try everything and see what works for me.”
Alongside Baldwin, Gurner has a mindfulness coach, an executive coach, and a strength and conditioning coach. He also practices yoga and Pilates. “I’ve got this unbelievable team of the best people in the world. Why can’t I bring them all into a club and offer the person on the street an experience that’s cost me millions?”
Every project Gurner has ever done has started with his Pinterest board. By now it was chock full of images from the world’s best wellness experiences. He loved the way the light flowed through some arches in Dubai, the candles on stone in another from Istanbul, the glasses on a bar in Los Angeles. “When I’m not working or sitting on the couch with the kids watching TV, I’m on Pinterest,” he says. “It’s not work, it’s my passion.”
This was not about opening a gym and all the connotations of sweaty equipment and dirty bathrooms. “I could never go to a gym where I train in the morning, then get changed and go to the office. Why can’t we have beautiful bathrooms that look amazing and smell great?” He wanted to take the best elements of a six-star hotel and mix it with elements from private clubs. “If you have a look at the Blue Zones [of the world’s longest-lived people] one of the biggest things to come out of that is that [people from] the cultures that live the longest have a big element of social connection. That’s a huge part of what we’re doing.”
He refers to Soho House – private clubs popular with the young and creative – to help explain his Saint Haven concept. “You’ve got to qualify … If you’re not serious about health and wellness, we don’t want you. And you’ve got to be part of the community and social aspect.
“We want to bring the best of executive health checks and testing. That part will be modelled on Next Health in Los Angeles, the best in the world at executive health checks, from cancer biomarkers to bone-density to heart rates, literally the works. We’ll track it every six months and we’ll make sure you hit the goals you want to get to,” says Gurner, whether that is the New York Marathon, or cycling around France.
Members will get an Oura ring that can be linked to the club so that when they arrive, their coach will already know what their body needs. Your week at Saint Haven could look something like this: On Monday, you might start with a strength session with your personal trainer. When you arrive, you’ll have some branch-chain amino acids and a shot of coffee to pump in some energy. A post-workout smoothie will be ready at the bar where you can catch up with friends. On the way out you will pick up your food for the week, calibrated to hit 2700 calories of protein, carbs and fat a day.
“It’s been proven that ageing is a disease. We can’t live forever, but we can live a better life for longer.”
– Tim Gurner
The first Saint Haven club will open in Collingwood in Melbourne. Membership starts at $129 a week and rises to a top package of $449 a week, with a target of 400 to 600 members per club. Gurner plans more clubs in 2024 in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, the Gold Coast, Adelaide and Perth. Gurner has oversight of the big picture and the smallest details. “I was down there this morning repositioning where I want each bottle to sit in the bar… I will be selling the memberships when we open the display. The reason I do that is I need to feel it. If you walk into one of our displays, I need to feel your reaction. I want to hear what you say. I want to look at what you look at. I’m watching every single move … I’m still choosing light fittings. I’m still choosing the [light] dimness, the music, the tone, the smell, the candles, our Gurner water bottles, the design, the texture. I’m very tactile.”
Eternal life might not be attainable, he says, but we can always do better. “It’s been proven that ageing is a disease. We can’t live forever, but we can live a better life for longer.”
Tuesday is a recovery session in the infra-red sauna and cryotherapy (three minutes spent near naked in a freezer set to -90 degrees Celsius) followed by a massage. “You’re under pressure from work so we’ve got you booked in Tuesday night for a mindfulness session with Charlotte (Thaarup) who’s an incredible mindfulness coach. We’re going to get you calm so you’re sleeping properly,” Gurner explains. “Wednesday morning your Oura ring has given us an alert that you’ve dropped under 70, so today we’re doing a light session and we’ve booked you in for a lymphatic drainage, and we’ve got you in the ice bath for six minutes. Maybe we’ll pump up the carbs, maybe put you in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
“If the Oura comes in at 50, we’ll line you up with an IV drip for supplements and hydration… then we’ve got you booked into a super-stretch session. If you’re training for cycling, you can have a Tour de France stage winner train you and write your program.
“There’s a place called Remedy Place in the US that has some of that stuff, but they don’t have a gym, they don’t have food, Pilates, cycling and yoga. Equinox is the best gym brand in the world, but it’s just a gym. You’ve got SoulCycle, but that’s just cycling. We’ve got chiropractors, physios, osteos, acupuncture.”