Dreams of arriving at an exam naked or missing one entirely are common for many students anxious about their grades. Craig Carracher (LLB, 1st Hons, University Medal, 1st Hons) was no different. His final year at the University of Sydney Law School was beset by a recurring dream that he would become the first university medallist to end up on the streets.
On deeper analysis, some might say that these dreams weren’t just triggered by normal nerves. Carracher had recently grasped how tough his family had done it growing up and while he insists his family gave him everything he needed, he had a mobile childhood to say the least, attending 16 public schools around Australia and living in at least as many houses.
“My father explored a lateral movement strategy, working for all the modern technology companies at the time – whiteboards, telex machines, dictaphones, post it notes from 3M,” Carracher says. “He sold the first fax machine in Australia, which doesn't sound like a very hard thing to do, but when there's no one on the other end of the fax machine line to communicate with, selling the first one is exponentially harder than selling the second one.”
He talks wryly of the difficulty in making friends when he knew it was unlikely he would stay in a place for more than six months. Legal studies became an unexpected refuge.
Carracher identifies narrowly scraping into the University of Sydney with the lowest mark he needed to get into law as a defining moment. The uncomfortable awareness of being what he terms “a pretty average student” drove him to work hard enough to succeed in getting the University law medal in 1990. This prize is awarded to honours students who have shown a consistently high level of academic performance throughout their years at the University.
He followed that success with more wins at Oxford. There he enjoyed the novelty of living (and playing) on a traditional university campus, and was honoured for his commitment to basketball, being awarded the coveted Oxford “Blues” in 1993 – the highest award the university grants to individual athletes.
“Getting University Blue playing basketball was a far prouder moment for me than getting a first class honours degree in a Bachelor of Civil Law – which I didn't deserve because I spent all my time playing basketball,” Carracher tells me with a grin.
Carracher puts the measure of his success down to motivation, hard work and incentive, but a canny understanding of people and an eye for the future also shines through.
Whatever the explanation, the result has been an extraordinarily diverse career that has seen him managing huge asset portfolios for the Packers and taking Australia to gold in volleyball at the 2000 Olympic Games as the chief executive and a director of Volleyball Australia.
Carracher is clearly not one to sit idly on his laurels. He is the co-owner of Scape – the largest student accommodation and real-estate residential portfolio in Australia, managing their legal, compliance and investor relations; the President of Volleyball Australia; and Director for a number of organisations, including the Olympic Foundation, the Australian Olympic Committee, and the International Education Association of Australia.
After several years at the Securities Commission, in 2001 Carracher took a role at Minter Ellison, then Australia's largest law firm. In a classic case of being in the right place at the right time, his first day coincided with the Christmas break and a very empty office. Given the lack of staff, his mentor Leigh Brown instructed him to go to Kerry Packer’s office, and “deal with Kerry because you've got no holidays and he doesn't respect holidays”.
Carracher got along well with the team in the Packer family's office, and the incident led to him spending the next five years almost exclusively working for them, becoming their private family advisor, the Group General Counsel of Consolidated Press Holdings, and a member of their investments executive committee.
It is characteristic of Carracher that he dismisses his employment with the Packers as almost coincidental, humblebragging: “Somehow I bluffed my way into it. Both James and Kerry are quite extraordinary people, but neither of them are necessarily good judges of character, as reflected in their employment of me.”
His time with the Packers gave him the skills to understand and run large-scale assets, including ski-fields, aquariums, gaming resorts and real-estate platforms. When Carracher saw a gap in the market for investing in student and residential rental accommodation, he left James Packer to co-found private equity investment group, Telopea Capital Partners, in 2009.
“While I was never admitted to practice as a lawyer in Australia, my legal skills have been instrumental in my career,” Carracher says. “When business is done in the language of the law, it helps that you understand your opportunities in that space. The sorts of negotiation learnings that come out of marrying what I have done in sport with my legal skills and my business dealings have been extremely valuable.”
The idea of becoming homeless may have disrupted Carracher’s sleep during his days at university, but since co-founding Scape in 2013, he has been in the business of providing homes to others. Much in the same way WeWork seek to disrupt office environments and the way people work, Scape hope to change the way students live while they study.
“Nearly all accommodation for students is substandard, because it's designed under traditional residential planning rules for people to live in for a year at a time,” Carracher says. “At Scape, we create a student-centric community at the doorstep of the education institution with gymnasiums, ballet areas, Pilates areas, cinemas, kitchen, dining areas, but also with every person having their own independent living unit. We want to design living environments that are as exciting as the learning environment; built and owned by us forever.”
It is clearly a formula that works. From tiny beginnings as a company of two in 2013, Scape Australia now has 450 staff and around $10 billion in assets globally. Their portfolio boasts 16,000 beds – 15,000 in student accommodation – and another 9,000 beds under construction or in development around Australia.
Carracher believes that success shouldn’t come at the expense of social responsibility however, with Scape committing to provide five percent of its accommodation for social and affordable housing. When the pandemic impacted the number of international students in residence, Scape pivoted to social housing, offering 2500 places over the last 18 months, including a dedicated facility for women and their families fleeing domestic abuse.
When the Taliban returned to power in September, Carracher was approached by the Victorian Government to house 1400 Afghani evacuees post-quarantine. Fittingly, among the evacuees was the Afghan women's soccer team and their coaches.
“These people are an inspiration in terms of human resilience. Some of them are from very wealthy and highly educated families, but they had to leave everything behind,” he says, though he is quick to say the exercise was not completely philanthropic. “We still try to secure some level of cost recovery, but it's been a privilege to be able to offer up these facilities when they were otherwise sitting empty. Our buildings were perfectly designed in some respects, because we have a mix of multiple bedroom apartments and studios, with community and shared facilities.”
Carracher feels being a leader has not been a role he chose but one he was thrust into, made his own by commitment and determination. Through the process, he has honed a belief in the value of legacy.
“Ultimately, we are never judged by our annual reports or what we've achieved during our reign of responsibility or custodianship. The evidence of your success is those lingering tinges of your existence that defines what people can do after you've gone,” Carracher says. “Whether it is buildings, partnerships or volleyball, if I've enabled someone to come in and improve it so it's better than what it was – then that’s success.”