John Manos and co-director Esther Iachelini. Photo: Marco Del Grande
Ask Melbourne businessman John Manos about his advice for budding entrepreneurs, and he shoots straight back: ''Never follow what everyone else is doing''.
''Sometimes you can't run with the sheep, you've got to do something a little bit different,'' says the head of upmarket food retailer Jones the Grocer.
Had Manos listened to the accountants warning him to stick to what he knew, the 42-year-old says he would have never ventured out to international markets such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, where the company has built a thriving chain of food emporiums more than double the size of its 16-year-old original store in Sydney's wealthy eastern suburbs.
It's been an unusual move for a grocer faced with the restraints of a small home market dominated by two big grocery chains, Woolworths and Coles, and limited scope to grow its franchise pitching a high-priced delicatessen to local gourmets. But Manos, a former engineer who bought Jones in 2005, says after 18 months in the business, he realised ''we had to either dumb the brand down, or look to other markets''.
He was encouraged by the fact that many Asian customers frequented the company's flagship store, stocking up on Western specialties such as cheeses, truffle products and olive oils. Teaming up with a partner in Singapore, in 2007 Jones the Grocer entered that country with its first large offshore outlet.
It was a steep learning curve, and mistakes were made, Manos admits - from struggling with local builders who had never seen a cheese room, to understocking the store so its shelves were almost empty after a few days of trading, to underestimating the amount of detail local chefs needed in recipes to ensure the Western food served in its cafe tasted as intended.
Singapore became profitable after six months and was written up by hip London magazine Wallpaper as Asia's hottest food store. In 2009, he was contacted by a wealthy businessman from the Middle East to team up, and a store in Abu Dhabi opened soon after.
Today, Jones the Grocer has seven outlets in the UAE and one in Qatar and runs 17 stores in five countries. Manos won't disclose its profit, but says the company has annual turnover of $33 million, increasing by more than half every year and eyeing new markets such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, China and Japan.
He harbours ambitions to ''grow five-fold within five years'', convinced that even in a jittery world economy there will always be consumers ready to spend big bucks on aspirational luxury goods.
Having funded the expansion using operating cash flows and with the help of his international partners, Manos in July found a deep-pocketed backer in L Capital, the private equity arm of global luxury group LVMH, which took a 50 per cent stake - its first foray into food and its first Australian investment.
His next goal is to relaunch the brand back home. The original Jones the Grocer store in Woollahra, where founder Lindsay Jones-Evans started out in 1996, will be closed and replaced next month by an interior-designed, 500-square-metre flagship store at the Westfield shopping centre in Sydney's CBD.