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“Creating communities is in the DNA of UniLodge.”: Tomas Johnsson

The soul of a company can’t be captured in a brochure, but if it could be, the queues of students wanting to secure a room in UniLodge’s student accommodation would stretch for blocks. Creating communities is in the DNA of UniLodge. It’s authentic and compassionate, and its genuine care is felt by all those residents who call UniLodge home during their tertiary years. CEO Tomas Johnsson wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tomas Johnsson, CEO of UniLodge

The company is now expanding its hugely successful business model and unique culture of resident care into the build-to-rent (BTR) and medi-stay sectors. The synergies in skill sets and expertise make complete sense, as do the needs of those client bases looking for care and community.

With an extensive background in hospitality, Tomas has over 25 years’ experience in senior management and executive positions, most recently as COO of Mantra Group. He joined UniLodge in 2018 as part of the company’s expansion strategy. “We have a fantastic organisation and culture here,” says Tomas.

“We’ve spent the past few years building a platform to grow. We’ve done all the heavy lifting and have re-engineered the entire ecosystem. We grew the business by 30% in 2018 and, over the next few years, we’ll continue that pace.”

UniLodge is the leading student accommodation provider in Australia and New Zealand, with over 20,000 beds in more than 70 lodges, employing over 500 staff. “The student accommodation market is in a very strong growth trajectory in Australia and New Zealand,” states Tomas. “We have excellent universities and offer the most attractive destinations for migration and study.”

UniLodge offers more than a bed; it offers a culture of inclusion. “We have a strong resident care ethos within the organisation,” Tomas says. “We have a duty of care to a lot of young people, and their physical and mental wellbeing.

“We have a strong resident care ethos.”

“Our staff members are often a similar age and with similar interests to the students, so personal bonds are formed. These may be the most formative years of a student’s life and our staff have played a role in this.”

“We have strong residential support programs and a whole bunch of passionate people who deliver that each day. They know how to engage with the students and use best practice to get students out of their rooms to participate in events and activities,” he adds.

“The most recent additions in our portfolio are fantastic venues with purpose-built designs for academic work, socialising and co-living. We have rooftop gardens, pool tables, music rooms and cinemas, but the real UniLodge difference is the culture of our organisation, and that can’t be replicated.”

“Our most important partners are the universities we have relationships with,” Tomas says. “The wellbeing of students is the glue that bonds us together in very tight collaborations. These relationships help form the organisational foundations of UniLodge, and are one of the reasons for our market leading position,” he adds.

Even though BTR is in its infancy in Australia, UniLodge has staked an early claim – the synergies just make sense, as does the opportunity. Essence Communities is UniLodge’s specialised BTR property management arm and is a natural extension of the brand.

Tomas Johnsson, CEO of UniLodge

“Build-to-rent is a new phenomenon in the market that’s starting to make sense commercially, and is gaining momentum,” suggests Tomas. “Our student accommodation has proved UniLodge can create communities and engage with student residents through very strong personal relationships. We’re in a unique position in a market that’s only just opening up and moving away from traditionally passive rental roles,” he adds. “We’re excited about it because it’s different, it’s new for Australia and we can make an impact in this space.”

“We believe we have a unique positioning with BTRs because we can provide residential services as well as establish communities targeted at a specific demographic. We’re able to build our service delivery around that particular cohort in a residence. UniLodge has the entire spectrum of services necessary to be a leading operator in this emerging industry,” he adds.

By creating a culture of involvement and connection in the BTRs, UniLodge can achieve the same sense of belonging as it has through the student accommodation. Essence Communities already has 10 to 15 potential projects in the pipeline, which it hopes to start delivering in 2020.

“Creating communities is in the DNA of UniLodge.”

Medi-stays is another opportunity the company is leveraging. Essence Apartments & Suites is the leader in healthcare accommodation in Brisbane, and supports a number of local hospitals. “While we offer arrangements for ‘soft nursing’, we’re trying to help hospitals transition low-care patients and release beds,” suggests Tomas.

UniLodge is partnering with private and public hospitals, as well as investors in the health sector, to expand this segment of the business. “We have a strong organic pipeline across all our three divisions,” states Tomas. “But what we’re seeing is genuine momentum building from potential partners and investors for step change expansion opportunities to accelerate the growth of the business.”

Committed and mutually beneficial supplier relationships are essential to leverage this growth opportunity. “We work closely with our suppliers to ensure we are aligned strategically. It’s always more productive to have a clear understanding of our respective objectives,” says Tomas.

Equally important is having a strong team with the same focus. “UniLodge has a core group of leaders in the business with a fantastic combined IP and strong personal bonds. This culture has created excellence in all aspects of the business and now the momentum for growth is self-generating,” he adds.

“As a management team, we focus on building a can-do, outcome-oriented enthusiasm. We’ve got a whole layer of managers who are savvy, know what they’re doing and are hungry for change. Done right, the combination of a strong organisational culture and strategic certainty is a winning formula. Our team members express trust and confidence in our business,” says Tomas proudly.

UniLodge provides more than bricks and mortar – it offers community, a sense of belonging, and a place to call home, and maybe that’s not just for its residents.

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