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Former high school teacher Anthony Podesta now employs more than 800 staff.

A former high school teacher who built a $1 billion business from scratch will represent Australia at an entrepreneurial awards ceremony in Monte Carlo, which he says for him will be like competing in the Olympics.

"This is my Olympics if you like, to represent your country," said Anthony Podesta, who was last night named Australia's Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

Entrepreneurs aren't made overnight ... it's a long, struggling journey. 

The Melbourne businessman founded his company, McMillan Shakespeare, in 1989, wanting to escape the limitations of working for someone else.

Matt

Rapidly rising ... 33-year-old gym chain owner Brendon Levenson was named emerging entrepreneur of the year.

"I didn't like being told what to do, when to teach, when to have your lunch, and being regimented by a timetable," the former business and economics teacher said.

So he left the classroom and took on some tax and accounting work for Melbourne's Alfred hospital, which had 5000 staff at the time.

"I thought if I could service those staff and serve them well then I'd have a good little business," he says.

In 1986, then-prime minister Paul Keating enacted fringe benefits tax legislation, which opened the door for employees to salary package, thereby getting tax benefits on schemes such as car leases

"No one understood it and no one knew what it was," says the 56-year-old.

Podesta mortgaged the family home and started his one-man salary packaging business in 1989, educating businesses including Rio Tinto and a number of state governments and handling their salary packaging arrangements.

McMillan Shakespeare now has more than 800 staff itself and handles salary packaging for 250,000 employees and 1000 employers - plus leasing arrangements for 45,000 cars - and $4.5 billion passes through the business each year.

"If I've done anything I've been able to open up the benefits of salary packaging to the Australian workforce, to teachers, police officers, doctors and nurses," says Podesta.

"We did it first and we opened up the law and changed the awards and pioneered the industry."

An emotional Podesta last night said it was a shock to be named the entrepreneur of the year and credited much of his success to his staff.

"When they talk about entrepreneur of the year, entrepreneurs aren't made overnight ... it's a long, struggling journey," he said.

"For the first five years you think about throwing in the towel many times because it's tough but if you believe in yourself and you've got good people and a supportive wife, then you keep on going."

Podesta will travel to Monte Carlo next June for the World Entrepreneur of the Year Awards, where he will compete against national winners from 50 countries.

Another winner in last night's awards was Brendon Levenson, who won the national Emerging category for his fast-growing gym chain Jetts.

The 33-year-old founded the company in mid-2007 on the Gold Coast with wife Cristy, after the pair ran two previous gyms in their mid-20s.

In just five years, Jetts has opened 193 gyms across Australia and New Zealand - six of them are company-owned and the remainder are franchises. This year it was named as Australia's fastest growing franchise in BRW's Fast Franchises list.

Levenson, who was raised by his single mother in public housing, is opening new gyms at the rate of 50 to 55 a year.

By 2015, Levenson plans to have 350 gyms in Australia and New Zealand, and by 2030 the target is 2000 gyms worldwide.

The Jetts business model has turned the gym market on its head by offering 24-hour access, no contracts and lower costs. Says Levenson: " the core essence of Jetts is about freedom of choice".

Levenson, who launched Jetts with  $40,000 in capital and a bank overdraft, says when he and his wife met at the age of about 24 "that's when everything started to really take off".

"I put on my (Ernst & Young) application that the secret ingredient to success is love."

Other category winners in last night's national awards were:

  • Industry - Dan Collins, GenesisCare
  • Services - Dr Andrew Kuper, LeapFrog Investments
  • Technology - Jamie Jackson, Ozsale
  • Social entrepreneur - Ronni Kahn, Oz Harvest

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