Finding the Hat that Fits: Matt Mclaughlin's Story
Written by Lisa Allan for PeopleNZ
I didn’t set out to be a millionaire. I set out to be a Primary School teacher. But perhaps that was never meant to be. Casting back to the moment of my birth I can see how perhaps the stars were aligned differently. Hi, my name is Matt Mclaughlin and I sold my business to set up my family and I for life. Money aside, the fact is that I can now spend time with the people who mean the most to me and work on a new project that is dear to my heart, more on that later. I can tell you right now that the Elevater had a huge part to play in all of this. Bruce has asked me to tell you my story, so here it is…
IN the beginning
I grew up barefoot, running around the football fields of the North Island of Aotearoa, New Zealand. I tongue-in-cheek refer to myself as an ‘afterthought,’ being the youngest child in our very cool, lovely family. My Mum and Step-Dad are the most hardworking people I know. They had to be, with six kids between them. I learnt that holding down two jobs was completely do-able and that a good work ethic was indispensable. I absolutely couldn’t have done what I have done without seeing them work day in and day out, everyday, for us kids.
...this industry was in my blood...
Inspired by my parents, I had my first job at 13. I worked in the kitchen of the classic Kiwi restaurant, Cobb n Co. Every Kiwi kid of the 80s and 90s will remember Cobb Crunchies and Traffic Lights. It was a young age to take up the flaming baton of hospitality but my family had laid strong foundations for me to step into. My Grandad ran the Wairoa Hotel for 35 years. My Mum was pretty much a permanent fixture at the Totara Lodge in Upper Hutt. My Aunt and Uncle ran breweries. I’m beginning to understand that this industry was in my blood, coursing through my veins and no amount of teacher training could ever have changed that.
FINDING MY FEET
But resisting destiny is all part of finding your feet. So, off I went to Teachers’ College and, some people will be surprised to learn, I am indeed a primary school teacher by trade. Like all the students I’ve ever known, I had the mandatory part time job. Mine, was in hopso. I was the doorman for Molly Malones, charged with keeping the riff raff out. The perfect environment for a student living for late nights and the buzz of a thriving Wellington pub scene.
It was my last year at TCol and I was heavily involved and happily distracted by my job at Molly’s. I bet you can imagine what the drawcard of hospitality was for a super social 20 year old man. And you’re right. It was girls and beer. It was the utopia of University lifestyles, I was in my happy place. Of course, this was all just a side note to my career as a teacher, I was always going to get focused, broaden young minds and make my parents proud.
The problem was, I got on really well with my managers at Molly’s. Two Irish lads who were on a mission. They bought Ecstacy Plus and transformed it into The Planet. And guess what? They took this 20 year old graduate along with them and I found myself managing the biggest night club in the country at that time. It was the place to go. I’ve done my dash with party days now (night shifts would be a struggle, I’d rather sit at home than go out for a drink these days) but those days were fantastic.
My family, needless to say, was disgusted.
I always intended to go back to teaching. Really, I did. I never thought of hospitality as a career, it was a sideline to the main event. But one thing led to another and I ended up working all over Wellington, managing various venues and working for Lion until one day…
THE BIG KUMARA / EARLY DAYS OF GROWTH
The year was 2000. An auspicious year for new beginnings. My parents were motivated to open up a cafe so I was looking for a site they could use. I stumbled across this neat little place up the top of Cuba Street. I had an idea about using the cafe as a bar at nighttime, so I was chatting to the landlord about that possibility. He showed me out the back of the venue. It was the old Antipodes Trekkers Hotel. I took one look at it and fell in love. It was kind of cheap, a bit grungy/dirty and had a bit of character to it. I went to a nice Catholic School and this was the opposite of clean and nice. I said sorry to my parents, opened my own bar and it became the new me.
A bunch of mates and I were prepping the venue and jamming on names. Someone came up with a real stinker of a name and we all laughed and someone said ‘that sucked the big kumara.’ It was a eureka moment. ‘That’s it!’ I cried out. And The Big Kumara it was from that moment on.
PUTTING ON THE HATS
Now this is where my business story really begins. I cut my teeth hard and fast running this new bar. It was a real struggle to pay rent. I was 26 though. I didn’t have a family, I was single and didn’t have a mortgage. I had the time and the passion, so I did everything myself. I learnt by doing, redoing, asking questions and making mistakes. The Big Kumara became the number one student bar in Wellington and I became its number one staff member. With the words of my Irish mentors ringing in my brain, I set about putting in the hard yards to really make my new business work. Things they would say and do, I found myself doing.
Sean Condin, one of my mentors who owned The Planet, sadly died in 2007 of a brain tumour. He’d say, Matt, always walk like you’ve got somewhere to go. He would get his arms pumping. He’d walk through the door and you’d know he meant business. There was no time to sit still. He’d say, enough time to lean, enough time to clean. I’ve walked into my kitchen to see kitchen hands sitting on benches and found Sean’s words coming out of my mouth; These benches are for plates and glasses not people and asses. Sean taught me to work hard and play hard. That it doesn’t matter if you turn up to work hungover or tired, when you’re at work you work.
I wore every hat you could think of.
I took what Sean had passed onto me and gave absolutely everything to my business. I wore every hat you could think of. I was the cleaner, barman and manager. I was the head chef, keeping our little toastie pie maker oven stocked with Steak and Cheese pies from Mores. I was the accounts person, doing GST and PAYE for the first time. I was the bouncer, maintenance man and the marketing guy. I commissioned an art student to create a giant kumara from papier mache. I was the delivery driver, the shoulder to cry on and the last person to get paid.
Finally I got an accountant who did some stuff for me but the stress of making sure come Monday morning I had $3000 for everyone's wages as well as juggling all the other needs of the bar was huge. I made a big mistake with my lease too and got stitched up for $15,000 when a bill landed on my desk out of the blue. I had never seen a commercial lease before and was naive when I signed it. I certainly learnt from that experience. But despite the struggles, I created a rough and ready student bar complete with cheap jugs of beer, DJs, and live music that was frequented by colourful Cuba Street regulars, the loveliest people you could meet. And no recounting of The Big Kumara would be complete without mentioning the two Ferguses. One was my dog. A boxer who sat in my office. The other was a Big Kumara regular, a friend and lovely old fella who used to enjoy going over the road for a ciggie. He would take my dog to the park for a run around. That’s one hat I didn’t have to wear!
GROWING THE KUMARA PATCH
After two years, I moved the business to the corner of Cuba and Dixon streets, got myself a business partner and built the brand up. The Big Kumara was around for 15 years and became iconic in the capital city, featuring in Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows and in a Fat Freddy’s Drop music video. I got married to a beautiful woman with a son and we had a son together too. Things were absolutely humming, I was stretched incredibly thin, juggling even more than ever, but buoyed by our success. Then we got an offer we couldn’t refuse so we sold the business and used the money to invest in the next adventure, Four Kings.
GOING DOWN THE SHOOT
Things were going from strength to strength for me until my new bar, Four Kings (that is Four Kings and definitely not Foreskin which was another terrible name suggestion by a friend), was cited for earthquake strengthening. Talk about things grinding to a halt.
I was probably three months from going bust.
I closed down for nine months. The nine months after that we were riddled with scaffolding, covered with dust clouds and treated to rubbish being dumped down a shoot right next to our outdoor area. The carparks were all fenced off. My business was being trashed figuratively and literally. It was a dire situation. Me and my business partner split off. I was probably three months from going bust. In a desperate bid to get customers in, I opened up the rooftop area as a bar. It started to bring in some money and I funnelled this into keeping the Four Kings afloat, just. When it seemed like things couldn’t get worse my dicky knees started playing up, I couldn’t run about with my boys and... I got cancer.
Now that sucks a big kumara, rips your foreskin and is FourKing nuts.
I literally couldn’t hold my four year old son for six months. The radioactive seeds they put into my prostate meant that I had to be at least two metres away from him at all times. That was tough, rough going. Not being able to give him a cuddle or kiss goodnight. I was sick. Really sick. Sitting in a hospital room, not even able to walk up a flight of stairs without being exhausted. Stressed beyond description. A big business loan. A family to support.
SHARING HATS & A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
After six months of Hell... the treatment worked.
I have no idea how the business limped along for that six months without me but I had good people on the floor and they pulled off a miracle. I stepped back into the business. In my absence, the staff had put the hats that I had been wearing on their own heads. I no longer had to play cook, cleaner, barman, bouncer, accountant, banker, deliverer, marketer and more- so I could start to look at how I could grow the business.
And this is when I connected with Bruce. We knew each other from football in Wellington. I bumped into him on the street and we got chatting.
I thought my business was too small to do something like what Bruce was offering with the Elevater. But Bruce’s idea was to strip back my business and rebuild it like a big company, with structures and practices in place for sustainable growth. I signed up.
During our discussions, I gained a lot of clarity. My can-do attitude meant I had taken on all the business responsibility and accountability myself. My parents and mentors had rolled their sleeves up and just done stuff and I’d modelled myself on them. Once, a friend showed up during a Lion’s tour of NZ. The kitchen hand hadn’t shown up so I jumped in and started washing dishes. My friend walked past and started taking incredulous photos of me! I just smiled and said, It’s got to be done. It’s the Kiwi-number-8-wire kind of way. But my business had gotten too big for that way to be sustainable long term. It was no wonder I’d wound up with cancer, the amount of pressure I’d put myself under unwittingly. It simply wasn’t healthy, let alone sustainable business practice.
I'd always leave our meetings feeling hugely empowered, motivated and focused.
Bruce wasn’t just a mentor, he became a collaborator. He bought into my vision and generously shared his understanding of how business works. He had a way of asking the right questions to find the gaps in my expertise. Then he filled those gaps, keeping me on track.
Bruce stripped my business right back to basics. We grew strong job descriptions for my staff. Once I had those in place, the business became more efficient and profitable.
I realised that I was holding all the important information in my head. Together, Bruce and I changed the organisational structure of the company so that I wasn’t such an integral player. I like to show people the way, that’s my style. I started working alongside my staff, teaching them how I did things and they’d fire away. I created incentives alongside KPIs that inspired my team to do more.
We’d start our sessions together with a high five and a hug. We’d chat. Then we’d get into the nitty gritty. At the end of each Elevater session I felt hugely empowered, motivated and focused. I had incredible clarity, gems that Bruce calls the Golden Nuggets. I’d take these away and incorporate them into the running of my company. Like most business owners, I often felt I didn’t really have time to do the things Bruce asked, but I did them.
And it worked.
Suddenly my company was thriving without multiple hat-wearing on my part. With an empowered team the financials improved, I paid off all my debt and had a clear vision for the business and me personally.
I never thought I would make a career out of hospitality. I never thought I would build up an empire of businesses and one day sell them. I always thought I’d just go to work and work hard like my parents, like my Irish mentors. It wasn’t until I started working with Bruce and signed up for the Elevater that I saw another way to do things.
I sold my business a year earlier than expected. I have financial freedom for myself and my children forever. I have time for a new project- I’ve been working with the NZ Police to make bars safer for everyone. I have space. I can breathe. I can spend time with those that I love. I’m the luckiest man alive.
I can honestly say that I reached this place because of the Elevater and Bruce. Hats off to that man!
A huge thanks to Matt and Lisa!