Unsung Business Heroes: Series Two
There’s a Kevin Costner movie about an ageing baseballer who pitches the perfect game; ‘For The Love Of The Game’.
At one point his career, the lead character hits an all-time low when he cuts his throwing hand with a power saw. As he deals with the likelihood of a premature end to his career, his girlfriend tries to motivate him by suggesting he look at his situation from a different perspective.
“Like when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” he yells in response. Costner’s character wasn’t interested in playing the mind game – his focus was totally on his injury, his career, his life. He’d plummeted into the deepest depths of self-pity.
Philip Iacovou loves movies, and even thought of a career in cinematography at one stage. There have also been several periods in his life when he’s related to Costner’s character. But after being dealt many lemons, he finally learnt how to make lemonade and his life has never been the same since.
“You always have to see the positive in everything,” says Philip. “You have to look for the solutions. Being solution-oriented has changed my life.”
Getting to that point, however, was a long and difficult road for Philip. Lemons were being thrown at him almost from the day he was born.
“I had a difficult upbringing due to my father’s early life. He was just nine years old when his father was killed in the war in Cyprus against the Turks. He grew up tough, and he saw every situation through gritted teeth, which made him angry and aggressive; he thought it made him manly.”
This was further accentuated during Philip’s father’s time in military service. “So, that was the environment in which my siblings and I grew up. It was tough.” Philip admits.
His parents migrated to Australia in search of better life, and while they left the war in their homeland behind, life didn’t really improve for Philip, his sister, or a third sibling; a brother who was born with Down Syndrome.
Philip recalls, “we came here as refugees with absolutely nothing. All my parents’ credentials were either lost, destroyed or burnt in the war.
“The one thing they did have was a work ethic and a desire to survive, so both worked two jobs, seven days a week. It was basically left to me and my sister to raise our younger brother. I was nine.”
In a version of history repeating itself, Philip candidly comments, “I was like my father in a way, nine years old and virtually fending for myself. I rebelled.
“I was angry at all the work I had to do, I was angry I had a brother born the way he was; I thought that was so unfair. The doctors said we should just leave it to God. He was in an incubator for eight months and when the doctors seemed to have given up, Mum decided to call in a priest and have him baptised. Amazingly, a couple of days later he was okay to come home. It was a miracle – I truly believe that.”
The pressures of life took their toll on Philip when he was 17 and studying for his trial Higher School Certificate.
The life-changing moment came when “I came home from school one day and realised I had just had enough. I packed a bag, left home and lived in my car.
“None of my friends knew, my parents didn’t even know where I was living. I still went to school, in fact I completed my HSC then got a few jobs, working at the Fish Markets and also for a cleaning company. At that stage life was just about survival.”
When Philip’s car became unusable, he lived on the streets for a while “and that was the lowest point in my life. I thought about suicide, the self-pity thing was taking over.”
Philip kept clean by using the showers at public swimming pools or gyms and would find places to sleep in secure car parks or in the parking areas of strata blocks. “I was destined to work in the strata field”, he jokes.
To keep himself entertained, Philip would go to the movies; “it was cheap and they became my escape, they helped distract me from what was really happening in my life. I would go from one cinema to another and I fell in love with the movies.
“In the process of looking for work I joined a talent agency and got a little bit of work as an extra in commercials, movies and television shows. If you look hard enough you’ll see me in one of the Mission Impossible movies.”
It was around that time Philip began to get his life together. He found a room to rent in Leichhardt and began the process of creating success from the years of living on the lemonade that life had provided so far.
He recalls, “I began to take control; I realised I was the cause of many of my problems, and over a period of time I applied a few mottos on how I wanted my life to be.
I decided I wasn’t going to limit myself as hesitation causes pain. I worked on not being complacent and started to understand the value of staying humble.”
Those were the keys to Philip reconnecting with his family, and joining the family cleaning business his father had started in 1995.
“My father took a risk and started the business as sole trader, naming it Lefand, which was a combination of his Greek name ‘Lefcos’ and my mother’s name ‘Andrea’. The business grew and prospered. I officially took it over in 2007 and thought we could do more than just cleaning.
“We added maintenance to what we offered and the strata companies with whom we dealt were happy given we were one point of contact for them to get more done. It wasn’t long before we were doing repairs, gardening and general handyman work; basically addressing all the needs of the residents.”
Philip made a conscious decision when he took over, to do things differently from others.
“I worked on building relationships with clients, not just the strata companies but the residents of those premises as well.
I knew if I could build trust with them that would be priceless.”
In an unusual analogy, Philip recounts that “I like to regard ourselves as the chlorophyll in the photosynthesis. We make the connection, then we maintain the clients; they plant the seed and we grow the crops, so to speak.”
As the business has grown into a building and facilities management company, “we don’t restrict ourselves to creating relationships just with the strata company that hires us, we build relationships with their clients.”
These clients are typically builders and developers, “so we speak to them, to gauge their concerns and needs, which typically tend to be the state of the handovers, the defects, management, pre-settlements and valuations.
“We thought, we needed to work with them to address those concerns. We fine-tuned what their settlements were all about, brought the residents in, took control of the defect management on behalf of the developer and the builder and started resolving a lot of their issues.”
Proudly, Philip can now say, “it’s proven to be a win-win for all involved, and has been a major reason for the growth and success of Lefand.”
There was a period where the business stagnated, and Philip was told he wasn’t offering enough. He felt as though there were elements within the industry trying to intimidate him. He listened and made a few subtle changes but refused to ‘sell his soul’.
“Our proposals were solid but we found we were losing business, so I approached a few people who said ‘Philip, loyalty doesn’t account for much these days, it’s about leveraging your name and what we can get on the side’. I found that very disappointing.
“I know my roots, my values and my principles, morals and ethics in life, and in business, and I wasn’t about to lose track of that.”
At the time Philip realised there was a grain of truth there and decided “I do need to leverage the name of my company, but I won’t be damaging that name so I didn’t get involved in anything that would hurt our reputation.
“I refinanced, took a major risk with the business and our personal finances; I became a member of the so-called ‘right’ associations and worked on networking to connect with the right people, for the right reasons without any kick-backs.”
Showing the inner strength which has defined his success, Philip states, “I won’t be intimidated.
“No one can deter me from what defines me or my business.”
I would rather collaborate with my competitors than get into a dog-fight with them. No one wins when it deteriorates to that level. If you knock one down another will pop up, so when does it end?”
Philip doesn’t see those offering the same services as Lefand as competitors; “I believe it’s far more productive to embrace them; there’s plenty of pie out there for everyone. Yes, I’ve been burnt once or twice by adopting that approach, but I’m not the loser. I don’t lose credibility, if anything I gain credibility and that helps my business.”
In a continuation of the family theme from his early childhood, Philip’s view is “God has been watching me and my business and I have faith in what I do and what I offer. That’s the big thing; having faith in what you’re doing.
“I have no fear opening my doors to anyone, even my so-called competitors.”
Philip’s goal now is to build the company to a level where it will be sustainable long after he’s gone. He believes to do that he has to involve his staff more in the running of the business and he believes that comes down to leadership.
“Over the last few years I’ve got better at working ON the business as opposed to IN the business. It’s about giving those who work with you more responsibility, giving them a sense of ownership. The great thing about it here now is that they not only see the vision they believe in it.”
Philip’s leadership style is defined by “not about telling people what to do. It’s mentoring them in how to run the business, letting them take the reins even if that means you lose a little control over some situations.
“Often they say to me ‘you’ve done so much for me, how can I ever repay you?’, I simply say: pay it forward.”
There have been a few more lemons served up to Philip as he’s built the business; losing twins boys was the biggest blow on a personal level, but he’s also survived a cancer scare, the passing of his sister’s fiancé to leukaemia and a car accident that tragically claimed the lives of two of his staff members.
Much of these events happened in a very short timeframe.
When reflecting on this, Philip comments, “I’ve discovered it doesn’t matter what life hits you with, you can stay strong and remain positive through any obstacle because love conquers and that’s something I didn’t realise when I was younger.
“Being passionate about people can help you overcome anything. Don’t take life for granted, which I think we do sometimes, and having a sense of humility helps you through any adversity.”
In a link to Philip’s continuing passion with the movies, he quotes a line from one of the Rocky movies as a final summation of his approach to life.
Philip recounts how Rocky is talking to his son about life and trying – as only Rocky can – to draw a parallel with the fight game. His words ‘it’s not how hard you hit back, it’s how you get back up and keep going’ are very much key to how Philip has lived his life and succeeded in business.
If there’s one piece of advice Philip could offer to anyone starting their own business, it would be to stay positive.
“If you’re not careful, you lose that positive attitude that inspired you at the beginning and you fall into the trap of creating your own problems. There are enough hurdles as you grow your business without creating more yourself.”
Honestly admitting, “hesitation and complacency can really slow you down, believe me I’ve been there” Philip adds.” My staff have heard it many times; ‘hesitation causes pain’ so avoid it.”
Philip also believes that, as your business gets bigger, and you’re employing people, be a leader, not a manager. A true leader supports those who work with him, he not only knows the way to go, he shows the way.”
It’s also important “to stay humble”. At Lefand we treat all our people as family and they can be as much a mentor to me as I am to them. Don’t be afraid to learn from others, whether they’re older or younger, employees or clients, your capacity to learn will ensure the success of your business.”
Philip believes the relationships he has with those who work with and for him have been crucial to his success.
“Don’t lose sight of how you work with others. If you really want your business to grow, your staff have to believe in what you’re doing, so involve them, give them a bit of rope and be prepared to pull back a bit so they gain confidence. It might mean they make mistakes, so show empathy rather than shouting and ridiculing.”
In a timely reminder to all business owners, Philip adds “remember, you probably made a few mistakes along the journey, so if you can learn from them, surely those working with you can as well.
“That’s probably the hardest part, seeing a mistake happen, but if you handle it properly, it’s amazing the impact it has on staff development, and on your business.”
Incredibly, given some of the circumstances in Philip’s journey to date, he says “I’ve been blessed in life. Yes, I’ve had setbacks – as a family we’ve faced tragedy, and as a business also – but it only makes you realise how much you can do to help others.”
Having lived with a Down Syndrome brother for most of his life, Philip and his business have been proactive in that area and also with organisations dealing with autism, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Camp Quality.
“At this moment, our main focus is Camp Quality and its work with children dealing with cancer.
We wanted to have an impact there, so now any of the sites for which we have contracts above 100 lots, we donate 10% of the value of that contract to Camp Quality.”
Philip also mentions previous work “Blue Dragon, a charity which helps educate children in Vietnam. They’ve done some amazing things over the last 15 years simply through educating, training and helping children get apprenticeships.”
- “You have to look for the solutions. Being solution-oriented has changed my life.”
- “I worked on not being complacent and started to understand the value of staying humble.”
- “I like to regard ourselves as the chlorophyll in the photosynthesis. We make the connection, then we maintain the clients; they plant the seed and we grow the crops, so to speak.”
- “I know my roots, my values and my principles, morals and ethics in life and in business and I wasn’t about to lose track of that.”
- “It’s not about telling people what to do. It’s mentoring them in how to run the business, letting them take the reins even if that means you lose a little control over some situations.”
- “Remember, you probably made a few mistakes along the journey, so if you can learn from them, surely those working with you can as well. If you handle it properly, it’s amazing the impact it has on staff development, and on your business.”
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