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What do you do for work?

By Tom Palmer, April 15, 2020

‘What do you do for work?’ … socially, when you ask someone this, it feels like the most unimaginative question, but it’s a pretty solid opener.

When I’M asked this question, I typically ramble something about development advice, land planning and sustainability, which is usually met by a polite nod and an ‘oh, that’s interesting’ (subtext; not interesting at all). This tells me two things; firstly; my elevator pitch is seriously lacking, secondly; it’s quite difficult to describe what I actually do. As I see that I’m strangling a perfectly nice attempt at a conversation, I quickly follow this up with something a little more palatable like; ‘We build 6-star hotels in places like Africa, that help fund community and conservation programs’, it’s a little more complicated than that but it typically resuscitates the conversation, marked by an ‘OH, that’s interesting’ (subtext; that really is interesting!), followed by ‘how did you get into that?’.

I enjoy answering the second question, because it’s nice to reflect on the accidents of life. I originally trained as a Landscape Architect at the University of NSW, Sydney. At 17 years old, my father recently passed away, and entering my first year of uni, I hadn’t exactly given my career selection much consideration. The logic was; I like helping my mum in the garden and I like drawing – it seemed to fit the 10-line description of a Landscape Architect in the career guide. It was either Landscape Architecture or Media and Communications, but I wasn’t really sure what that was. After struggling through 4 years of a degree that didn’t actually have anything to do with gardening, I threw out my rather ordinary portfolio, swore I would never practice landscape architecture and went travelling for a year. When I returned, broke and in need of some work, reality set in – I was probably going to have to try to be a landscape architect.

A job came up through an old uni friend at a well-known Sydney firm; Context Landscape Design. Given I’d thrown my entire portfolio away, I figured it was unlikely I’d get the job, so I thought I’d go along for some interview practice. I pitched up to the interview and met Oi Choong, Australian Landscape Architecture royalty (not that I knew that at the time), she asked me where my portfolio was and I said, ‘it was crap, so I threw it away’, but instead showed her my thesis on Skateboarding. She asked when I could start.

I worked permanently at Context for 2 or 3 years, and then as a contractor for the same amount of time again. I worked on a lot on large-scale infrastructure projects like the M5 Motorway which allowed me to become a little too proficient in AutoCAD, but didn’t do wonders for inspiration. It was a good time of my life, but I never really felt like a Landscape Architect. One day when I found out my brother, a photographer, earned more in a 2 week shoot than I earned in 3 months, I got the hump and decided to go travelling again. The last project I worked on for Context was the masterplan for the Emirates Resort in Wolgan Valley, now a One & Only, and I remember thinking ‘wouldn’t it be cool to design resorts all day’.

London was the destination. This time around, my portfolio was a little more complete, but still rather light on content; documenting my past work was not my forte. Supplemented with a pin-striped suit (I was pretty sure everyone in London wore these), I managed to get 2 job offers; a high-paying big firm who’s core work was large sport stadiums and a lesser paid opportunity in the growing London office of an American firm who specialised in a hotel and resort design! ‘Do I get to travel?’, I asked, ‘yes’, I’ll take it’.

Beyond the resort design, Hart Howerton were, and still are, planners, architects and landscape architects who’s point of difference is understanding the economics of a development opportunity – they weren’t just guys drawing pretty buildings. This appealed to me, as it felt like there might be a future beyond landscape architecture. Plus, it was pre-2018 so I was travelling to exciting destinations like Brazil, China, Morocco, Egypt, The Emirates with bottomless expense budgets.

Paul Milton, one of the San Francisco-based owners, was one of the driving forces behind the international work. It was also widely accepted in the office that you didn’t really want to travel with Paul as he had a habit of working more than he slept. At the time, he was doing a lot of pro bono work in Africa advising governments and national parks on sustainable tourism opportunities. I’d only met Paul once or twice and was quite sure I had not left much of an impression, but one day in 2007 I was informed that he was heading to Tanzania and was taking someone from the London office  – It was cheaper than bringing someone from San Francisco – so he was going to take ‘the big Aussie guy……… carry the bags’ (The closest thing to a compliment I imagined I would get, and still is to this day)! Everyone in the office was quite sure I had drawn the short straw – a week on the road with Paul; ‘good luck with that’ was the general sentiment. I thought it sounded ok. My attitude as a young London bachelor was; you pay me, I’ll go where you tell me.

That trip was probably one of the most bizarre and life-changing trips of my life. It was professionally enlightening and, as anticipated, it was gruelling. But I also remember laughing a hell of a lot and being blown away by the landscapes we were in and the people we were working with. Unexpectedly, it was the beginning of a new mentorship, friendship and, most relevant to the blog, a significant change in my career path.

The GFC hit in late 2008 and we saw firsthand how susceptible traditional donor-funded conservation models were to global economics. In 2009, we parted ways with Hart Howerton to start Milton Group with the objective of creating a new approach to tourism investment that delivered measurable social and environmental impact through robust business planning – essentially linking commerce with conservation.

Over a decade later, we’re honoured to have garnered the trust of a number of forward-thinking individuals and family offices who are genuinely motivated to effect social and environmental change through business. It’s taken time to build these relationships, and for the market to take what we do seriously, but through a number of failed attempts, reincarnations and a lot of stamina, we’ve gained real traction and are now seeing positive outcomes.

In the last 10 years, we’ve:

  • Helped to protect close to 5million hectares of at-risk marine and terrestrial environments in 8 countries
  • Deployed USD$400m of investment into conservation tourism projects
  • Created more than 2,000 construction jobs in low socio-economic regions in the last 5 years alone and provided sustainability training to each employee

Compared to large corporations or NGOs, these aren’t necessarily huge numbers, but it’s the way that we’ve done this that we’re proud of – by tapping into tourism and real estate markets and applying an holistic approach to planning and sustainable development, we’re unlocking value in land that traditional markets categorise as low-yield or too risky.

We’re proud to say our business plans and projects are helping to protect some of the world’s most delicate environments and cultures. Our goal is to scale and diversify the model and grow a network of investors and assets that support land rehabilitation, protect wildlife and empower of cultures and communities across the world.