Chris Morris – Empire in the sun
He’s the tech entrepreneur who 40 years ago founded Australia’s most successful tech company ever, made an absolute fortune and bought a tropical island off North Queensland’s coast which sparked a spate of acquisitions. With redevelopments underway at his spa retreat in the Daintree Rainforest, his outback cattle station west of Cairns, and The Ville Resort—Casino in Townsville, Chris Morris’ tourism empire in sunny NQ is almost complete.
Sitting in an ocean-view boardroom at The Ville Resort–Casino, talking about property’s newest outlet, The Quarterdeck, Melbourne businessman Chris Morris points out the window towards Magnetic Island and says simply, “that view is magic”. Finally, The Ville’s facing the water.
Since mid-2015, Chris’ company Morris Group, which acquired Townsville’s aging elephant of a casino-hotel for $70 million, has been redeveloping the property into a total entertainment destination. Stage 1 will be completed in the coming weeks, with a bill circa-$42 million. (Contractor Hutchinson’s Builders has used 84% local contractors on the project.) At the same time, Chris and Morris Group are completing upgrades to their other properties within their Northern Escape Collection including a refresh at Daintree Eco Lodge and a new-build resort at Mt Mulligan Station west of Cairns. Adding to these, Chris owns Orpheus Island Lodge and its northern neighbour Pelorus Island (purchased in 2017), giving him the trifecta in Australian tourism – reef, rainforest and outback.
It was never Chris’ intention to be in hospitality though, or his vision to own tourism businesses. In fact, he says he’s never really had ‘visions’, even for his first company, Computershare.
By his own admission, Chris Morris was terrible at school. “I failed everything except for maths,” he tells, attributing his performance to the typical distractions for teenage boys. So, Chris’ mother enrolled him in a three-month computer course at Taylors College, Melbourne. It was 1966 and the first ever computer course in Australia.
‘I never really intended to be in hospitality.”
From that course, Chris worked for the first computer bureau in Melbourne (this was long before PCs), and eventually he started working on share registry systems. In 1978, he joined with business partner Ken Milner to found Computershare and provide computer bureau services to Australian share registrars. “We had 49%,” recalls Chris. “We worked with a bureau, which had the big computer, and they had 51%. Everyone back then used to run their own registries, or they were run by chartered accountants. Within five years, just about everyone in Australia used us. We then did what everyone does – we went to New Zealand first, then UK, then when we got brave we went to the US. We were one the first companies to use PCs as distributive processors instead of the big old green terminals – if you can remember them.”
By 1992, Chris and his business partner had bought out the bureau’s 51%. “They were raiding our super funds; we didn’t take them on and instead bought their 51% for I think $50,000. Then Ken said, ‘let’s sack everyone’ – we had all the major companies using our software and it would take them three or four years to catch up to us. I couldn’t do that, so some other staff and I bought him out. He sold for $2 million for 50% of the company which today is worth around $9.5 billion.”
Computershare was floated on the Australian stock exchange in 1994.
“We [Computershare] have 18,000 people globally in 27 countries and manage the debt and companies’ registries of most of the major listed companies globally. It’s by far the most successful IT Company Australia’s ever had by a long way.”