A flair for business

Migrants now run one-third of all Australian small businesses, according to the annual CGU Migrant Small Business Report, which also shows high levels of innovation and ambition among new arrivals.

The report, based on EY/Sweeney research involving more than 900 business owners, found 83 per cent of migrant business owners started their first business venture after moving to Australia.

Of those surveyed, 23 per cent started their business to try out an innovative or new idea, in comparison to 16 per cent of non-migrants.

The research also shows high levels of ambition and growth, with 47 per cent of migrant business owners aiming to generate higher revenue in the next five years, compared to 38 per cent of non-migrants.

One in three migrant business owners surveyed are planning on growing their business with new hires.

But the research also raises questions about whether Australia may be becoming less welcoming to new migrants, finding that those who have arrived more recently and Gen Y migrant business owners are more likely to report they have been impacted by racism or discrimination, or to feel their background has hindered their success.

Migrant business owners surveyed were more likely to feel they have difficulties attracting customers, with 46 per cent highlighting this as a concern compared to 41 per cent of non-migrants, and 20 per cent having trouble accessing skilled workers compared to 16 per cent of non-migrants.

One migrant who has been through all of this is Australian fashion and food icon John Hemmes.

Hemmes began his migrant experience with $20. Now, the Merrivale Group founded with partner Merrivale Brennan is worth more than $500 million.

Born in the East Indies to a Dutch Father, when WWII arrived in the form of Japanese occupation the eleven-year-old Hemmes was separated from his family and placed in a prisoner of war camp where he remained until hostilities concluded in 1945.

After reuniting with his family in Holland, a homeland he’d never seen, Hemmes journeyed alone to New Zealand, failing to make ends meet through menial labour, he resolved to return to Holland.

The ship he was travelling on, however, docked in Sydney, carrying him into a chance meeting that would define his life.

By the time they reached Europe, Hemmes and Merrivale were engaged, setting the scene for one of Australia’s most eclectic and successful business power couples.

Returning to Sydney to live in a garage, Merrivale began making hats which John would then sell to retailers in between shifts as a waiter. Through her artistry and his entreprenuership , they opened their own shop and kept expanding to develop the House of Merivale chain and, pivotally, the Merivale Fashion Hub, which combined hospitality and fashion to create an immersive shopping experience.

“It’s not being an immigrant that makes you succeed,” John said.

“Whatever country you live in… the key is having a hunger and passion to make the best of your life,” he said.

True as this statement may be, the statistics seem to indicate that migrant community is in firm possession of these qualities.

As immigration replaces birth as the highest contributor to our populations, the migrant community’s spark for business has the Australian government projecting migration to contribute $1.5 trillion to the economy by 2050.

Hungarian holocaust-survivor and Australia’s second wealthiest individual, Frank Lowy is another high-profile example of migrants who changed Australia through business. Born in Czechoslovakia, Lowy fled persecution to Budapest, where his Father was abducted by the Hungarian secret police and killed. Alone, Lowy made his way to Israel via France, then onwards to his eventual home in Australia.

Having built his fortune as a founder of Westfield shopping malls, which now boasts over 140 locations worldwide, Lowy has engaged heavily in philanthropy and sport. Through his roles at Football Federation Australia he has been credited for transforming football in Australia and bringing it to prominent attention in our culture.

“The philosophy I shared… was one of ambition – ambition to succeed, ambition to grow, ambition to move forward – backed up by hard work,” Lowy has said in explaining what it takes to succeed.

These are the most high-profile examples, the superstars, but everywhere there are migrants making their mark through their business acumen.

As our population continues to increase, old cities are spreading inexorably out and new ones are appearing from formerly quiet towns and suburbs. It is within this process that Malaysian-born migrant Maha Sinnathamby has risen to prominence.

Having grown up during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia, Mr Sinnanthamby has gone on to develop Australia’s largest master-planned city, Greater Springfield.

This area of outer-metropolitan Brisbane is the first of its kind in Australia, and is projected to home more than 105,000 people by 2030, with a professed goal of surpassing Darwin’s population in the near-future.

Similarly, “High-rise Harry” Triguboff’s Meriton apartments are changing the skyline and lifestyles of our cities in line with the need for development.

Triguboff’s immigration journey began with escaping North China during Lenin’s ascendancy in 1947, working in Israel and South Africa’s textile industries then as a taxi driver, milkman and real estate agent after arriving in Australia in 1960.

Truguboff used his salaries to buy and develop two pieces of land, one of which on Meriton street. Building upon his start, he has now overcome the troubles of his past to be worth more than $4 billion.

Perhaps less eye-catching yet even more effective was the business acumen of Richard Pratt, a Polish immigrant and generous philanthropist who died with over $4 billion in net-worth through the humble medium of cardboard boxes.

Pratt and his parents settled in Shepparton where he would go on to grow his family cardboard box business VISY from a two-story factory to an international powerhouse.

Even more meteoric was the rise of Russian immigrant Zhenya Tsvetnenko, whose SMS gateway service, which he designed in his bedroom while unemployed, established a $4 million monthly turnover after just two years.

Similarly, fellow Russian Ruslan Kogan grew up in Elsternwick’s housing commission flats before founding Kogan.com and becoming one of Australia’s most wealthy individuals under 40.

Even at the humbler end of business success, migrant entrepreneurship can positively impact our communities.

Moroccan Soup Bar owner Hana Assafiri operates with a particular flair for affecting social impact through business. Assafiri has utilized her position to change lives, hiring only disadvantaged Muslim women to run the iconic North Fitzroy restaurant.

She advocates this not as a practice of exclusion, but rather of positive discrimination which makes the restaurant a point of cultural contact for the community. Assafiri further developed this business philosophy through her internationally recognized “Speed-date a Muslim” program.

During these evenings at her Brunswick restaurant Moroccan Deli-cacy, guests were invited to participate in informal discussions with “brilliant and generous” Muslim women in a space “where people can ask any question they like about Islam”.

Assafiri believes such interactions can “set the agenda for the rest of the country on how to create a cohesive community and have respectful conversations”.

While immensely varied in their origins and fields of interest, these individuals personify the business strength of Australia’s migrant population, seizing upon opportunities presented to them or creating their own from very little.

Any clear view of Australia today shows the benefit to us all.

By Tom Danks