By Ram Khatry, Sydney
13 February 2016
”Australia is a land of opportunity” – one hears and reads the clichéd statement so often that many of us begin to miss the very spirit the words are meant to convey. Whether you are an international student struggling to deal with the separation from your family or a newly-arrived migrant trying to cope with the stupefying pressure of your backbreaking work, if you ever begin to doubt the powerful message behind these words then you must walk to 85 Hall Street, Bondi Beach.
There, that’s Nando’s Bondi, order your flame-grilled piece of succulent chicken, dip it in one of its legendary Afro-Portuguese sauces and look towards the counter. You will see a man in his 30th year briskly working the counter, chatting away with his colleagues and serving his customers in the most refined of manners.
He is not actually a staff of the chain restaurant. Because he is Nitin Puri. He owns the joint. But only 9 years ago, he arrived in the country with merely 800 dollars in his back pocket. That’s the only fund his mum and dad could afford to put in the wallet of their loving son before they put him on a plane to Sydney to chase the Australian dream. Just what thousands of bright young men and women in India do every year.
Nine years on, he owns the popular restaurant and is in soft negotiation with the Nando’s Head Office to buy another, possibly by the end of this year. He and his wife Mansi Puri also own three properties including their residence at The Ponds in Sydney’s north west that runs well past $1.3 million mark.
Since the Puri’s family, including his younger brother Aman Puri, took over the outlet on 1 October 2015, the sales have gone up 20% to the satisfaction of the top management of the franchise. ‘’A retail manager came from the Nando’s Head Office about two weeks ago and showed me some graphs and I could not believe that the sales have gone up by 20% compared to the same period last year,’’ Mr Puri said as he sat down to chat with southasia.com.au with guests milling around us, many of them still in their swimming costumes with sand sparkling at the backside.
What’s the secret behind the success?
The success probably comes from the fact the father of one is an accomplished manager with enviable track record. Prior to taking over Nando’s, he was a senior sales manager at Hollard Financial Services.
”I am from a typical Indian middle class family. I came here with 800 dollars in my pocket. I don’t know how my parents saved up the money they needed to send me here. Initial expenses were almost 200,000 rupees back then in 2006,” he opens up to divulge the stories of struggle in recent past.
Once he finished his Bachelor of Commerce in June 2005, he took up a call centre job in Chandigarh so that he could hone his English and also have a whiff of life in the west because his family always had plans to send him to Australia. However, because he could not secure a role in an Australian call centre, he ended up working in an American call centre.
Even getting through the process of documentation was too much, let alone getting the visa proper. He had to submit some documents multiple times before his papers were even accepted by the immigration officer at the Australian High Commission. When his application was turned down the second time, he gave up. But his mother did not. ”I thought it was just not for me, I told my mum,” Mr Puri reminisces the dark days of late 2005. His mother, however, always believed that it would all come through in the end and she carried on. She was right.
Once he arrived in Australia in 2006, he started working at a McDonalds for four months and then moved on to Coles and then finally at a call centre. He needed the jobs because he had promised to himself that he would never take another cent from whatever little savings his hard-working parents had. He worked hard to make sure that the promise remained fulfilled. He showed what he was made of when he got the first semester break from November 2006 to February 2007. ”I was lucky to get jobs in good places. I used to work from 10 am to 8 pm in the call centre and then work as a night-fill assistant at Coles from 10 pm to 2 am,” the now proud Nando’s franchisee told southasia.com.au. He laughs out when asked if he used those two hours in between his jobs to take a quick nap somewhere; apparently that’s nearly the time it took to travel from the call centre at Burwood to the Coles outlet at Riverwood.
He toiled away, without complaints, as he was determined to help his parents pay off the loan they had incurred when they sent him to Australia. He also needed to save up cash for his third semester which was due in 2007. The hardwork paid off giving the young man a deep satisfaction and a sense of financial independence, ”During those four months, I earned enough to be able to send money to my mum to clear the loans and even save up enough to pay for my third semester.”
His story is not isolated but representative of how immigrants build their Australian life, dollar by dollar, hour by hour.
It was around this time in the first quarter of 2007 that he moved into his own rented apartment with his girlfriend, Mansi Puri, ‘Who is my wife now,’ the man is quick to clarify! She would stand by him through the ‘thick and thins’ of his life as together they overcame one after another obstacles in the way of Mr Puri’s mother’s Australian dream for her son.
Despite a life filled with everyday struggles, hardship and sleepless nights, he managed to complete his Master’s in Accounting in October 2007. It was not the best of results, he says, but still ‘there were few distinctions and credits’. He is clearly being humble; for someone who worked two (not one) full-time jobs and had dinner on the public transport for four months, passing a master’s level examination with ‘credits and distinctions’ is nothing short of extraordinary. Only people with character can do it.
His real break into the corporate world came just a month later when he joined the National Australia Bank (NAB) as a foreign currency officer only to leave the secure permanent role to fulfil his parents’ wishes in October 2008. After living together for nearly a year, the young couple decided to travel back to India to tie the nuptial knot. ”My parents said you are coming home after two and half years, don’t come here for few weeks. Come for at least three months,” his mum ordered him. So the good son did just that, even if it meant letting go of the permanent role at the NAB because the bank was unable to grant him leave for three months.
The only saving grace for the couple was they had already gotten their permanent residency by that time. ”It was very easy to get PR those days. Still it was a big sigh of relief when we got it just before we left for India, thank God we said,” Mr Puri says as he shares his Australian story in the vintage-themed Nando’s he owns.
With around a year of life together in Sydney, the couple got married in Delhi at the end of the 2008 and returned back to Australia early 2009 where only a couple of thousand dollars waited for them, and joblessness for the man, ”Luckily, my wife had a job at Fuji Xerox as an account manager.” While Mrs Puri had a job, the husband was ‘taking it easy’ as he did not want to rush into another odd job. He was already a permanent resident and now he had a degree too. It was time to utilise the skills and knowledge he had gained at the Central Queensland University. It was time to reap the harvest sown with his mother’s 200,000 rupees and her indomitable spirit. When he could not find the ‘right job’ for two months on end and was beginning to suffer from a guilty conscience for throwing the entire burden of their still-fresh domesticity on his beloved wife, he took up a call centre position end of March 2009 but continued to hunt for that dream job.
When the right opportunity did come though, it came in plural number! In June 2009, he gave two job interviews in the same week and got calls from both financial organisations – NAB, a company he already knew and Hollard Financial Services. ”For five months I did not have a proper job and now two companies call and want me to work for them. Ironically, it was the most confusing time because it was extremely hard to make my decision,” he reminisces his struggle to choose between the already established NAB and a rapidly growing Hollard. Being a person with sharp business acumen, he eventually opted for the latter because he learned from a family friend that the company had started few years earlier with only four staffs but had grown into a team of 80 staffs by 2009.
”In retrospect, I played it right because at NAB I would have been a small fish in a big pond whereas at Hollard I grew as the company grew and I had promotions after promotions after promotions, literally every six months. I worked there for five years from 2009 to 2014,” he evaluates his time with the company which, among many financial products, sells Real Insurance. The company also turned out to be lucky for him and the couple began building a property portfolio. Within a year of joining Hollard, they bought their first property in Western Sydney in June 2010 and within two months they also bought a block of land in The Ponds where they currently share their house with their two and half year old son Ayaan. Ever since, they have not looked back, adding another address to their property portfolio.
So why did the young man decide to end his secure employment at Hollard where he was rapidly rising through the ranks to become a senior sales manager? ”By the time it was 2014, I thought it was time to move on and use my energy, experience and knowledge for something which would be mine, which is owned by me. So I seriously began looking for a business,” the ex-senior sales manager at Hollard said.
However, planning to own a business could be an attractive idea but finding a viable project to realise that dream is quite a challenge, he soon realised. Moreover, he did not want to fail because he had never failed until that point in life, and he could not fail this time too, specially because by 2014 he had a young family to look after. ”I was looking around, doing my research but nothing was clicking,” he said as he passed a bottle of sauce to a female customer. So he left Hollard’s senior position solely to prospect business ventures and carry out his research – a very bold step by any means. ”I did not know I could take that big a risk until that point in life,” he exclaimed. He knew that if he did not leave the job then he would never be able to transition into a business of his own. He knew it well because he had been toying with the idea since September 2013 and it wasn’t happening. So he called it a day at the Hollard.
February 2014 onwards, following his resignation from the insurance company, he started having series of meetings with business brokers. He got in touch with all kinds of businesses and franchises, from Dominos to Subways to Pizza Hut but nothing felt like the thing he gave up his lucrative career for. He used to have at least two to three meetings a week with businesses. Then finally he happened to look at the website of the brand he always loved and always went to eat out at – Nando’s! As Western Sydney residents and self-confessed ‘Bollywood Freaks’, he and his wife had been frequenting the city centres of Parramatta and Blacktown for ages (to watch newly-released Hindi movies) and almost every time they ended up eating at Nando’s. ”My wife would say that she would try something different every time we drove there but the next thing we knew was we are eating Nando’s,” he shares his love affair with the brand.
Why did he not try Nando’s straight away instead of spending months prospecting businesses then? Mr Puri had his reasons for not calling Nando’s Head Office in Melbourne straight away, ”We never thought we could afford to buy a Nando’s. I and my brother talked about it but without giving a serious thought to it because we always thought it was way over our capacity and would cost over a million dollars or something.”
When he finally did call Nando’s Head Office, he was directed to the owner of 79 Hall Street, Bondi Beach. There were ‘lots of interviews in Sydney’ and and a final interview with the bosses of the brand in Melbourne because Nando’s wants to make sure that they get the right people to own their outlets. They do not want just anyone with a million bucks to buy one of their restaurants and leave it to the mercy of the staffs. They want someone who is in the thick and thin of the business and who has a genuine passion for food and who enjoys captaining the joint. Above all, in Mr Puri’s understanding, Nando’s management prefers family-oriented people. He ticked all these boxes because he had a band of brothers and cousins in Sydney, not to mention his better-half. As a result, he was selected over a South African (Nando’s is a South African brand) and a Chinese couple that owned 15 restaurants across the country.
Now he cannot wait to own another restaurant as soon as one becomes available in Sydney. And looking at the 20% increase in the business at his Bondi Beach outlet, Nando’s Head Office has already said a big okay. ‘Now, we wait for something to come up in the market. We will own another outlet possibly by the end of this year,” the Indian Australian beamingly said.
The young restaurateur has another passion in his life – he wants to produce Punjabi movies someday. Entertainment industry is not totally new to him. He used to win drama competitions both at school and college levels and was keen to move to Mumbai or New Delhi to study acting. But again, being a yes man to his mum, he gave up the idea to come to Australia. He and his friends hosted a major Farhan Akhtar Night in Sydney in 2015 and has plans to do similar events in the future.
He does not have to worry about his 800 dollars any more.
He rather pays almost as much every week to each of his 10 odd employees. And what a team! It is a walking, working multiculturalism of Australia. They virtually form the united nations with tattooed students from Nepal to newly-arrived migrants from Chile and France. His staffs love working with the young owner because he does not treat them as his employees. And he showers them with smiles, and friendly chides at the most.