From Sporting Heroes to Franchise Fans!

By Business Franchise Magazine

This article appeared in Issue 3#3 (March/April 2009) of Business Franchise Australia & New Zealand

Being an elite sportsperson demands focus, commitment and hard work – much like owning your own business.  Anthony Koutoufides, Sam Mackinnon and Ben Tune share their franchising experiences with Donna Bennett.

Top sportspeople require many positive qualities in order to perform at their absolute best.  Passion, devotion and diligence are just some of the traits that can transcend to business ownership.  

Not surprisingly, great athletes can also make successful franchisees.  Although these legendary individuals have embarked on different franchises, each admits to first becoming an ardent fan of their particular brand.

Anthony KoutoufidesAnthony Koutoufides, former AFL player with Carlton Football Club, is equally known for his television appearances on Channel 7’s Dancing with the Stars and Gladiators.  Affectionately nicknamed ‘Kouta’, Anthony is not only a Souvlakihut franchise owner; he is also the promotional face of the brand.

Founded in 2004 by brothers Bill and John Fotiadis, Souvlakihut is an innovative and informal Greek dining experience.  Offering fresh, tasty and healthy authentic Greek cuisine, the menu includes souvlakis, meat platters, burger slammers, dips and fresh salads.

Anthony, now 36 years, was a regular Souvlakihut customer before buying his own franchise.  He explains, “I used to ride my bike from where I lived in Brunswick to my mum’s in Thomastown.  I’d ride past this place in Reservoir called Souvlakihut – it was always busy and I was always keen to go and try it.

“I thought it was the best souvlaki I’d ever had – they were magnificent!  I went in quite often, I enjoyed it that much.  I used to eat two large souvlakis every time and, after a footy game, I’d get my wife and we’d drive down there.

“The first time I went to Souvlakihut I met John Fotiadis”, he says.  “Straight away I spoke to him and said ‘I love your food; it’s fantastic’ and we started talking from then.”

Anthony continues, “I thought it was really well priced for the actual quality of souvlaki.  The meat is 100% lamb and chicken, and they’re flame-grilled, whereas the majority of souvlakis are not.”  Anthony admits people who are not educated about the Souvlakihut product may incorrectly associate it with the greasy souvlakis on offer at 3am!

“I’m a bit picky with my food being a sportsman”, he goes on.  “I’ve always looked after my health, so I thought Souvlakihut was just great.  When you think about it, it’s pita bread with fresh salads and 100% meat – to me, it’s a perfect meal.”

Anthony bought his 140-seater Souvlakihut in Lower Templestowe (VIC) with friend and former Carlton star Ang Christou, together with two other business partners.  Anthony says Ang also works regularly in the store but the other owners have full-time employment, helping out after traditional working hours: “One of our partners is a bank manager and the other is an accountant, so we did alright with the mix!”

The franchise opened in June 2007 and, says Anthony, “Everyone wanted to come and try it; so the first year was over and above what we expected.  We made a lot of mistakes but that’s something we want to eliminate as we go along.  We’re improving all the time.”

Anthony comments on his store, “It’s probably the biggest that Souvlakihut has at the moment – it fits a lot of people inside and we also have an outdoor area.  The majority of our business is takeaway but we do have a lot of families that come in because we’ve got a playground.  We’ve introduced new platters so when you’re eating inside, you actually feel like you’re dining in a restaurant.  We’re also getting our liquor licence soon.”

Working in the franchise at least 20 hours each week, Anthony says he is eager to help his Store Manager in any way possible, “I just go there and talk to people and help out in the back or the front, depending on where they need me.  I basically learnt my trade at the back and know the kitchen back to front.  I’ve rolled heaps of souvlakis in my time!

“To me, it’s like a getaway.  I enjoy talking to the customers.”  He says many of the clientele are either avid Carlton/AFL supporters or fans of his television performances:  “I’ve spoken to them all and it’s just been great.”

Married with two young children, Anthony enjoys spending time with his family.  He also has a real interest in finance, recently completing his studies, which were hard to complete while he was playing football.  “I’ve now got my Diploma in Financial Planning.  I reckon I started about eight years ago”, he laughs.  “Eventually I got there – it was a goal of mine to complete it!”

Anthony rates his greatest sporting highlight as playing for Carlton in the winning premiership team of 1995:  “It was a great time and era for the footy club back then.  It was unbelievable.”

Although he’s worked part-time in other industries, Anthony’s prior experience with the food sector was limited to taste-testing, “I never really had any previous business experience but the Head Office guys have given us an enormous amount of help and ideas.  With their experience, they’ve made it a lot easier and have always been there to guide us.

“Certainly with a franchise, I think you create more power with the more stores that open up, and you enjoy all the other benefits, such as a marketing fund.  That’s probably why a franchise was for me, because I didn’t really know enough about the food industry to just go and start one up myself.”

Anthony definitely recommends franchising but stresses:  “It depends on the franchise and where your passion lies.  Souvlakihut has been great for us – and I highly recommend it because it’s taught me an enormous amount of things.  But I’m a year and a half into it, so I still have a lot to learn.”

Ben TuneBen Tune, former rugby union player for the Queensland Reds and Australian Wallabies, bought his Bank of Queensland franchise in 2003, four years before retiring.

Now 32 years, Ben began thinking about a post-rugby career after he injured both his knees in 2002.  He comments, “That started the process of me thinking about life beyond rugby – it was a bit of reality check.  You’re doing it one day – you’re literally not doing it the next – it’s a pretty sharp transition.

“A lot of guys I know think ‘well I’ve played professional sport for 10 years – that’s given me nothing apart from some dollars’.  But when you sit down and think about it, there are a lot of qualities that are transferable and pretty useful.”

Ben has been involved in business since he was 20, owning a temporary fencing hire business for four years with his wife.  He says, “That’s what actually paid for our Bank of Queensland franchise.

“I had also worked with different organisations, but the idea of owning and being involved in my own business again had always appealed to me.”

The Bank of Queensland happened to be the Queensland Reds’ major sponsor, says Ben:  “I’d read a lot about the owner-managed business model and just started asking them questions.  I got to the point where I was confident enough to say ‘I want to look into this further’.”

A major factor was Ben’s utmost belief in the Bank of Queensland, having banked with them his entire life, dealing direct with his manager-owner.  He says, “Having that point of contact was the only way I knew how to bank.

“I’d heard a lot of other people whinge about their banks, but I had nothing but praise for mine.  The whole backbone of the franchise is the fact that the manager or the person you’re speaking to owns that franchise.  Obviously they’re extremely accountable for how they treat you.”

Ben owns his Bank of Queensland franchise with two business partners, Sean Ryan and Dimity Tune, his sister-in-law.  “They’re the experienced bankers as such”, explains Ben.  “Sean is our Bank Manager and Dimity’s the Senior Customer Service Officer.  They’re there every day and obviously very hands-on.  I was heavily involved in getting the business up and running.”

In fact, Ben was integral in putting the business plan together, starting the branch; basically getting it operational and cash flow positive.  He continues, “Now, five years down the track, I’ve stepped right back.”

The branch is situated at South Bank, a vibrant business and lifestyle precinct.  Ben comments on the location, “It’s becoming Brisbane’s second CBD and that’s what appealed to us.” South Bank is out of the city yet close enough for city visits, and enables the branch to service surrounding areas.

“One of the best things about the Bank of Queensland model is the fact you’re not limited by geographical areas.  Basically it’s tapping into and growing your own networks.  That way, you look after people and do the right thing by them; and obviously they look after you.  The word gets around and it’s basically how all good businesses work.”

The South Bank franchise now enjoys a very healthy client base and Ben say he no longer actively pursues customers:  “People come to me now and say ‘I’m looking for some lending, can you help us out?’ as opposed to me going out there and knocking on doors.”

Ben admits the early stages were challenging:  “The first two to three years where you’re not making much money is difficult.  It really tests your beliefs and resilience, because you’re working hard and you’ve poured money and effort into your business, and you’re seeing very little reward.  Just sticking with it was probably the biggest lesson I learned.”

Father to three boys under five years, Ben laughs that he’s fairly busy:  “I’ve always had business interests and been pretty good at managing my time.  It’s like anything, you prioritise things and family obviously comes first.”

On the weekends, Ben says he enjoys participating in track days:  “I’m part of a club and I’ve got a couple of cars I race.” Ben stresses he’s no daredevil:  “I’ve always been into cars.  I think if you get taught how to drive properly and you know what you’re doing, it’s not that dangerous.”

Ben highly recommends a Bank of Queensland franchise:  “The brand’s very strong.  I think it’s one of the only banks that’s holding its own, despite the fact that the market’s extremely volatile.  And it’s a good business model – everybody wins:  the Bank of Queensland wins; the franchisees win; the customers win; it’s all good!”

Sam MackinnonSam Mackinnon, one of Australia’s most celebrated basketball players, opened his Crust Gourmet Pizza Bar franchise in Hamilton (QLD) in January 2008.  The 32-year-old’s attraction to the franchise was initially as a valued customer.

The former Boomers’ captain and two-time Olympian explains, “I used to live in Sydney and was a regular at Crust.  Every Friday night I’d go to the Annandale store; I’d order my pizza and get a beer while I waited!  You’ve got to enjoy your food – and I loved it.”

Crust Gourmet Pizza Bar is unlike a typical pizza shop. Founded in 2001 by Costa Anastasiadis and Michael Logos, they identified a gap in the Australian pizza market and have become leaders in the delivery of gourmet pizzas within their local areas. Their aim was to change the perception of pizza, taking away the guilt factor and offering customers a healthy, great tasting product.

When Sam secured a spot playing for the NBL’s now defunct Brisbane Bullets, he moved to the ‘Sunshine State’ and says he struggled to find a suitable replacement pizza:  “No one was anywhere near as good as Crust.”

Sam says his search for a Crust in Brisbane developed into a business opportunity:  “Crust was looking to expand Australia-wide through franchising. It was perfect timing for me to transition out of basketball into a career.

“Franchising definitely has its advantages”, says Sam.  “It was ideal for me to get my feet wet and learn.  Crust is also something where I think the product is unbelievably good and healthy; all the cross-overs work really well for me, being a professional athlete.”

After the demise of the Brisbane Bullets, Sam signed up with the Melbourne Tigers in mid-2008.  He frequently travels between his Melbourne home and Brisbane to facilitate his Crust commitments.

Not only did Sam open the first Crust franchise in Queensland, he is also Crust’s QLD Area Development Manager.  His trips to Brisbane allow him to oversee his Crust franchise whilst also fielding enquiries from potential franchisees.

Unfortunately, last December Sam was diagnosed with a recurrence of blood clots on his lungs.  He admits his health concerns have altered his previous plans:  “It’s all gone a bit pear-shaped.  What’s happened to me over the last 12 months you probably could not have predicted.  It’s one of those situations where you just have to see what eventuates.”

Although he’s not currently playing basketball, Sam hopes to continue with the Melbourne Tigers next season:  “It’s a long time away so I’m able to focus all my attention on Crust, trying to develop the business and sell franchises.”

Father of two young children, Sam is married to Rebecca, former professional basketball player with the Sydney Flames.  The couple own their Crust franchise with their former Sydney neighbours, who now live in Brisbane.  The four have similar goals and circumstances.  Hamilton has its own store manager, but both couples take turns working in the store.

Sam explains, “We still go up there (Hamilton) as often as we can, so Rebecca and I do a lot of commuting and make it work.  On a monthly basis the four of us work out who’s going to be in the store each week.”

Sales in Hamilton are predominantly deliveries, but Sam says many first-timers order in person:  “Pizzas are prepared in front of customers and that’s our edge.  Once people realise it’s fresh and healthy, and that we prepare the ingredients every day, they start ordering from home.”

Since July 2008, Sam has been enjoying the added responsibilities of his area management role:  “I must admit things are progressing really well.  It’s a great learning curve for me and something I’m enjoying doing.  Basketball’s been so good to me for so long, I wanted to find the next career I could enjoy as well.”

Dealing with prospective franchisees, Sam uses many of the skills he learnt through basketball.  “Honesty is the biggest thing I’ve gotten out of sport.  With franchisees, I’m open with them.  I give them an honest appraisal of where we’re at and what we’re trying to do.  At the end of the day, I’m trying to get them involved in a business where I will be supporting them.  I want them to feel free to call me with any concerns.”

Sam would love to combine basketball with his Crust commitments, but only time will tell.  He comments, “If I just had basketball in my life, I think I’d be pulling my hair out and saying ‘why me, why this, why did it happen?’  Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, you just go onto the next thing and I’m lucky I’ve got another focus.”

Back in his hometown of Melbourne after a ten year absence, Sam says he is also keen to witness the resurgence of his beloved AFL team Carlton:  “With family, basketball and Crust, there’s not much time for anything else but I’m sure I’ll try to see a bit of footy."