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11 Dec 2019

Southbanker Image

“An animal out of control”

Merv Harris said his days as a policeman and former detective in the fraud squad had prepared him well for a successful career in owners’ corporation (OC) management.

The long-time Southbanker, who is well renowned locally for his days managing the likes of Clarendon Tower and Flinders Wharf, currently serves as the chair of the Southbank Owners’ Corporation Network (SOCN) – a bi-monthly initiative of the Southbank Residents’ Association (SRA).

While his days of managing apartment buildings appear to be behind him, he has largely made his name in the industry over the past 10 years for having founded theOCguide – an online one-stop-shop for all things strata management.

With an impressive track record of establishing strong management systems in the likes of Clarendon Tower, his expertise is now widely sought after by OCs and others within the industry as a consultant.

And while he has personally been able to impart a lot of positive changes in his own career as an OC manager since 2003, he described the OC industry generally as an “unlegislated cash cow.”

“It’s an animal that is still out of control. The whole industry is still out of control with different pressure points. Everyone is poking the bear,” Merv said.

“I’ve walked into buildings a few times and all I do is I have a whiteboard and I draw a bag of cash and say ‘you’re the OC, you’re the bag of cash and everyone wants a piece of the action.’”

He told Southbank Local News that it was for this reason that his former career as a policeman and detective for Victoria Police had served him well for embarking on a career as an OC manager.

He said that largely, OC management was simply “conflict resolution” and being able to deal with “adversarial situations.”

“What I learned from my days in the fraud squad, when I was in uniform in the early days you’d often look at a guy in the gutter with a couple of tatts who is boozed and you’d go ‘that’s a crook,’” he said.

“Then I learned as I became a detective when I went to the fraud squad – the person that you do not trust is the one in a suit with a pen. Far more damage is done with the man in the suit.”

His approach of taking all systems of management from staffing and security to maintenance and software in-house, had bode well for the likes of Clarendon Towers and Flinders Wharf.

However, for an industry that he said was too “heavily under-regulated,” this style of management is not the norm for a lot of buildings. And given the diverse range of interests between developers, OC managers and those on the committee, he said that good management was not always in the interest of the building.

“No matter how much you try sometimes the structures that are in place corrupt the system and I have been, from my policing angle, exposed to, and dealing with committees who are absolutely corrupt in this town. This is committees; not just developers or OC managers. They are corrupt. And their behaviour is that they think they can get away with it,” he said.

“There has to be major legislative change within the OC Act. There has to be no tokenism and minor changes and now that is born out of conflicts, perceived or real, that exist within the industry.”

“There has to be a proper method of reporting. The only option I really have as an OC manager is to resign when I can see there is corruption swirling around me. Otherwise I have to prove criminal offences – and I can say, that I can prove it and I have seen it.”

While buoyed by the state government’s recent moves to stamp out proxy farming, he said major change was still required to mitigate issues such as short-stays, long term contracts, “$2 companies” and formative/handover periods of OCs. In addition, he said that greater powers needed to be provided for taking contractual matters to the Magistrates and County Courts, rather than VCAT.

“In criminal law you’ve got case law,” he said. “You can always quote it and you’re reasonably expectant that an outcome will flow from that. VCAT is a different kettle of fish as VCAT members can make their own decision.”

“Where the future goes? You’d like resolution about short-term [accommodation] and my personal view is that if you want a hotel room you book into a hotel.”

“A third of Australians supposedly now live in a strata-like scheme. So, we’ve got to protect their rights.”

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