He has walked the Great Wall of China alongside Olivia Newton-John in the name of charity, has a weakness for a good success story and loves sitting down to dinner with his family. Averaging 10-15 coffees a day, you would be hard pressed to find a greater lover of coffee than John Lazarou. Co-founder of The Coffee Club chain, Australia’s largest home grown cafe group, his cafes have provided a meeting place for people to catch up over coffee for over 25 years. Now with over 400 stores worldwide, he has yet to slow down.
Lazarou is also well known for his philanthropic work, being personally committed to many charities, as well as professionally with The Coffee Club, raising millions of dollars each year hosting an annual charity telethon ball for The Childrens Hospital.
GCT recently caught up with John Lazarou to talk about his incredible career, his love of coffee, family and Greece, and why he feels it is his duty to give back to society.
Where were you born and raised and where do you live now?
I was born and raised in Brisbane and have always lived here. Over the years I have had many opportunities to relocate and live in any of the other capital cities of Australia because of work. I chose to stay in Brisbane as my family and friends are here and it would have been difficult to relocate with 4 young children without the support we have here.
What part of Greece is your family from?
Both my parents are from the island of Rhodos, my father is from the village Salakos and my mother from the village of Istrios, I love my annual trips back to Rhodos as I have many relatives still on the island.
What was it like growing up in Australia as the child of migrant parents?
I grew up in the west end in the early 60’s and 70’s this suburb was full of mostly Greeks as well as some Italian and other European migrants. We were the majority at school and in the neighbourhood so I really wasn’t ostracised in any way, if anything the Aussies felt out of place as they were the minority.
Tell us about the birth of The Coffee Club? Is it true that at the time there was nowhere to grab a coffee with friends on a weeknight?
This is true The Coffee Club came about because my two partners Emmanuel Kokoris and Emmanuel Drivas were looking for a late night venue to have a coffee after a formal function. The Emmanuels’ and their wives were dressed in black tie and formal gowns and couldn’t find somewhere nice to have a coffee and catch up after their event. They ended up at a service station halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
Aside from The Coffee Club, where is your favourite place to have a coffee? What coffee do you drink?
My coffee varies depending on the time of day. I start my morning with two short blacks and then I change to maybe three or four milk coffees e.g. flat white or short latte and after that I’ll go to iced long blacks, I probably have about 10 to 15 coffees a day, and I always have a glass of water with my coffee.
My mother passed away two years ago but having coffee at her house was awesome it always came with food and a bit of a bitch session about maybe a family member who has done something stupid or even a neighbour who may have parked their car on the wrong side of the street. I really miss her. So, having coffee is not about where you have it, it’s about who you’re having coffee with and the discussions that go with the coffee.
What has been the biggest highlight in your career?
To some people my career has made me somewhat of a successful man but for me it has given me amazing and unique opportunities over the past 28 years. I’m lucky that my partners have always agreed with the various charities that I am involved with and I’m fortunate enough that we are able to support these charities and get involved with them not only with financial support but in a hands-on fashion.
Nine years ago I was one of 70 people walking the Great Wall of China with Olivia Newton-John to raise funds for the Olivia Newton John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, I walked nearly 500km in 14 days and at the end of the journey Olivia chose 10 ambassadors to continue with fundraising and drawing attention to the Centre. I was chosen as one of the ambassadors along with Sir Cliff Richard, Ms Dannii Minogue and a few other high-profile and very generous people.
To this day I personally continue to support Olivia and her fundraising efforts as well as generate awareness of their achievements.
What has been the biggest challenge, and how did you overcome it?
I’d say one of the biggest challenges for me in business was the transition from our little entrepreneurial business to a corporate business. As entrepreneurs we operated completely different with the small team we had at the time. We knew all of our staff, both in the office and in our stores. We probably had 5-10 part-time staff in the office and I knew everybody by name, where they sat, how they had their coffee. I knew their partner’s names and their children’s names. It’s completely different now.
As a small to medium corporate company now with over 110 staff in our head office there are people walking in our office that I don’t even know and we have around 8000 staff in our stores throughout Australia.
There are all sorts of policies and procedures which obviously had to be put in place so everyone knows what they’re doing and this also holds everybody accountable.
What has been the biggest lesson for you?
Setting realistic goals, as a younger man many goals were always set so high and almost too difficult to achieve in a timely fashion which led to disappointment and sometimes depression. Today as an older and wiser man I have learnt to set achievable goals and to celebrate each goal as it is reached with a new goal.
What inspires you?
Success stories are my weakness and a good success story is inspiring for me, I love hearing success stories from anyone who has been successful, whether it’s their personal life, business life, finances or any other achievement they’ve had. The definition of success is different to everyone and success also differs at the various stages of everyone’s life.
Who has influenced you the most over the years?
Wow, so many different people have influenced me in so many different ways throughout my life. One of my first bosses in hairdressing, Theo Raymond, taught me to be confident and if I was unsure of anything to never ever show it, confidence is an asset.
Another boss in hospitality, Michael Gambaro, taught me to befriend the customers, I’m a people person so this came very easily to me, but I watched Mr Gambaro walk the floor of his restaurant and he was like a rock star to all of his customers. Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be greeted by the restaurant owner. He had a way with people that made them feel special. I believe to this day he is the greatest restaurateur I have ever met.
My father’s work ethic is also in my DNA and I’m grateful for that also. He was a hard worker and a no nonsense man, and got the job done regardless without any whingeing.
What is one piece of advice you have received along the way that has stayed with you?
Always trust your gut instinct. When we opened a store in a Brisbane suburban shopping centre Brookside, I became very friendly with the centre manager. He was an older gentleman with many years experience of retail. I had coffee with him every day and would listen to his retail stories. He assured me there is no template for success, but to always trust your gut instinct. Ever since then which is now 23 years ago when a decision needs to be made I trust my gut instinct.
What are you most proud of?
Our family. We have four children and of course we love them dearly, they are not only beautiful in looks, (good genes), they are beautiful and good people. If they weren’t our children, I would still love to hang out with them, so in short, I am most proud of our children and the caring and loving people they have become. Needless to say while they were growing up I was working long hours, so I owe their upbringing to my wife, Maria.
Tell us about your philanthropic work? How did your involvement with fundraising come about?
I am a healthy and fortunate man, when we had children (and more so now we have grandchildren) I am always thankful and grateful that we are all healthy first and foremost, we have food on the table, clothes on our back and a roof over our head. I am conscious that there are families out there who are not healthy and who simply don’t have the bare necessities needed to survive let alone luxury items. I believe it’s my duty, as someone who does not need or want for anything to assist those who are less fortunate.
What are you currently involved in?
I am personally committed to Olivia Newton John and her team at the Cancer and Wellness Centre and assist with fundraising where possible. This is my personal commitment.
With The Coffee Club we are committed to all the children’s telethons in the country which raise funds for The Childrens Hospital Foundation who do amazing things for sick children. We are also actively involved with all of the special children’s Christmas parties in Australia, this is a special event for underprivileged and disabled children. We have supported both these causes for over 20 years and I host this event in most of the capital cities.
Who would you most like to sit and have coffee with?
Oh my that’s a difficult question, so many names come to mind. Elvis Presley, Jesus, Lady Diana Spencer, Michael Jackson, Noah, Phil Collins, Mother Theresa, Cleopatra and Mark Antony at the same time, Ned Kelly, Ringo Starr, The Virgin Mary. But i can only choose one so I’d have to go with The Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, that would be unbelievable.
How do you achieve a work/life balance? How do you unwind?
For many years I didn’t have a work/life balance, but now I have worked out what is right for me. I work hard and long hours throughout the year, we have family dinner once a week where all our family come over and we sit down as a family no phones, no television!
I have all of January off, we holiday on the Gold Coast with all our family. I may have a few appointments or work commitments through January but nothing too heavy. Every year we like to go to Greece for their summer and we like to incorporate a different place each year, that’s how I balance my work and home life knowing I will be in Europe for 8-10 weeks every year.
Have you always felt a strong connection to Greece? Do you feel like you have 2 patrides?
My first trip to Greece as an adult was in 1988, my father has 4 sisters which were all alive back then and I was fortunate enough lo meet them all and their children and grandchildren. My love affair with Rhodos started on that trip. Ever since then I have been back many times and I loved just meeting and talking with my aunties who have all passed away now, their children and grandchildren. We have a very strong bond which I love.
Needless to say Rhodos is a beautiful island and I also love to explore the many different aspects that the island has to offer. Once our holidays are finished it’s always nice to jump on the plane and head home to get back into my routine. So yes I do feel like I am torn between two patrides, both of which offer very different ways of living.