Former rugby player and media presenter Sean Garlick of Garlo’s Pies chats with My Business about transitioning from professional sports to business, starting out with no business experience and turning the humble meat pie into an international empire.
Even though anyone can be a business owner, the first person that comes to mind would probably not be a retired sports star.
Nevertheless, Sean Garlick, ex-footy player of the Rabbitohs and Roosters in the 1990s, turned to business with his brother Nathan when he was looking for something to do after professional sport.
“As it turned out, my brother was a pastry chef and was working in a local pie shop, but had just grown bored of working for wages and had given it away and was driving a truck and was miserable,” Sean explains.
“I thought, ‘Geez, what a waste of talent.’ He made every pie and sausage roll and custard tart in that shop and now he's driving a truck at night and not real happy with it.
“I said, ‘Look. What about if we had our own pie shop, would you change your mind?’ He goes, ‘Well, I know how to make the product, but I know nothing about running a business,’ and I thought, ‘Well, how hard can it be?’”
The brothers went ahead with the idea, and opened the first Garlo’s Pies store at Maroubra in Sydney's eastern suburbs.
At the time, Sean was also working as a guest panellist on The Footy Show. Utilising his contacts, Sean approached the show with the idea of a celebrity pie-eating competition as a part of the grand opening. The coverage turned Garlo’s Pies into an instant success.
“Immediately, it was too small! We had people come from all over the place and buying pies, and it was only this small, little 60-square-metre shop, so we thought, ‘We're going to have to open another shop,’” Sean says.
After another opening televised on The Footy Show, Sean and his brother had a whirlwind success as the business grew to 13 stores in its first six years.
This growth, however, proved unsustainable, and Sean began to realise that more stores did not automatically mean higher profits.
“What we discovered was rents are high in Sydney,” Sean explains.
“Our first five shops were always our best five shops. For the first five, it was like a license to print money and then the ones after that, we maybe got a bit cocky and thought, ‘Let's just keep opening these,’ and a lot of them started to fail.”
What Sean and Nathan also discovered was that pies were a must-have product in the colder seasons, but sales fell in the hotter seasons. In addition, they faced challenges trying to sell their pies beyond their mainly adult male demographic.
“We thought, ‘Hang on, there's a bit of volatility here. Not only are we missing the female market, but during summer, it's tough because our sales halved,’” Sean says.
By changing their focus from being a retailer and transforming the business into a wholesaler, Sean says the business started to level out for the better.
Juggling full-time employment with an SME
When Sean stopped playing football, he was given the opportunity to still be involved in an administration role with the Rabbitohs.
“I thought [this] was going to be my spot in life, to be involved with the football club, not coaching, which is real volatile, not the CEO so somewhere in the middle,” Sean says.
“I was working there full-time while we opened this shop, so I was doing all the admin and all that sort of thing on the side, but after the first three months, I worked at the Rabbitohs and then, I employed servers and all that sort of thing, so I did the wages, paid the invoices and all that at night-time.”
Working two jobs, however, proved harsh on Sean’s health. He juggled between the administration role at the Rabbitohs and a part of Garlo’s Pies for two years before deciding enough was enough.
“We had about four shops then and it was just killing me,” he says.
“I was doing a hundred hours a week and it was just too much and I thought I’ve got to leave the Rabbitohs and go into this pie shop because there's a lot of opportunities, but I was on a good wage; … the business had to afford me.
“I said, ‘Nathan, I'm going to come, but we now need to ramp this up a little,’ and that's when I seriously contacted everybody I knew in the leagues clubs, in the cafés, at sports grounds and all that and really learned how to do the sell.”
Scrumming with suppliers
In 2009, Garlo’s Pies started to increase its wholesaling efforts by way of a partnership with Coles.
“[A Coles representative] had come in and said, ‘Look, we're looking for a local pie manufacturer to really push our We're Local brand in our stores in NSW',” Sean recounts.
“The guy that'd come in said, ‘We know your shop from opposite Peter Wynn's out there in Parramatta. I take my son in there to buy football jerseys and I go and buy pies afterwards. Would you consider supplying to Coles?’
Sean says he was initially hostile to the notion.
“I said, ‘I heard what Coles do to small businesses. You know they screw you on payment terms ... and build you up and then when you really think things are going well, they just get cut off at the knees, so I'm not interested in that.’
“‘Plus, how could we sell a pie for $4/$4.50 in our stores, if you're selling them for $2 in the supermarkets?’ They said, ‘No, no! Look, we can work with small businesses.’”
After some back and forth, Sean agreed to provide pies to a Coles store in Balgowlah, an area that Garlo’s Pies didn’t previously cover. The trial proved successful, and was then expanded to a few more stores.
After six months, Sean received a call from Coles head office with the opportunity to provide pies state-wide.
“I said, ‘Wow, geez, that's a big deal. How many stores are there?’ They [Coles head office] said, ‘206.’ I said, ‘Okay. Sure, we'd love to do that!’ He says, ‘Okay. That's great, all right. No problems’,” Sean says.
Following the call, Sean received a fax requesting 52 pallet of pies. Up until this point, Garlo’s Pies hadn’t been dealing in pallets at all.
“We couldn't even fit a pallet in our place!” Sean explains.
“I rang this buyer back in Melbourne and I remember it very clearly and I said, ‘Look, there must be some sort of misunderstanding. We can't supply pallets. How many boxes are on a pallet?’”
“She says, ‘You tell me, I don't know.’ I said, "Well, I would never supply them on a pallet. We're going to have to work that out. In fact, I don't think we can fit a pallet in here in our corridor.’ She said, ‘Well, you told us you wanted to supply to all of NSW.’ I said, ‘Well, I do, but I didn't expect to jump to it straight away,’ Sean says.
After agreeing to a six-month delay, Garlo’s Pies was renovated to fit pallets, and has been supplying wholesale ever since, from Coles stores to airlines and supermarkets around the world.
It just goes to show that with guts and determination, a willingness to give it a go and the resourcefulness to draw on your networks of contacts for support when you need it, you really can build an empire out of nothing.
Business name: Garlo’s Pies
Industry: Food manufacturing
Location: Sydney, NSW (Head office and bakery)
Customer base: Australia and overseas. Major stockists include Coles, Qantas and Virgin lounges, Singapore Airlines, Etihad, Emirates and McDonalds Australia.
- Opinion: House prices not all doom and gloom
By Adam Zuchetti
- Analysis: How can SMEs realistically stay competitive?
By Adam Zuchetti
- Opinion: Victim blaming shows extent of harassment culture
By Adam Zuchetti