A baby quizzically eyes the two women whose laughter has caused coffee to spill over the side of their cups. Such merriment cannot be ignored and so, with arms pumping, the baby soon chortles along too.
It’s mid-morning at The Colombo, Sydenham’s boutique retail and entertainment centre on Colombo Street. Generations gather to share hot drinks and friends show each other what treasures they have found.
“This place still has that community vibe,” observes Caroline Cooper-Dixon with a satisfied smile. After all, that is what she and her mother, property developer Lilly Cooper, intended.
The dynamic between this mother-daughter duo reflects the activity around them. They are not just business partners but great friends – the perfect synchronicity of different generations working together in cohesion.
Their days start at 7.30am, when Caroline pops around the corner to join Lilly so they can walk their dogs to Lux Espresso on Gloucester Street for a coffee and a scone. Then it’s home to change, ready for the first of a series of meetings at which they will tag-team each other. The people they meet, says Lilly, quite like the familial connection – and the way the pair naturally banter. They effortlessly bring levity to the room.
But their day together doesn’t end with meetings. “We’ll have dinner together, either with my brothers [George and William] and their partners [Lucy and Bridget] and mine [Harry], or one of us will cook for the other and debrief on the day,” says Caroline. (Lilly loves to cook a roast while Caroline prefers a cheeky gluten-free pasta.)
But make no mistake, they are a powerhouse development duo who, with Selwyn District Council, are creating the Rolleston Fields $85 million retail and hospitality town centre in Selwyn. It will feature a retail precinct, with bars and eateries plus an entertainment and cinema complex.
But before we get carried away looking at the future, we head back to the 1980s, when a very determined 19-year-old took the plunge into development with an eyebrow-raising purchase.
If she had been born a boy, Lilly Cooper would have “had a nail bag put on [her]” and been sent out to do construction.
“My father was a builder. But because I was a girl, I got into property developing instead,” says Lilly.
But she wasn’t the type of person to cautiously dip her toe in. She bought 14 houses in one hit.
“They were in two streets: Peacock Street and Beveridge Street [Christchurch]. I’d bought them off one old lady who lived in Nelson. I got a six-month delayed settlement. When I settled them six months later, I sold all 14 of them on the same day – I settled them in the morning and sold them in the afternoon.”
And with that, she had found her niche in an industry that was very male-dominated. Forty years on, she still loves it.
“It’s a moving target. You get up and every morning you learn something new – the industry is moving. Technology, the way people shop, the way people make things, the construction – it keeps moving,” she says.
From a young age, Caroline knew her mother was a force to be reckoned with in property.
“Mum always had a drive to get out there, and property was her thing. Then in my teens I was like, ‘Whoa, she’s bold with her decisions – I want to be like that.’
“She loves to put a deal together and can do it just like that.” Caroline snaps her fingers. “She’s incredibly good at numbers.”
When Lilly fought breast cancer two years ago, Caroline was on hand once again to witness her tenacity.
“It’s just her strength, you know? She went through it and she got straight back to work. It is her passion and you can’t fault her for that because that is where she gets her enjoyment on a day-to-day basis.
“She is extremely giving to those around her, too.”
Lilly knew there was something unique about her daughter when it came to retail and entertainment development – and it is said without maternal bias.
Caroline was 23 when Lilly asked her to work with her on The Colombo. She had recently returned to New Zealand from studying design at Central Saint Martins University of the Arts London and had been working in commercial sales and leasing.
“She was very fresh and had the most creative ideas. She saw retail like no one in Christchurch had seen retail,” says Lilly matter-of-factly.
And how Caroline saw The Colombo was on the backdrop of a need – a need for a fractured community to be connected.
Lilly bought the Sydenham-based building from receivers in 2010 for $12 million. But on February 22, 2011, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck, leaving the city devastated and 185 dead. The city was in deep mourning and the central business area decimated, cordoned off for months.
“Lilly wanted to turn it [The Colombo] into a Dress-Smart, but I was like, ‘We’ve got to house the people. There is no more retail – the [central] city is a red zone and we need to create space not far from it.’
“We need to stick together – people needed to be together to experience that human interaction,” says Caroline emphatically. It was, she says, all about building community – and one that endures over time.
The break and a new project
After The Colombo, Caroline cared for her father Johnny in his final years out at Akaroa, while she opened a small hospitality business and did her consulting work from there.
It was while she was working with Selwyn District Council that the town centre project came about. Lilly had just finished her cancer treatment, so Caroline had a thought.
“I rang her and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ and she said, ‘Absolutely,’” They pitched and got the job.
“So we signed up for another five to 10 years together,” says Caroline with a grin. But 10 years on from The Colombo, it is a different type of partnership.
“The Rolleston town centre is a bigger development but it feels less stressful for us because we’ve had all that learning of working together.
“Dad’s passing taught us to be gentler with each other. We have a lot more patience to really enjoy this development.”
Lilly says the reason the partnership works is because there is the cohesion of generational knowledge. “It’s the old and young thing – it’s amazing. Her strengths are my weaknesses, and my weaknesses are her strengths.”
An example is how Caroline has taught Lilly about a well-balanced life.
“She’s a great one at balancing her life, so I’m learning that. I’m much older and we didn’t have that when we were younger – we would just work, work, work,” says Lilly.
Caroline’s eyes flick up. She has seen her next meeting arrive. She sets off with an easy stride and a full, genuine smile to greet them.
“She has the three Fs,” observes Lilly. “She’s focused, she’s friendly and she’s firm.” So they’re off. They have a town centre to build together. A legacy, built on creating communities, because that is what they love to do. Together.