Describe your business to us and how you got the idea and put in into reality?
My brother Con and I have been business partners for the past 24 years, buying bankrupt food businesses and turning them around or setting up brand new ones. Our parents were always in business, so we grew up in shops. It’s definitely genetic for us.
VIVO Café Group began when we bought the first VIVO at 388 George St Sydney in 2003. It took 45 minutes to get served and about 55 minutes to put a deposit down for its purchase. The business was in such poor financial health that the entire purchase price went to the landlord for back rent (two years worth), suppliers and of course the bank. Within four weeks we signed our lease and invested over $800,000 to begin – purely on our gut instinct. We needed another $200,000 to get the business into shape physically – new equipment, marketing, stock and training. Risk is a word we have become very familiar with over the years, but our initial move into VIVO was the biggest yet. We now own and operate four VIVO businesses – three Café sites and our Corporate Catering arm. We serve around 6,000 customers per week.
Who has been your biggest inspiration to date and why?
As the daughter of migrant parents, I am amazed by their courage and strength. Both mum and dad came from Greece with no education, they couldn’t speak, read or write English and to top it off they were indentured – Greek migrants were not subsidised for their passage from the government. It took mum and dad years to pay off their ticket. Mum came here when she was just 15 years old. By the time she was 21 she had her own business and had bought a house. In those days banks did not lend money to single women, only to married women via their husbands. Mum was one of the first. I don’t think she has ever taken no for an answer. My parents met and married, here in Sydney, and together they raised two children and ran businesses which were usually 7-day operations. No child care, no family to help, just each other.
You have won many awards. Which one meant the most to you and why?
We have been very fortunate to have won seven awards to date, the sweetest being the first one and the most inspirational being the latest one. The first Café award we received – 2005 City Of Sydney Outstanding Café really acted as a catapult of inspiration for us and our team. To be officially acknowledged for your hard work and effort really can make an impact. The next year we won again and took out the overall business award from a field of nine thousand.
I must say though, that winning the 2007 NSW Telstra Women’s Business Owner Award has made the most significant impact on me and our business. It is sometimes difficult to even put into words what it is like to be recognised with an award that transcends your industry and field. Every day, since I won the Telstra award has brought about a new adventure and has reinforced my belief in my vision for VIVO and for me.
How do you keep your team inspired?
After 24 years in this industry, I have employed hundreds, if not thousands of people. Hospitality is an industry notorious for its unskilled labour and their lack of commitment to their job. Most people in hospitality don’t view their job as a career, it’s something they do in between or just because it seems easy. Inspiring a team whose work can consist of washing dishes and cleaning floors is not easy. Inspiring a team who serves customers everyday is even harder.
The biggest part of my job is building relationships within my teams to give them pride in their work and a sense of belonging. We all want the same thing; to be happy. As employers and stakeholders, we want our business to perform efficiently and profitably. As a manager, I need my team to get the job done to produce these results. While increases in wages are a reward and a form of inspiration, they don’t buy loyalty. Loyalty comes from respect and it’s a two way street. My brother and I work side-by-side with our people, very much hands on in the front line, so we understand what their needs are and we make sure they know that they are a priority. We listen to them and from this we keep learning what we need to do to inspire them. They are individuals and they all have different needs.
How do you keep yourself inspired?
When your day starts at 4.00am and often doesn’t finish until 8.00pm or 9.00pm, when you can be so short staffed some days that you are running between the kitchen, the bar and the tables and you don’t really know which end is up, a lot of people ask me how I do it. I believe in my business, my people and my dream. In 24 years I have never not wanted to go to work, even on those difficult days. I don’t lose sight of the big picture and I feel very fortunate to do what I love in spite of the sore feet and aching back. Of course financial success always inspires an owner to a large degree, but we also want to be happy in our work environment and money doesn’t buy you happiness.
I like being a business owner and I love looking after my customers and watching my businesses grow and develop. They each have their own personalities and spirits and the adventure and challenge that they bring each day inspires me to meet their demands.
Can you provide our readers with some practical advice on integrating inspiration into your business?
When you are an owner or manager with targets and responsibilities, you cannot escape stress, fear, moments of weakness and/or self doubt. We are human after all. As women we most likely have a dual role at home, practically doubling our workload. So when faced with mountains that seem to just keep growing with each step we take, some will give up and some will conquer. I focus on my vision but I do not try to look up and find the peak of the mountain. That just messes with your mind. You start to say “what if I can’t make it?” You will always have problems that are huge when they happen and possibly detrimental to your business. That’s life.
Successful businesses don’t just happen and they are not ‘lucky’, nor are they without problems or catastrophes. It really is all about how you weather the storm and consistency is a great ingredient to put into the mix. So is plan B. My mistakes have cost me thousands of dollars, good people and friends. So have my successes. But I wouldn’t change a thing.
Angela Vithoulkas is the founder and director of Sydney’s highly successful VIVO Group – a multi-award winning string of CBD café outlets and a busy catering business.
She is also a popular speaker who is passionate about small business, customer service, innovative marketing, entrepreneurship, women in business, business turn-around, and business social responsibility.
Angela has made bold marketing and strategy moves to establish VIVO, and has been recognised with the following awards as a result: 2008 Who’s Who of Australian Women; 2008 Who’s Who of New South Wales; Telstra Business Women’s Awards 2007(NSW Yellow Business Owner Award); Champion of Champions Small Business Awards (NSW Entrepreneur 2006, NSW Café 2006); City of Sydney Business Awards for Business of the Year (2006 Winner); City of Sydney Business Awards for Outstanding Café of the Year (2005 Winner, 2006 Winner)
VIVO Cafés operate at 388 George Street – World Square, 684 George Street, and 259 George Street SYDNEY.