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Exclusive peek at 3-time Olympian’s budding business empire: Eamon Sullivan, restaurateur

Adam Zuchetti
Adam Zuchetti
23 October 2017 32 minute readShare
Eamon Sullivan

Well-known former Olympic swimmer Eamon Sullivan has become a restaurateur in his native Perth, and as he candidly admits, the challenges of running a business outweigh those of elite sports.


Eamon SullivanFrom not liking school and working casual jobs at McDonald’s and Subway, Eamon went on to win three Olympic medals and twice set a world record in the 50m freestyle event. Now, having retired from swimming at an elite level, Eamon is successfully growing his four Perth-based hospitality businesses.

Yet the transition to business owner has by no means been guaranteed, and in some instances his profile has actually hindered, rather than helped, his progress.

Tune in as Eamon discusses:

  • The challenges and benefits of setting up a business while still working full-time
  • Why following your passion can actually be a commercial disaster
  • His novel approach to turning around negative customer feedback
  • The biggest mistakes he’s made in business and how they now shape his efforts

Plus much more!

Full transcript:

Speaker 1: Welcome to the My Business Podcast. Insight, inspiration and wisdom for business owners, wherever they may be. Here are your hosts, Adam Zuchetti and Andy Scott.

Adam Zuchetti: Hello everyone, and welcome to the My Business Podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in. Andy, we've got a fantastic guest on the line today.

Andy Scott: Yeah, I really enjoyed this interview that we did, Adam. I think it's really interesting, because this is someone who, they're a former world record holder in swimming, they're a three-time Olympic medalist. I mean, legit Aussie Legend, and it was just really fascinating to hear what they've learned and employed into their business, to really help them drive their business, and to keep learning as they go.

Adam Zuchetti: So, our guest today is Eamon Sullivan, former Olympic swimmer, now big shot in the Perth hospitality scene with a number of food-related businesses. So, just give us a bit of background on the businesses you've got, because you've got a couple of them.

Eamon Sullivan: So I've got, the first one I opened was Louis Baxters Espresso Bar in Subiaco. And that was my first one post-Celebrity MasterChef, which opened the door to a bit of credibility for my passion for food, and be able to get into the food scene, that people obviously know I wasn't just doing it because I wanted to. I've always had a big passion for food, and also coffee as well, since living in Sydney for a few years. So, that was my first one in 2011.

                Bib and Tucker, which is on the beach in North Fremantle, seats about 150 people, is my second one. That's a restaurant where there's modern Australian, functions, weddings ... You know, try and mix it up. Being on the beach obviously, casual, but as good food as we can while still able to serve fish and chips, and burgers, and things you need to on the beach. And that was 2013, so coming up to, I think, four and a half years now.

                And then, May Street Larder. We opened about 2015, so early 2015 two years after Bib and Tucker. And that's more of a neighbourhood café, where we play more on the old school techniques of cooking, whether it's fermenting and pickling, making our own pastramis, doing a lot more in-house. And we have a good commercial smoker, we smoke our own salmon and trout. We have a little larder section, where we sell basically all the sauces and condiments, things we use in our dishes, we sell it in the little larder we have, to try and get people enthused for buying local and homemade recipes that we do. And our head chef, across both venues, has his own garden, and we get a lot of stuff out of there, and his back yard. So, we use a lot of local stuff, to try and make it as approachable and as simple as we can.

                So I was just going to say, then also my warehousing. So, I've got a distribution business that I do, we've just got a small warehouse, and distribute vegan soft serve which is called Cocowhip. It's a vegan soft serve that we sell, and I've got about 18 customers in Perth, and a stock of soy milk, and looking at branching out into some café suppliers. I figured, I'm using it myself, might as well buy in bulk to save myself some money, and then I sell it to other cafés that want it. So, trying to develop having a more little unique product list that cafés like, and it's a one-stop shop for those ... Coffee, and different supplies. So, branching into a few more products soon, hopefully, and yeah, so it keeps you busy.

Andy Scott: It's good. Obviously a lot of hats, a lot of diverse products there. You mentioned at the beginning, that, obviously, your success in Celebrity MasterChef gave you credibility. Did you always want to get into this side of work after your swimming finished?

Eamon Sullivan: Yeah, I did. I hated school with a passion. Not so much being at school and being with your mates, but it was more, I just wasn't interested in the stuff I was learning. And the only thing I actually really enjoyed was Home Economics, which was cooking. And at the time, I was swimming 10 times a week, and I was just absolutely starving all the time. And probably quite often, I was too tired to really be bothered paying attention. In Home Economics, you got to eat in the middle of the day during class, and spend your time cooking food. And I was actually quite a fussy eater, before I went into high school, I was very fussy and only ate when I knew what it was and what I thought I liked, wouldn't try new things.

                And I remember the first thing I cooked in Home Economics was beef Stroganoff. Up until that point, I thought it looked like human excrement, to put it politely. And that was just, a young person, "Oh, this looks like crap," and it wasn't until I made it, I realised that everything that was in it, I actually liked those individual ingredients, and that's when my mind changed from just only eating what I knew, to experimenting and giving things a go. Because quite often, all the ingredients in it, although it didn't look appealing to me, were things that I would eat by themselves.

                And from there, it just grew. I started taking recipes home and cooking with my family, and started enjoying watching the pleasant faces, me having cooked stuff for them. And I enjoyed watching them eat it. And enjoying it, as close as I could get to, when you do a race and you get that satisfaction of all the hard work paying off. It's the same thing, when you spend time in the kitchen, a couple of hours cooking a meal, and you see people enjoy it, it's that same reward, almost like that dopamine release of enjoying, seeing that satisfaction in other people, and your hard work paying off.

                And yeah, from there, when I left school I wanted to do a chef apprenticeship, and that was before I made the national team. I wanted to do a chef apprenticeship, and quickly figured out the hours and the time and effort involved wouldn't really go hand in hand with elite sport. So, it was put on the back burner, but it was always, leaving school, I had seen a few cafés around that I really liked the look of. Just that simplicity of having really nice sandwiches and a good coffee, and really buzzing, and people just coming in daily, and that local vibe, that social aspect to it as well. For some reason, that's what's always captivated me, and luckily when I left school, swimming took off pretty quickly, so I didn't have to worry about trying to find another passion or a job, and probably lucky because I had no idea what else I would have done.

                And then, obviously got stuck into swimming post-school for about 10 years. And MasterChef came along, at the time when I'd just had to pull out of World Championships with a virus. And it was a way for me just to get a bit of motivation back, and do something else that I was passionate about, because I missed out on World Championships that year, and competitive streak took hold, and managed to win that. And on the back of that, met a business partner at the time, then we opened a café in Perth together. She moved back, and she was one of the producers on MasterChef, so she was running it. I was still living in Sydney. And got my foot in the door with Louis Baxters, and just, yeah got obsessed with it.

So I guess the rest is just history, I just kept my sporting mentality of, "What's next?", "How can I get better?", and, "What can I do?", and not knowing when to stop trying to improve on things, and take on more and more.

Adam Zuchetti: So, when you left school, and you're faced with that decision of, "Do I follow my passion for food and go into the restaurant business, or do I take the swimming path?", it seems like quite a fork. And you said that you couldn't do the apprenticeship because it clashed with the swimming. Was it a difficult choice, to really make one side or the other?

Eamon Sullivan: Not really. I was lucky my family was in a position to obviously support my swimming, and it was heading in a direction that, I never assumed I was going to make the Australian team and be travelling a lot, but I think also, at the time, my attitude wasn't really to, I don't particularly get bothered with decisions that often. Yeah, I guess it was a bit of, being a bit naïve and young, and on the back of not really enjoying school, not really having another passion. I was just quite happy swimming, and I was lucky I was able to do that. I did get a few jobs at McDonald's and Subway along the way, just to get a bit of cash and a bit of spending money. I was old enough that I wasn't getting pocket money anymore, so I needed to get a bit of spending money. And I started travelling a little bit, for youth and national age groups.

                So, I guess I was lucky I had enough bubbling along with swimming, that it made me not have to worry about thinking too much about what path I wanted to take. And then, yeah, swimming really took off, so that almost disappeared the fact of having to think about going to uni and things like that. So I think it was part luck, and also just part the right place at the right time. I think if swimming had of taken off a year later than I did, I would've probably started doing something else, but I have no idea what that would've been.

Andy Scott: Obviously your life forked one way with the swimming, then with that transition of MasterChef, you moved back to, maybe, your first passion with the food. After opening your first place, tell us about the early days of that.

Eamon Sullivan: I was still living in Sydney at the time, so I was pretty disconnected from it, and absolutely, even if I wanted to open my own café, I didn't know the first thing about it to be quite honest. And definitely, putting down ... We've recently just sold that business, a couple of months ago, and definitely glad I did something at the small scale like that, with having no idea what I was doing, because if it had of been a bigger venue, I probably could've lost a lot of money.

                Definitely made a lot of mistakes with my first café, it was that mentality, which I think a lot of people do have when they're passionate about something, they neglect the specifics and the reality of what a business or another decision might mean. And I think I was naïve, I was just like, "Oh, I'll open a café, and people will come in, and it'll be busy, and we'll make money, and that's it." But, you didn't, at the time, didn't know about creditors, and, obviously you had to play your suppliers but making sure you were operating at the right percentages and hitting margins, and your markup, and the cost of goods, and the wage costs. Super, payroll tax, all those sorts of things.

It was a big learning curve, and I was a bit removed from that at the start, my business partner at the time was running Louis Baxters and I was still swimming in Sydney, so I saw things happening and probably didn't pay as much attention as I should have in the early days. And yeah, we made a lot of mistakes, we survived, and probably grateful for that happening to be honest, because if it didn't, I would've come back and opened Bib and Tucker without any of that knowledge, and probably made the same mistakes again on a bigger scale.

                So yeah, it was interesting, because every time I came back to Perth, I was able to go down and take my friends down for a coffee, and get involved, so it was a good way to dip the toe into the hospitality sector, and learn ... It was almost like doing an apprenticeship myself, without anyone teaching me, I was just learning on the fly, and also putting out fires, and learning how to do it better next time, which is, I guess, similar to sport.

Adam Zuchetti: You did quite well in terms of the scale, by the sound of things. Start small, really test it out, find your niche, and then grow, rather than plunging a lot of money in first go. But, apart from that idea, was it really difficult for you to manage that transition from sport into business?

Eamon Sullivan: I guess I would have to say no. Again, I think it was just right place, right time, and I've always been a person that will just take a risk. I don't weigh up ... I'm probably lucky it worked out to be honest, because if it didn't, like I said, it could have been a lot worse. And I think, part luck, but part determination. I make decisions pretty quickly, I guess my personality is, if I wanted to do something I'll do it, and I just don't think twice about it, and I try to make it work after that.

                Which probably isn't the right way to start businesses, but obviously I've got a different mindset now, having been through all those learning experiences over the years. But at the time, yeah, I was just like, "I wanted to do this, I'm going to do it," and then I figured out how to do it after I'd already pulled the trigger on it. So yeah, I think that was a bit naïve, and I pulled the trigger on that one, and then when I moved back to Perth, I figured I would be in Perth, and be on the ground more, so I was able to… a bit more, and I wanted to have more on my plate.

                So, I knew I was getting towards the end of my career, so I didn't really think of it as a get-out clause. At the time I had my fourth, or third shoulder operation in two years. I'd just come back and made the Commonwealth Games team, and I took a year off, and pretty much one of the better times I had in my career. And I was in test at that time, and I had to prove my fitness to actually swim the Comm Games, I had to had another shoulder operation after the trial. And I did that, got back into training and rehab, and I was in Singapore in a training camp, and I was basically not really doing much. My shoulder was still giving me grief, and I was sitting there, at the time, actually planning the third venue, May Street Larder, and that was occupying my brain, I was not worrying about what the reality of the injury was, and Commonwealth Games coming round so close.

                So I got back to Perth, my now wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, I was over at her house one night. I was just grumpy, and that was my biggest thing, when I was injured, I was just always in a bad mood, because I knew my competitors were always out there training, and I was always getting injured. And it had been 10 years now, that I was just always… I think, hit breaking point. The fact that I had these businesses on the side, that I didn't have to worry about how I was feeling every day to be able to do my job, I knew I could always do it, even if I woke up tired or sore, or I had a sore shoulder, I could basically do that job.

                And I think it got to the point, I was like, "Why am I putting myself through this frustration, and being a negative person, and being grumpy all the time, when I could just quite easily stop doing it, and focus on my business?". The thought in my mind was, in 10 years' time, will I be happier that I spent another year or two swimming for the possibility of going to a fourth Olympics, potentially doing well, and what would that mean for the rest of my life, or in 10 years' time, if the next two years I really focused on getting my businesses up and running, and running well, in 10 years' time will I be in a better position?

                And I thought about it logistically, and thought, well, if swimming does take off again and I'm out of the country, and I'm essentially leaving the business to run with someone else, it's probably not going to run as well as if I was doing it, and in 10 years' time, I'm probably going to be more known, more focused on hospitality. You're not going to be a swimmer forever, there's got to be a time you cross over, and that's what ended up happening, and so I made that decision. I probably could have gone for my fourth Olympics, which was why I got back into swimming after the shoulder operations. That was the aim, and I think I got so clouded by that, I was ignoring how grumpy it was making me, and how much effort ... The injuries, and what it was doing to my family and my girlfriend at the time, of me just being in a foul mood if things weren't going my way.

                And since I made that decision, I've just spent a lot more time with my family, and obviously grown the businesses, and they're going well. I think I really made the right decision, it was that thought about 10 years in the future, where do I want to be and what was more important for me to focus on in the next two years, whether it was swimming or business. And I think, yeah, it was one of those tough decisions, but it was made easier by the fact that I already had them there ready to jump into. I think if I had to manifest something without ... Pull the pin on swimming, but not have something to go on to, it would have been a much harder decision, and I probably would have swum for another two years, because I wouldn't have had any other option.

Andy Scott: I think that's a really interesting insight, Eamon, and to sum that up, do you think of yourself as an elite athlete that became a businessperson, or do you think of yourself now as a businessperson that used to be an elite athlete?

Eamon Sullivan: Yeah, it's a funny one, because people always say, "I retired," but you actually don't retire. Sport, thinking about it, being a sportsperson for 10 years, if you live to 100 it's a tenth of your life, it's not really a big proportion, although at the time it's really easy to get caught up in and think it's the end of the world if you don't do well in one race, or you do one thing wrong. And I think that's, I had that attitude when I was swimming that I now look back on and say, "Well it actually wouldn't have been the end of the world." I probably would have swum better, because I wouldn't have been as nervous, you would have realised that life does go on.

                Because it's quite easy to think that the world's going to end if you lose a race, or if you don't do your best, or this or that happens. And that's where the psychology comes into it, because I think, these days, I don't really think about swimming that often. I have the odd dream every now and then that I'm coming back for the next Olympics, and I don't know whether that's a message, or just me thinking about how fit I used to be, and the difference I see now.

Andy Scott: Mate, we all have those dreams.

Adam Zuchetti: Too right.

Eamon Sullivan: Yeah, I think of myself as a businessman that used to swim, I think. More so, when people say, "Oh, you're that swimmer," I say, "I used to be." I think now, I'm more focused on my family and my businesses, and swimming is more of a memory than a current thing that I call myself, I suppose.

Andy Scott: Obviously as an elite athlete, being goal-focused and setting goals and achieving goals is a key part of success in that field of endeavour. Your line of businesses that you have now, they're all in hospitality but they're reasonably diverse: what are your plans and goals for the bigger picture of the business?

Eamon Sullivan: That's probably a bit ... Now, it's actually giving back, as well. It's quite easy to get caught up in making a lot of money and worrying about profits, profits, profits, but I think to be a successful businessperson, and person in general, it is good to give back. And what we're looking at, the two businesses at the moment, is looking at aligning ourselves with some charities, or creating some community programmes. Give back, and also spread the word, and line up with what we are as a business, which is about using local and fresh, and cooking methods, and spreading the message about healthy but also enjoyable eating and cooking.

                And that's something we're working on at the moment, of how to get into that space. Whether we align with someone that's already up and running, or whether we try and do something ourselves. Bib and Tucker's actually above a surf club on the beach, so it's quite a good tie-in with my past career, and water safety, and being on the beach, having that surf club there. So I think for us, our focus is getting the business to a point that we're comfortable enough to be able to start giving back, and promoting what we've always wanted to be about, which is actually not just being all about making money off people. We want to provide experiences.

                And that's where I think you get longevity in the business, is if you show people that you're trying to be the best you can be, and give back at the same time as running a successful business. It's not a selfish way to run a business. And I think for us, I see longevity in that, when people see you're giving back and actually being passionate about what you do, and not just churning out food as quickly and cheaply as you can and selling it for as much as you can.

                And I'm lucky we've got a business partner who is the head chef of both, the executive chef, who's really passionate about his food, and loves his gardening. We've got quite a few tie-ins that I think we're going to start working on as a group, and focus on doing a bit more of that going forward.

Adam Zuchetti: Speaking of tie-ins, and as you were outlining all your different businesses to start with, they seem to operate very uniquely of one another, and there's no hint of them being a chain, whether it's the cookie-cutter approach. They seem very distinct, unique businesses. Was that a very deliberate strategy for you?

Eamon Sullivan: Yeah, it was. For us, it's everywhere in Perth. Having lived in Sydney and Melbourne. Or, not lived in Melbourne, sorry, lived in Sydney and been to Melbourne quite a bit, every suburb has their own feel about it. And you can walk, obviously, down Chapel Street, and go through three different suburbs, and the food is similar, but they all find a way to be unique, even in a very congested suburb, and city as well. Every time I came back to Perth, I saw the gap in the market of, a lot of chains or groups that were doing the same thing in multiple locations, your Gloria Jeans and your coffee chains that was all made in a warehouse somewhere and driven out every morning.

                We could have quite easily gone to that method, and made it easier for ourselves, but at the same time, it would have just been a monotonous day-in, day-out job, which probably, thinking about it, is no different to swimming. When you swim up and back, you're doing the same thing, and it's quite repetitive. For us, we just loved changing the menu every three months, we work with the seasons, we do specials, and we try to be unique in our own place.

                Because, for one, the different locations we are, it's a completely different demographic. Bib and Tucker's on the beach, and it's a destination venue with nothing else around it, so we couldn't just provide something that's either a good pre- or post-bar for example, we need to create something there that people come for, and they stay there a bit longer, they enjoy the experience, the view, and we provide a bit of theatre there, which is the charcoal grills and wood fire oven on show in the open kitchen. We didn't want to trade on the view, we wanted to create something that people actually came for because it's unique and interesting, as well as the luxury of having the view there as well, while keeping the prices relatively average, but providing that little bit extra.

                And May Street Larder, we're on Canning Highway, which is a really busy commute from  Fremantle all the way to Perth. And we knew people weren't going to spend a long time there, so we created that more neighbourhood vibe of quick, hustle and bustle and grab your takeaway coffee, you have two different point of sales, it's counter service. It's that little bit step down. But having goof prices, obviously, and make things a bit quicker, and not as elaborate as what Bib and Tucker does.

                But I think that's one thing I've learned, is you can't ... It was probably with Louis Baxters I learned it though, came back and we were in Subiaco, which is basically a business hub, and people were wanting their coffees quick, and grabbing something for work, or coming down on their lunch break to grab something quickly. And the first menu I did, I did a 12 hour pork belly slider, so it was basically pulled pork, but it was a slab of pork. It was cooked for 12 hours, and sliced it up, and obviously spent a lot of effort getting it prepped and making it look nice, and that first month the highest seller was a ham and cheese toasty.

                So I learned pretty quickly, you can't tell people what they're going to like, you've got to find out what they like and give it to them. You can be as passionate as you want about doing pork belly sliders, but if that's what you're going to do in Subi, you're not going to make any money. Whereas if you did the ham and cheese toasties, it's what people want, it's quick and easy, and they get it, get out the door pretty quick.

                So yeah, that's what I was referring to with making ... A few different mistakes, was trying to push what I was passionate about for people in an area that was passionate about that, but it wasn't appropriate for their line of work, and how long they were wanting to wait for food, and that sort of stuff. So, the demographics, and the sort of people you get coming to your venue, and where you situate it, makes a big difference in the food business. Especially in Perth, because it's so spread out.

Adam Zuchetti: And speaking of finding what people want and giving it to them, you also need the credibility behind that, to offer a credible product or service. Having the career that you did in elite sport, was it really difficult to build that credibility as a restaurateur?

Eamon Sullivan: Yeah, I think you still struggle to get the more, food reviewers' blessing. Something I've picked up on is, most food reviewers don't like ... Not that, I don't call myself a celebrity, but they don't like those people, and that's what I was referring to with having that credibility, coming off MasterChef. It seems to me, they don't favour past sportspeople or celebrities-

Adam Zuchetti: Anyone with a name behind them.

Eamon Sullivan: They tend to gravitate towards small 20-seat bars, and chefs that have done it tough and come out with creative food. So, I guess that's what ... Obviously we've got Steve Hooker and Jamie Dwyer who are part-owners as well. It was a plus for us, we were able to get quite a bit of publicity, obviously, when we launched Bib and Tucker and May Street Larder, and sometimes, it can either ... You've got to be confident in what you're serving, and for us, what we look for is repeat customers and staying busy. Getting a good review from a food critic is well and good, but for us, we just want to build a sustainable business and have people coming back, that's our main focus.

                And it comes down, again, with the same thing, of do we want to be recognised for doing fine dining food, that in reality people actually don't go out for anymore, because it's expensive and more of a special and unique occasion? Or, do we want to create something that's still close to our heart, passionate, and that people will come back for weekly.

                And I guess that's where the fine line is, whether you try and crave the attention and the feedback from food critics, or you crave the attention and the repeat business from your customers. So sometimes you just have to leave your ego and what you're passionate about behind you, and actually think about what the people that are coming to your venue, establishment, want from you, and what they're going to come back for on a regular occasion.

Adam Zuchetti: It's an interesting point that you raise, because a lot of people think because of your profile and the publicity you've achieved, you've basically got it all set and given to you, but you've just said, "Well actually, no, in terms of the critics in particular, they're quite harsh against us." But from a customer's point of view, and particularly repeat customers, are they really difficult to achieve? Because there's potentially a novelty factor: "Oh, wow, we can have a meal cooked in a restaurant owned by a famous swimmer," and it's just that bucket list thing, rather than seeing you as a legitimate honest business?

Eamon Sullivan: Yeah, I suppose there could be part of that. And also part of that as  well is, they come there with their expectations as well, because we have got a lot of publicity, and probably more than most. We're very lucky to have that, obviously. And sometimes they'll come and expect a lot more, and sometimes be disappointed, expecting more than what we actually offer. But it's hospitality, and that's what it is. It's open to interpretation. And that's what you've also got to realise, is that some people aren't going to like what you're doing, and you are going to get negative reviews, and you can't do everything perfectly every day. Your staff make mistakes, you make mistakes. Something gets overlooked, and someone has a bad experience, that's the nature of the business.

                And obviously, social media and Zomato, and those sorts of apps, have highlighted that, giving people a voice to be much more vocal, and get that airtime, and bloggers on Instagram and all those sorts of things. I think moreso than food critics, the voice of many people now, that restaurants in general, not just us, have against us, is you've got to be on your game every day, because now everyone has access to basically be a food critic, and promote their views to all their followers and friends of friends. It's changed dramatically since we first opened in 2013, when it was really only ... What was it called, not Zomato, pre that. That was big back then, I forget ... What was the app called before Zomato?

Andy Scott: That's the world of apps, here today, gone tomorrow. But yeah, I wanted to ask about that, because obviously you've hit the nail on the head there. By the nature of providing service, you can't please all the people all the time, but the ability for people to amplify their bad experiences now, or even their disappointment, is much higher. You obviously will get, at some point, bad reviews, on these social channels, be they through professional critics, or wanna-have-a-go amateurs. How do you deal with that as a business?

Eamon Sullivan: Well for us, we just try to deal with it on the spot. There's quite a lot of research, actually, into, you actually get more customer loyalty if you make a mistake and show the customer you can resolve it, the customers are actually more loyal than if the mistake never occurred. Which struck me, because for a long time, staff are always like, "They were just a pain in the arse, complaining about everything." And we started changing our approach. Instead of thinking you've got grumpy table, make it a game, and see if you can make them happy before they leave, instead of just putting up with them, and dealing with it, and not engaging with them.

                Actually try and, not kill them with kindness, but make it a game, and say, "If I can make them leave here happy with what we've done by accommodating them, and listening to them, and actioning their feedback ... Either agreeing with them and fixing it, or saying, 'We'll take that on board and improve on it next time,' and comp a round of drinks, or ..." Do something that gives the gesture of saying, "Look, I understand that you're not feeling like you've had a great experience, but can we do this, or can we do that?".

                We've actually found we've had a lot less negative feedback going forward if we deal with it at the time. So instead of just going, "That's a grumpy customer," and they let them walk out the door, we speak to our managers, and we talk about what we can do to shift their mindset from being grumpy and being negative about something, to walking away with something positive happening within that service. So we now spend a lot more time looking at customers, and dealing with people that seem like their off side, and we get daily reports of that sort of feedback from customers, and what was done about it.

                Now our staff, instead of just ignoring it, and after the service telling the manager, they come up to them during the service, and talk about how we can fix it. And most of the time, our customers either leave happy, or even then, we still get the odd one that will write an email to you after. But we've found we've had less and less negative feedback because we deal with it on the spot, as opposed to letting them walk out the door in a bad mood.

Adam Zuchetti: That sounds like something that you've really learned. There was a potentially a mistake there, and you're like, "Okay, we can learn from this," and now you've adapted your processes to learn from that mistake. Are there any other really big mistakes that you've made in business, that have been a really big learning point for you, and have made a real fundamental difference to the operation of the business?

Eamon Sullivan: That's a good question. For me, it's probably sometimes stepping back too much. I think at the time, when I first started, saying I didn't want to micromanage. And I've put venue managers in place, so I'm not the day-to-day, because I do have a busy lifestyle, I'm sometimes in Perth, sometimes not. I think, not putting a system in place to monitor the system was probably a mistake I made. I wouldn't say it was a huge mistake, but sometimes you create a system and go “Oh well, This'll take care of itself now," and you turn your back and walk away, or you don't monitor on a regular occasion. And then, when you revisit it, sometimes a month or however long later, and it's not operating how you want, and you'll go to them, and get your back up, and have a conversation with someone, without realising it actually should have been your responsibility to check with them more often and give them positive feedback.

                I think, for me, giving our staff more positive feedback than negative has resulted in getting a lot better staff and a better team culture. The hard thing for me coming out of sport, was swimming was a team, but at the same time I was very individual, and I was always responsible for my own performance, and I had no one else to blame but myself. And coming into hospitality, you are a team, and the people that are responsible for its performance are completely out of your control. You can't stand next to them when they're taking orders and make sure they're doing it the right way, or correct them.

                You've got to give that trust, and training, for them to be able to do a job that you will ask them to do, which is the system. But if it doesn't go well, I always would be angry at myself. But if someone isn't doing something that you want, I've found over the years that if you take the negative approach too often, it's in one ear and out the other, and they don't try to improve. Whereas, I'm getting a bit nerdy about it, but we did a course called Brainboss. It was about how our brains have a negative bias, and we're hardwired to give negative feedback as opposed to positive. Apparently the studies show that you need to give five positive comments for someone to receive one negative comment in the right way, and actually improve on it.

                So, for us, our staff culture sometimes could get a bit negative, because we would seem to always highlight mistakes as opposed to highlight things that they were doing well. It's made a huge difference for us, just a simple different way of thinking. Our motto now is catch someone doing something right, as opposed to catching them doing something wrong. So we've started a staff newsletter, and we highlight people doing really well, we give out awards every month for staff values, people that are putting in that extra effort or going above and beyond. We broadcast that to all of our staff, and we've got a little comments board on our staff board, and people give other staff members compliments, give them a bit of a pat on the back for doing something.

                And everyone would get to do that. And since we've done that, the staff, we're not seeing them as a commodity. They're not just there for us to make money, we actually do value them. They are obviously our salespeople, and for us, we try to let them know that more often now. And I think if you don't, sometimes they turn up thinking they're just going to, work them to the bone today, and this and that. And the reality is, for us, the way Fair Work's going, our wages keep going up and up each year, and a 3.3% increase this year. We either need to get 3.3% productivity out of them, or try and find a way to cut our losses by 3.3% to tie it to the same wage cost.

                So for us, it's, with all these things going against us, and everyone in the business, we're thinking about how we can actually empower them, and motivate them do want to be there and to do a better job, and go back and get that second drink, and improve that spend per head. So, taking a more positive approach to the negative things that are happening in our business, and also just treating our staff with a bit more positive compliments more often.

Adam Zuchetti: Mate, I think you've hit the ball out of the park with that one, and just the approach that you can make, and the difference that you can make, simply by changing your thinking about feedback and those problems. And correcting the problem there and then, rather than letting it become a bigger and bigger issue as time goes on. But, speaking of time, I think we're pretty much out of it, but Andy, do you have anything that you want to add before we wrap up?

Andy Scott: No, not at all. Eamon, thanks for being open with us, mate, and yeah, telling us about what you've learned, and I wish you every success in the future. And next time I'm in Perth, mate, I'll have to swing by and try and hit you up for a free coffee or something.

Eamon Sullivan: Yeah, definitely. It was my pleasure, it's always good to have a chat about it, and I think sometimes when you talk about this sort of stuff, you're reinforcing for yourself what you're doing, and every time you talk about it, it motivates you a bit more to really be a bit better at what you do. So thank you guys.

Adam Zuchetti: Yeah, no worries at all. As usual, we'll get plenty of stories up on the site following today's conversation, so it's mybusiness.com.au. If you've got any questions that you would like us to pass on to Eamon Sullivan, or any questions for us, or indeed you'd like to come on the podcast yourself, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is the place to go. Tune in again next week.



Exclusive peek at 3-time Olympian’s budding business empire: Eamon Sullivan, restaurateur
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Adam Zuchetti
Adam Zuchetti

Adam Zuchetti is the former editor of MyBusiness and a senior freelance media professional, specialising in the fields of business, personal finance and property. In 2020, he also embarked on his own business journey – inspired in part by the entrepreneurs and founders he had met through his journalistic work – with the launch of customised pet gifting and subscription service Paws N’ All.

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