But the sale to a virtually unknown company raised eyebrows following an extended government tender demanding bidders demonstrate their ability to deliver “a project of a similar scale” and that they had the experience to ensure the government was not exposed to “unnecessary risk”.
While a wall of government secrecy still surrounds the building’s buyer, a Herald investigation can reveal Mr Huynh’s links to Vietnamese billionaires and venture capitalist Mark Carnegie, fireworks in court over one of his only public development attempts and questions over government probity checks on the sale – which is still yet to settle 12 months later.
Freedom of information documents show the extent of the NSW government’s due diligence on Mr Huynh consisted of staffers doing Google searches to see if he appeared in any media stories or ICAC inquiries, buying a credit risk report and asking Fair Trading if it had complaints about him.
There were no red flags but the documents cautioned: “In the case of overseas developers, we have little visibility of media coverage in their home markets”.
There is no suggestion that there was any negative media coverage about Mr Huynh in any other country.
The Herald has established that Mr Huynh has quietly amassed a fortune that has parachuted him from a middle-class upbringing in Sydney’s north-west to a mansion on the Vaucluse waterfront.
Mr Huynh garages a McLaren supercar at the $4.2 million residence, marketed as “a taste of Palm Springs in an elite harbour enclave”.
The controlling stake in the property is held by his wife, Rianna Huynh.
Mr Huynh has family connections to Vietnam’s “fashion power couple”, Johnathan Hanh Nguyen and his actress-turned-entrepreneur wife, Le Hong Thuy Tien.
The pair have made their fortune selling luxury goods to the burgeoning ranks of Vietnam’s super-rich through their company Imex Pan Pacific Group (IPPG).
IPPG holds the lion’s share of distribution rights in Vietnam for luxury brands – including Chanel, Versace and Rolex – bankrolling the couple’s glamorous lifestyle in Ho Chi Minh City.
Their daughter Tien “Jacqueline” Nguyen, a social media influencer, made global headlines after she contracted COVID-19 in London.
She was reportedly flown back to a Vietnam hospital in a chartered jet at a cost of US$360,000.
The family’s opulent mansion on the Saigon River is flanked with gold statues, home to an army of housemaids and a fleet of Rolls Royces and Bentleys.
In a rare interview, Ms Thuy Tien told the Guardian that the couple mined the rare white marble used to construct the residence themselves.
It was there that Mr Huynh’s Sydney-based brother and his family celebrated Vietnamese Lunar New Year in February.
Social media postings of Mr Huynh’s niece show her reunited with “cousin” Jacqueline, popping champagne at an end of year extravaganza for IPPG and attending family dinners on the terrace of the Saigon mansion.
It’s a far cry from the box-shaped apartments of the Sirius Building back in Sydney, used to accommodate housing commission tenants since the 1980s.
When the NSW government announced the sell-off in 2014, real estate agents enthused it was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity for developers to seize some of Australia’s “most valuable land”.
Community campaigners decried the government’s move as “social cleansing”, launching a failed court challenge.
The leading contenders included global firm Aoyuan International, which has completed 16 projects across Sydney, and developer Danny Avidan, whose plans had the endorsement of former NSW art gallery director Edmund Capon.
But after significant delays it was announced they had been trumped by Sirius Developments Pty Ltd, a shell company set up for the deal by Mr Huynh.
Mr Huynh’s investment firm, JDH Capital, was backing the project and had assembled a “first-rate” team to carry out the redevelopment.
Journalists were briefed that Mr Huynh was a former Macquarie Banker with interests in mining. He had connections to a wealthy but unnamed Vietnamese family who “owned an airport there”.
Nothing else was known about the reclusive Mr Huynh.
He had no trace of any online footprint, except for fleeting references to a short-lived sponsorship of Canberra rally car driver Rhys Pinter and archived photos buried on his wedding photographer’s Facebook page.
JDH Capital’s only public face was a landing page featuring a login portal and a stock photo of the Harbour Bridge.
Social media users joked the company had “less publicly available info than a Russian twitter bot”.
Housing Minister Melinda Pavey spruiked the winning bidder’s development credentials.
“With their equity and development partners, [JDH Capital] have undertaken similar projects throughout Australia and internationally,” she said.
When asked to list the company’s successful projects, the government referred questions to JDH Capital. It declined to comment, citing contractual confidentiality obligations.
The Herald was able to locate an approved development application on land owned by one of Mr Huynh’s companies for “Evoke”, a 108-apartment tower near Blacktown station.
Promotional material said construction would begin in April last year, but last week the land was vacant and inhabited only by a flock of ibises.
A company belonging to Mr Huynh was due to settle on the purchase of the neighbouring block of land on Carinya Street last month, which already has DA approval in place for a six-storey building.
JDH Capital is also credited with developing“Waterline” – 27 luxury apartments currently under construction on the Cronulla waterfront – on the website of builder Richard Crookes Constructions.
However that development is registered in the name of Jingle Property Pty Ltd, formerly known as Shark Doo Doo Pty Ltd.
The company’s sole director is not Mr Huynh but Balmain-based accountant Robert Byrnes.
Another company belonging to Mr Byrnes appears to have successfully completed a Kellyville subdivision, purchasing it after the site’s former developer – a company of which Mr Huynh was one of the directors – became embroiled in a bitter court feud over a lack of financing and could not complete the venture.
It remains unclear who will bankroll JDH Capital’s $118 million redevelopment of the Sirius Building.
In heavily-redacted government documents released under freedom of information, Sirius Developments Pty Ltd was listed as a trustee for a third party, which was redacted.
The documents show the government added an extra stage to the tender amid concerns the preferred developer could withdraw “from the process prior to contract execution, leaving no proposals on foot”.
The government negotiated a delayed settlement, meaning money is yet to change hands and will only do so once key milestones are met and construction has begun.
The government withheld key documents that could have shed light on the deal, including a ministerial briefing note and a report on the capacity of the tenderers to deliver the project.
It warned the information’s release could “prejudice” the sale’s finalisation.
A NSW Department of Planning spokesperson said a range of due diligence measures confirmed JDH Capital had the “credibility, capability and capacity” to complete the venture and it offered the state “best value for money and economic benefits”.
Mr Huynh declined to disclose the investors in the Sirius redevelopment but his lawyer said there was “no connection” to Vietnam’s Imex Pan Pacific Group.
The Herald’s questions to JDH Capital were answered by development director John Green.
“Sirius Developments Pty Ltd is excited to be working on this exciting project in Sydney’s iconic Rocks area,” Mr Green said.
“However, as Sirius Developments Pty Ltd is bound by strict confidentiality obligations under its contractual arrangements with the seller, we are not able to answer your questions about Sirius.”
He added that JDH Capital was a private investment firm which aims to “source, manage and execute on intelligent and proprietary transactions with a focus on real estate investments.”
Mr Green confirmed Mr Huynh had worked in the investment banking division of Macquarie Bank and as part of the investment team at M.H. Carnegie & Co.
Mr Huynh uses Mr Carnegie’s Paddington office as his registered business address and has recent business interests with CBRE heavyweights Justin Brown and David Milton.
He also dabbles in horse racing, splashing out $380,000 on a colt at the Inglis Easter sales and investing heavily in the stable of Canberra trainer Nick Olive.
Vietnam does not require disclosure of private company interests, making it difficult to obtain information about the business dealings of Mr Huynh’s extended family.
But Ms Thuy Tien is no stranger to Sydney, flying to Australia in 2018 to deliver an address at the Global Summit of Women, where she rubbed shoulders with then foreign minister Julie Bishop.
Her husband, Mr Hanh Nguyen, is credited with opening up Vietnam to the world following the war by brokering the country’s first official flight route to the Philippines in 1985.
IPPG has since grown into one of Vietnam’s largest private enterprises, with annual revenues of over one billion US dollars.
Mr Hanh Nguyen is the chair of Cam Ranh International Airport, while his company has been aggressively expanding into real estate, duty free shopping, malls and fast-food chains.
Carrie Fellner is an investigative reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.