"Within a year he’d lost everything."
“Complete Office Supplies (COS) was started some 40 years ago,” he says, “and now has over twenty thousand products and seven distribution centres around the country. Our core promise is: ‘Give us an order today, and we’ll have that delivered to you tomorrow morning’. In the corporate world, we deal with companies like KPMG, One Steel, Freehills, accountants, professional services, and other major firms. It’s who we can service the best and where we’re most capable.”
Dominique was born in Alexandria in Egypt. “It was a beautiful city on the Mediterranean Sea and I hada comfortable childhood. Both my parents were orphans so I didn’t have grandparents or aunts anduncles. It was just me, my mum and dad and my sister. For the first ten or so years everythingwas perfect. I then started to notice what today we would call religious discrimination. Not much later, my father got us together and said he’d made a decision that the bestthing for this family was to leave and immigrate to a place called Australia.”
Dominique’s father chose Australia because he knew one person who had immigrated there two years earlier. “It was clear that Christians were no longer welcome in Egypt. We were very lucky that the Pope at that time had said that anyone wanting to flee Egypt could have their trip funded to a country of their choice. We’re talking 1967 duringthe Six-DayWar.”
Happily as a child, Dominique didn’t see the violence directly, however he recalls, “mymother had stones thrown at her in the street – itwas not a great place to be at the time. It was very, veryscary. One day the sirens went off, and I remember being terrifiedand not quiteunderstanding why there were planes overhead or why they wanted to blow us up. It made nosense.”
The journey to Australia was an adventure in itself. It took 45 days to travel toAustralia because the Suez Canal had been bombed and blocked as part of the war. Even afterthey disembarked and settled in Sydney, life was not as easy as they’d hoped. “When wefinally arrived here, my early days in Australia were horrific. I went to school in Randwick,and back then boys like me were called ‘wogs’ and we were laughed at and occasionallybeaten up. It was quite difficult to reconcile why my father brought us here for a better future and we were getting punched up and called names. I struggled with that for quite a while.”
To make things worse, financial resources were very limited initially. “We didn’t have a lot of money in Egypt.You couldn’t take much money out of Egypt anyway. Back in 1967, as a family of four, wewere allowed to take only US$90 out of the country. Any other assets such as gold had to beleft behind.”
Dominique spoke French and Arabic. “Arabic was for school, but my core language and thelanguage I spoke at home was French.”
In Sydney, aged 13, Dominique had to learn English. “The early days were verydifficult given I didn’t speak the language at all. Sitting in class at school was painful. I was learning very little, so that led me toquit schoolwhich myparents were okay about.”
At 14, Dominique was keen to work and applied for a job as a telegram boy with the Randwick post office, but had to wait until he reached the legal age. His first pay as a telegram boy was $15 a week, all of which went to the household. “I got to keep maybe a dollar or so of it. Butthat’s what all families from overseas did. We operated as a family; all money wentintothe pot. At the time, my dad was working as a Storeman for the Australian Navy in a bigwarehouse in Randwick.”
For Dominique, other manual roles followed. “I then did a few jobs in factories here and there. Within three months my English wasalready much better than it was at school. I learned a lot of new words, and Iknew all the swear words first, as you do. As long as whatever I said was in English, Mumand Dad thought it was amazing.”
Dominique was unemployed when he saw a job advertised for a typewriter mechanic. “Ithought, ‘I can do that’. My father had a typewriter business in Egypt, so I thought I’d apply for the job. Thecompany said ‘thank you very much but we need somebody with real experience as amechanic’.That gave me the idea that maybe this was a particular field I couldfollow.”
Having seen something to which Dominique thought he could be suited, he applied initiativeand began his research. “I opened the Yellow Pages totypewriter companies and starting with ‘A’ rangevery typewriter company in town. By the time I got to ‘D’ this guy said ‘as a matter of factwe’ve been thinking about hiring an apprentice’ and to cut a long story short, they gave me a job. I loved that job as a typewriter mechanic. And it ultimately lead me to COS becausein the basement of that company was a stationery store. ”
The next stage of the journey beckoned when “I noticed something in that company which Istill remember quite clearly today. Iworked in the maintenance department, but just behind theglass wall wasa bunch of guys who seemed to come in and leave whenever they wanted.They wore suits and ties and drove better cars.That was the sales team!
“I made adecision that that’s where I wanted to be; onthe otherside of the wall. I went to my manager andtold himthat’s where I wanted to be and from then onI started acting like a salesman every day. I went down toReuben F. Scarf, bought two suits, two pairs of trousers, four shirts, a tie and socks for$49.95. I went into work every day in a suit and tie, just like those guys, but as a typewritermechanic.”
Dominique was determined to end up behind that wall at some point. “I kept on knocking at my manager’s door.It took about a year and a half and finally I moved departments,but Istill kept an office cleaning jobat night. On my first day as a salesman I made more money than theentire previous week and that was when I realized thatselling was my future. I did very well for that company. I became their number one salespersonin the country.I did better than any other person there, butunfortunately I wasn’t appreciated.I didn’t think they treated me the waythat they should have, so one Friday afternoon I spoke to a colleague andsaid ‘why don’t we just start our own firmand do this ourselves’. In three months we registered the name Complete OfficeSupplies. The company began tradingin Parramattain a tiny room about 3m x 3m. COS was born, and I was off andrunning.”
That was 1976, only nine years after Dominique landed in Australia.
Dominique only had one goal at the time; “To make the same amount of money I made as a typewriter salesman, but doing it for myself, and not have to deal with that horrible boss. It was about not working for the man. At the timeI didn’t really have the vision to run a bigcompany.”
Looking back on those early days, “It was very exciting. It was a new adventure,working 18 hour days; selling during the day andpacking during the night. Wedid everything.”
At the end of the first year, my partner had had enough andsaid, ‘I’d like to get my money out,’ For him it was a way topay out his mortgage and be debt-free.
I panicked a little bit because I had to find the money to pay him and no bank would have anything to do with me at the time. Finally,AGC agreed to lend me the money at an interest rate of 22.5%. I said ‘sold’, paid outmy partner and started to build the businesson my own. ”
In the mid-80sand 10 years down the track, “COS employed 15 to 20 people. I decided to expand into retail, and went to my father who’d just retired with his superannuation of$52,000. I said, ‘if you give me that money, I will make you a lot more money, because youknow I’m really good at this’. With that,he emptied his bank account andgave me everything he had.”Dominique was very proud at the time that his father would trust him this way, but within ayear he’d lost everything.
Pain was everywhere for Dominique. “I had people leaving me, my marriage was breakingup, and there were lots of fires all around me. I went to one of the big firms to get someadvice and they looked at my balance sheet and said, ‘you’re broke’. They told me to sell thebusiness and declare bankruptcy because there is no goingforward from here.”Dominique realised though that, as a result of what the advisor was suggesting, a lot ofother people would go broke, including the many suppliers he was not going to pay. Worse still, his father wouldn’t get his money.
He felt he just couldn’t go ahead with it.“On Monday morning, I calledthe company and said, ‘no deal, thanks very much’. I then met with every creditor, looked them in the eye, one ata time, and told them I needed more time; I’ll pay you eventually, just trust me. I’m going torecover from this. Most of them went along, some of them didn’t, and some of them are mybiggest suppliers today.”
Over time, Dominique turned everythingaround, paid his father back plus interest, and paid off hismortgage. “Dad had never given up on me. Whatever was dad’s was mine, and whatever wasmine was dad’s; that’s how it worked for many years. After he retired, he would come intothe office and help me do what needed to be done; small things, whether it was cleaningor stacking a shelf, he was always there ready to help me.”
Then the Internet started to appear over the horizon in the distance. “This crazy thing calledthe Internet shows up and people said that in the future everything’s going to be done online. I surveyed my customers, one-on-one,and I asked, ‘do you ever see yourselfbuying off the Internet and they said no, that’s just a fad, it’snever going to happen’. Only about10% of people said they could see themselves buying off the Internet in the future.”
Dominique could see the potential though, and decided to invest in new technology,promoting the site as a cost-savingdevice for corporate and government Australia, andslowly people took it on. “Today, if you don’t have a transactional site you are not even in thegame,” he believes.
As in so many cases, it’s about taking a risk and yet again, Dominique was willing to do that,despite his previous experiences. “The difference between the entrepreneur and the employeeis that the employee goes for safety, but an entrepreneur will sit on the edge, jump andsay, ‘I’ll work it out one way or another. Investing in the Internet was a risk thatpaid off.I put a lot of money into retail, and I failed. That’s part of normal life for an entrepreneur; you put your money down and then do whatever it takes to make it work.”
Dominique believes you have to experience failure in order to win eventually. “I often speakto young entrepreneurs and pose a question to the students in the room. I say, please raise your hand ifyou’ve gone broke. I follow that by saying if you’ve never been broke please do it asquickly as you can. Getit out of the way becauseyour education during that time ismassive.”
Once you’ve had that lesson of failure it’s about whether you’re “willing get back on thehorse and ride again.Many have a go, but go broke and retreat. The real entrepreneur goes broke, says I’mgetting back on the horse and does it all again. Sometimes they go back again and again, and eventuallyhave huge success. Success in business doesn’t happen overnight, it’s long termand requires lots of persistence anddetermination.”
Does COS have a company-widemantra they follow? “Our focus ultimately is that thecustomer is at the centre of everything we do, whether it’s in the boardroom, the warehouse,or in customer service. If what we do adds value to the customer, it will eventually add value to us. Theprofitability of the business isn’t the key focus; it’s a side effect of the value we add. If you keep giving more value to the customer, profitability should come naturallyand if it doesn’t, it means you’re not adding enoughvalue. ”
Today, in 2015, the COS client base is mostly large corporate and government customers. “We’ve just won the solesupplier rights for the Victorian government which is the biggest contract we’ve ever beenawarded.”
The market in this sector has changed considerably. Do the bigger players tempt Dominique?“Over time, big global operators have bought out the smaller family-runbusinesses, andnearly all of them today are owned by either Americans or Europeans. They’ve tried to eat meup many times too. They’re still trying today but, at the end of the day, I’m way past themoney. I could have been given a big cheque, but then what? I’ve got two daughters in thebusiness who are going to take it forward, so it’s really about the legacy of what we’ve beenable to do, having arrived from Egypt with only a few dollars. I’mvery proud to havealmost 400 families who now rely on us for their income and livelihood. ”
Dominique’s advice for someone starting out in business today is to “Get clear on yourstrategy, understand what you want to do and just keep doing it. I think at the end of the daywhat gets you over the line is absolutely sheer determination. Do it, do it again, and then do itagain. You’re more likely going to fail and failure is just an element of the success. Youshould probably count that you’re going to go broke at least once. ”
There are a number of people who Dominique respects. “The ultimate hero in my life is myfather. The idea of going somewhere on the other side of the planet without ever hearing ofit takes enormous courage. When Iimagine me trying to do that today with my family, I can’t even fathom such a concept. ”
In a business context, Dominique looks up to “Jack Cowin who brought Burger King/HungryJacks to Australia and went through some major battles to keep that brand here. He’s beenone of the most successful business people I know in this country.”
“Fifteen percent of everything COS makes is put into the foundation, and I’m hoping to give that kind ofmoney away within a few years, ” Dominque adds. Another area of interest is assisting indigenous Australians. “Recently we created a partnership between COS and Muru Office Supplies, a national indigenous business.It’ssomething I’m going to help build and grow into the future.”
- “Within a year he’d lost everything.”
- “Today if you don’t have a transactional site, you are not even in the game.”
- “Success in business doesn’t happen overnight, it’s long term and requires lots of persistence and determination.”
Dominique Lyone faced bankruptcy. He borrowed his father’s life savings and owed money left, right and centre. Experts told him to shut down his office supplies business, but Dominique, who came to Australia from Egypt to escape the Six-Day War, isn’t a quitter. That’s history. Today, that same business has become the biggest provider of office supplies in Australia.