By Penny Zalalas
Angela Vithoulkas is a well- respected Sydney business woman who has won numerous accolades including City of Sydney Business of the Year, City of Sydney Café of the Year, NSW Entrepreneur of the Year and 2007 Telstra Women’s Business Owner of the Year.
She has bought, built-up and sold over 30 successful cafés in the heart of Sydney and has an undeniable passion for helping others in the industry by sharing her knowledge, experience and insight with the small business community.
Angela exerts tremendous energy, enthusiasm and drive and if she isn’t serving up an espresso or latte at her award winning VIVO Café in Sydney’s CBD, you will currently find her campaigning with her ‘Sydney Matters’ team for the 2016 Council elections- in a bid to become Lord Mayor of Sydney.
Along with her team, she is hoping to bring fresh independent thinking to Sydney’s CBD with the aim of building a “world-class city that is smarter, safer and easier to deal with.”
We recently had a long chat to Angela about her business success, balancing the role of café owner and councilor, Greek upbringing, elements of Greece she would love to introduce to the Sydney community and how she plans on changing the City for the better.
When did you decide on taking a path in business?
I didn’t finish high school, I left at 17 determined to become a business owner and for me it was always going to be that way- destiny was going to win that war. My mother went into labor with me while she was serving customers in her business, but I must have known the lunch rush needed to get sorted before I made my debut. I was 3-years-old when I caught my first shoplifter and they were little boys- I was sitting in the shop when I noticed them taking lollies, nobody paid attention to me so I just grabbed a broom and started to shoo them away.
Tell us about your first business purchase & beginner mistakes?
My brother and I went into the family business together and it was called Chez Maurice. I discovered that a 17-year-old had a lot to learn about business and yes that took many years to work out. It was difficult being a leader when I clearly didn’t know that much, especially when the staff had more experience. Dealing with and managing people is always the toughest and most important aspect of any business or organisation- and that hasn’t changed.
How long have you owned VIVO Café?
We took over VIVO Café in 2002, it was bankrupt and barely staying open. My brother and I went in for a coffee and it took them almost 1 hour to serve us. It had a great location but wasn’t well run. Within a few days we had purchased it.
Key elements to your success in business?
Consistency is my goal – as part of our service and product quality, and as part of our team strategy. And we like to be innovative. We have always taken risks where others have pulled back, but still been realistic about achieving a good financial return. You face a lot of tough days in business, and we have always been prepared for the worst case scenario because my financial security is on the line each time I buy or sell a business. There is no crystal ball and no bailout if I stuff up. Just me. And I have a lot of people who depend on my good decisions being consistent.
What aspect of the café industry do you love most?
I love the autonomy and the fun, plus the freedom and excitement. In the three decades that I have worked in hospitality I have never once, not wanted to go to work. How many people get to say that?
Advice for anyone wanting to open a small business in 2016?
I didn’t get any advice when I risked everything over and over again – most people don’t understand when you have a dream and fire in your belly- I never had a business plan and I never asked permission. That said, I wouldn’t advise that type of behavior now but I would say don’t let other people’s negatives stop you- it’s good to plan, ask other small business owners who have walked in those shoes and work out who your real friends are- you are going to need them. Be careful about where you put your money, plus be responsible and measured about your risk. The world is more competitive and disruptive every day and being ahead isn’t always feasible. You need to be smarter in 2016, not just able to work hard. Your imagination is going to be what sets you apart.
Highlight of your career so far?
There have been two standout moments for me – winning the award everyone said couldn’t be won by a café owner, and winning an election everyone said I couldn’t win. The Telstra Business Woman’s award was a proud business moment, I didn’t even dare prepare a speech because I just didn’t think it was possible. I was delighted enough being a finalist. Then I remember saying in my opening acceptance speech, “I am a very proud Greek café owner who intended to take over the world – one coffee at a time.” When I was announced as a Councilor in 2012 after only running an eight- week campaign with absolutely no experience in politics or campaigning, I’m not sure who was more shocked – me or the press! Being a civic leader has been an honour. It’s nothing like business.
How has your Greek background helped/influenced you?
I’m louder, less reserved and you can see how I feel. I know the council has taken a long time to get use to my way of doing things, but I usually start a lot of conversations with “I’m Greek. It’s how we do things.” I’m proud of my Greek heritage, culture and faith. But I’m also proud and glad that I was born in Australia and lucky to experience two cultures without feeling like I have missed out on anything. I know I’ve worked harder because of my parents who worked twice as hard to help me and my brother and I believe our Greek family values have influenced my attitude and resolve to help people who haven’t been so fortunate. I view my civic service as working and representing the people of the City of Sydney. I don’t see myself as a politician.
When did you decide to pursue a path in politics?
I didn’t really decide to do it. I fell into it by accident, then ran with it. I’m a small business owner. We just do stuff.
How do you balance your work load- from café to councilor?
Balance is a myth in my life- it’s the imbalance that works for me. The café keeps me grounded and real, the council keeps me focused and opens my eyes to the world. I don’t have a system, I go with the flow, work around the challenges and run very fast between the Café and Town Hall. Eight minutes can see me going from managing floor service to voting on policy- some days are like that.
Tell us more about ‘Sydney Matters.’
I formed the ‘Sydney Matters Independent Team’ 18 months ago to contest the elections that are coming up on September 10. Our vision is to bring fresh independent thinking and make Sydney a smart, safe and easier to deal with city. We are seven candidates in total, including residents and business owners from across the city. My team includes two sitting councilors so we are experienced and determined to improve Sydney and make it the global city it deserves to be.
How do you plan on changing Sydney for the better?
It’s a good question and one I get asked almost every day. It’s time for a change in leadership at Town Hall to bring in new ideas, new energy and a brand new focus. Sydney has been left behind as a smart city in terms of technology and policy, our people don’t feel safe and council is difficult to deal with. I want to change all that. I want to introduce a smart city strategy that will address services like better parking solutions, install safety measures like activations, better lighting and additional CCTV. I also want to make sure that we transform the archaic methods that council has when dealing with our people, it should be easier to deal with council and it’s been difficult for far too long.
What do you love most about Sydney?
I have only ever owned businesses in the City and lived here most of my life. It’s the buzz and the hum. I’m a city girl. I love the noise and the activity and knowing there is always something to do. And a couple of good Greek restaurants as well!
Your biggest challenge living/working in Sydney?
I don’t feel I have any. I don’t drive in traffic, I walk to work and to most of my meetings. It’s the best place in the world – outside of Zakynthos, to live.
Do you travel often to Greece?
I used to travel there often, in fact I moved there to live in the late 90’s. It was an exciting time, I opened a restaurant, bought a house and a Vespa and learnt to sing every single Voskopoulos song. And just to be different, I love Greece in the winter more than the summer. It’s when the locals come out and the tavernas serve great local food.
Aspects of Greece’s cities you would like to introduce to the Sydney community?
Most of the world sees Greece as beaches and island life. They forget that Athens is a cosmopolitan city that has an intense cultural and artistic life. Food is what Greeks do – we go out to eat a lot, and love getting to know the establishments and the owners. Carnavale time in Greece and especially Athens is a fantastic time. It goes over a long period and besides being fun it’s great for small business. It’s like Christmas rush here in Sydney but for a month, not just a few days.
Athens doesn’t need a public holiday to get people out and about, that’s what’s missing here in Sydney. We need to encourage longer trading, economic support and less compliance so all sorts of businesses and cultural venues can stay open to make the city fun, a must see tourist experience and look after our locals too.
What part of the Greek lifestyle do you long for?
I was very comfortable on the island- I enjoyed the whole village experience while still being able to hop on a flight to Athens or Europe in just an hour or so. In Sydney a two-hour flight is nothing, and long drives and distance doesn’t bother us either. We are used to it. So I thoroughly enjoyed being able to have the best of both worlds – the relaxed island life and the super charged metropolis swoop in/ swoop out aspect to top it up. I miss those options.
How can the public support your campaign?
As an independent, I don’t have the infrastructure or financial pockets of the big parties, even though that’s who I’m competing against. I’m self-funding my campaign again, but I do need help. Each brochure mail out goes out to over 160,000 people at a cost of $40k, and I need to send it out at least 3 times. That’s only one aspect of the election campaign. We need volunteers for election day and pre-poll – around 300 (just like the Spartans) , we need support online to help spread our messages and policies, and most importantly we need people to VOTE 1 for Angela for Lord Mayor and Vote 1 for Sydney Matters.
P: 0413 611 334