...telling Gerry Harvey “I could do it a lot better."
Although Kon was born in Wollongong in 1960, when he went to school at age five he could speak no English. He was fluent in Greek and he was one of the few Greek children at the school. “It was quite daunting for me and took me a while to learn English.”
His father had seen tough times as a farmer then soldier in war-torn Greece, and started work in the steelworks at Port Kembla when he first came out to Australia. “My dad was always a farmer in Greece, on an island called Samos. He then worked for the steelworks at Port Kembla. He ordered his wife off the wall in the barber shop as an arranged marriage. He left the steelworks and bought a farm in 1966 and moved his young family to Kemps Creek.”
Kon recalls it was a very tough existence. “We started doing vegetables and we planted 20,000 tomatoes. It was my day-to-day job to be responsible from a very early age for watering the tomatoes .I vividly remember starting at 3.30 after school and finishing at 9pm, and I worked like a dog. I got more than a work ethic, it was at another level. It was pretty difficult.”
It was a childhood full of hard labour and, as Kon recalls, “it was relentless for 15 years. All I can remember is working every day; working on pigs, strawberries or tomatoes. Being brought up in the country gives you a different perspective and I have a lot of respect for hard work. My dad was very tough, having been a farmer then going through a war and migrating.”
The entrepreneurial streak began to surface during those time though as Kon began to aim for better outcomes. “For years we were working seven days a week, going to the markets at Haymarket. Dad would load me up with cases of tomatoes so I could sell them to people in the street. That was my first experience being an entrepreneur. I quickly worked out I could split a box of tomatoes into two and I could make more money doing that. I always looked for angles and ways to make more money.”
Kon’s father then started a piggery with three or four hundred pigs. “Then it was my daily chore to feed them every morning, before seeing the bus coming around the corner and racing to catch it – smelling like the pigs. I was still going to school every day, as well as working on the farm.”
The life of a farmer was extremely tough. Entire crops could be wiped out with one hailstorm and that happened to the Kalpou family two or three times. “My dad had to go to work at Inghams’ offal plant if the crop failed. I took the brunt of the labour, but my older sister worked extremely hard as well. It was a tough slog for a long time.”
School became a mixed blessing. “I hated school, but the way I look at it, school was at least an escape from working. I actually dreaded school holidays because that meant even more work at home. I was always so tired, working for hours before and after school. The only pleasurable things I found at school were mathematics and architectural drafting. I loved the art and drawing; creating.”
Kon recalls there were “some other ethnic kids at school, mainly from farms. We all worked hard and so we were pretty tough, and we learned to defend ourselves, but we were always getting into trouble.”
Kon didn’t complete Year 12 because school didn’t appeal to him. “I did what mum and dad wanted me to do, which was mechanical engineering. I tried it for two terms and failed a lot of subjects and then I decided to do what I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always had a passion for design and I enrolled in architectural drafting, finishing at Granville Tech.”
At the end of his studies, Kon got a job in drafting, however it took him two and a half hours on public transport to travel to the office in Neutral Bay every day. Again, his days became very long. “No way in the world kids these days would bother doing that.” He lasted ten months in that role.
Whilst at Tech, Kon had seen an ad on the noticeboard for an architectural draftsman at Norman Ross. He applied, had a great interview and got the job. That was the beginning of a long term career with Norman Ross the predecessor to Harvey Norman. “I started doing all the basic work until Alan Bond bought the business and I had a six month break. I then took a job designing and selling top-end kitchens to the rich and famous in Surfers Paradise. I was earning big money and only working three days a week! For me that was the start of believing I could do anything, and it had me on the path to where I am today”.
The association with Gerry Harvey from the Norman Ross days then resurfaced. “Gerry Harvey called about ten of us, saying he wanted to get back into retail, and that’s when Harvey Norman Auburn started. I was involved in selling and design in the kitchen department, and worked with a chap called Don Harrison. At that point I was outselling the whole team by 10 to 1. After a while I got bored and decided I didn’t want to sell anymore.”
At around the age of 23, Kon took a very big risk in telling Gerry Harvey “I could do it a lot better. He laughed at me, but he took me on, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was quite cocky, and Gerry could see that, but he also knew I could do it. Gerry was very intuitive when assessing people for jobs, and was always interested in peoples’ backgrounds.”
Kon ran Harvey Norman Renovations for eight-ten years, and then started to notice the changing fashion in Europe, Milan, and New York when he went to the expos and trade shows every year. “I saw this product Caesarstone, and I got excited, jumped on a plane to the factory in Israel, and gave them some tips about colours and design. I came back, telling Gerry I wanted to run with it here and he asked ‘what do you know about distribution?’ Because I was so passionate he decided to give me a go. It was a huge success.
“Initially that product was brought in just for our kitchen company and then competitors wanted to buy it, so I started distributing to competitors in NSW, and it just grew by 100% every month. Gerry and I ran it together; he backed me. We then went into other states and established a national distribution and profile. I looked at the industry; at marble, granite, Laminex and other generic kitchen products. I looked at how they were doing it, and thought I could do it better, and we did. I had kitchen reps and architectural reps and then I mimicked it Australia-wide. Then I went to Singapore, Shanghai shows and expos, and before we knew it we were doing 150-200 containers a month.”
In retrospect, Kon says “I always thought the sky was the limit, but I would have never imagined it could be that big. The thing just went like a rocket and became a household name, and we went along for the ride.”
When Kon is asked about risk, he has some sage advice. “I always look at the worst possible scenario and remember my childhood and how hard I worked, and realise I’ve got nothing to lose. It was a risk, and in my earlier days I would have taken a big risk like that 90 per cent, but now I might take only a 60 per cent risk, because I know a lot more.”
Predictably, Kon looks up to Gerry Harvey more than anyone else in the industry. When asked, Kon nominated two major turning points in his life. “One when I left home, ready to fire, and the second was meeting Gerry Harvey. I can’t even describe him, the bloke is amazing. It’s been very difficult for the last few years not being able to work with him, he was so helpful to me.”
Their tastes didn’t always align though, as Kon relates. “The banter we’d always have is that he has the worst possible shoes money can buy, and he would say I wore the most expensive shoes. So I’d always take the mickey saying he has no fashion sense. We had a beautiful relationship. He still washes his own car – Gerry’s always done that.”
In summary Kon comments that, “I worked with Gerry Harvey for 25 years, and he’s been the best mentor and father-like figure I’ve ever had. Even if he yelled at me, I’d be one of the few people to stand up to him and fight back.”
That success with Caesarstone eventually led to another turn of events. “My biggest mistake was branding someone else’s product so successfully in this country. Caesarstone in Israel took the company over. I had a three year non-compete clause so I decided to have time off and we all lived in Greece for a few months. As the kids were still young, it was fantastic. They learned to speak a little bit of Greek, and we were able to relax and look back and what we’d achieved.”
When the family returned, “I did some building in Cronulla, renovating and sub-letting properties. I did that for a couple of years, but it wasn’t enough for me. After working with Gerry for 25 years, I wanted to be more challenged. It was a conundrum.”
After the completion of his non-compete clause, Kon had a conversation with Ron Ferster who owned Smartstone, then a smaller competitor to Caesarstone. “I’d known Ron for ten years; we shook hands and said let’s have some fun. He is a terrific partner and we’ve been building this business for the last five years and had massive growth year in year out.”
Business partnerships are often seen as challenging and Kon can proudly boast that, “I’ve only had two business partners in life and they’ve both been great ones.
“I wanted to have a point of difference, and didn’t want to compete with Caesarstone, I looked at the category and there’s plenty of growth to come. This product has lots of potential; it doesn’t scratch or chip. So I had to reverse the very psychology I had used a few years ago to destroy the traditional marble and granite market. I decided to get into a veined product, which looks fantastic.
“Today people are over bland, pale beiges and whites. The look has changed, with a big emphasis on nature, so what better way to approach it than by creating a man-made but natural-looking product? Lots of products are similar, but we have the sharpest looking vein products available.”
For Kon there are always good times and there are always bad times too. “The good times have been launching new products and getting them into the market successfully. The bad times are the supply chain and exchange rates. When we started it was parity and for the last six months it’s been on a slide. It’s something you have to manage, and monitor the market. You have to be clever about it. That’s probably the hardest challenge, growing quickly and having the currency going against you. It’s very difficult to predict. My gut feeling is that it could go either way, but I feel that we’re at the bottom of it, and I’m quite confident about that.”
And what does the future hold for Smartstone? “Short term we’ll be market leaders in what we do and that’s our goal. Every 12 months, I revamp my whole product range. I keep a very tight list of about 24-26 colours and we look very closely at fashion and what’s moving. I refuse to flog a dead horse; if it hasn’t moved in six months, we move on. I look at the fashion and ceramic industries and that tells me where it’s going to go from there. It applies through kitchens, appliances, tiles, and right through to stone.”
What is Kon’s definition of success? “Success for me personally is being proud of creating a household name product, and being a cut above everybody else. I’ve had success a couple of times, but there’s always a new challenge. My motivation is to become a generic household name – that’s a massive passion for me. The monetary thing doesn’t drive me. For me it’s being proud of something I’ve done, and to be as well known in the market as Caesarstone. The purpose is to get the product to work, and as quickly as you can.”
How does Kon manage staff? “I’m a master at delegating. If I could get away with working only three days a week I would. I try to surround myself with people who are smarter than me in each area. Individually my staff are all very intelligent people… they’re young and in this industry it’s important. The more vibrant people I have around me, the quicker the business will escalate. Most are very successful so they’re self-motivating people. They go to work with a purpose. You quickly work out who is self-motivating.”
Kon describes Smartstone as “a very unique savvy-designed quartz bench-top I feel will be the leader in the market. We’ve developed something unique which is revolutionising the Australian market very rapidly, and for us it’s about getting it out there as soon as possible.”
When asked to nominate people in business he respects, “that would certainly include Gerry Harvey. Spending 25 years with him was like doing five degrees at any university, and going through that education with him has been an absolute honour for me. It’s taught me everything I ever need to know about running businesses.”
What were the key lessons in working with Gerry Harvey? “To be very honest and work in an ethical way, especially when dealing with people, and the second tip is to take the risk – hedge it your way, rather than being conservative, and thirdly, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.”
Kon is delighted to sum up by saying “I love what I do because I’m actually designing and creating something unique. Any time you can do that and be first in the market is a massive achievement for me, especially being able do it on a national basis.”
“I think empowerment and enabling people is the greatest gift you can give and I really think that it’s important to give back to others and pay it forward. I know there are a lot of people who have helped me on this journey and I’d like to be able to help others as well.”
- “At one point I was working five jobs.”
- “I really wanted to help others to not feel as lost as I did.”
- “Success looks different to different people”
- “It’s important to be passionate about your work. You’ve got to love what you do.”
Kon Kalpou grew up with hard work, underpinned by a work ethic like no other. Selling at the produce markets from an early age, and later teaming up with Gerry Harvey for 25 years only added to the potency of his retail success. Now he’s revolutionising Australian interior design and turning it on its head for the second time.