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Kosta Drakopoulos: From packing boxes to millionaire

The Greek Australian listed among the Financial Review's BRW Young Rich talks about determination and persistence with Neos Kosmos

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Kosta Drakopoulos Photo: Jesse Marlow/ Fairfax Syndication.

14 November 2016

Kosta Drakopoulos definitely has a story to tell. At 39 years, he has once again been featured in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) BRW Young Rich list as one of the most successful businessmen in the construction sector.

Kosta wasn't born into the business, nor did he invest his capital in it. He started low, from a warehouse, as a builder, and moved his way up with a lot of hard work and faith in his abilities. The Collingwood-based property mogul and entrepreneur constructs hip apartment blocks, bespoke residences for wealthy family clients including developing projects in his own right across Essendon, Ascot Vale, Geelong, the Mornington Peninsula and Sorrento.

He is the definition of self-made, but even with a fortune worth more than $60 million, he still stops to enjoy the simple things in life; being a husband and a father to two daughters, as well as a caring son.

"I had no financial support from my parents when I entered the construction business, not because they wouldn't but because they couldn't," he tells Neos Kosmos. "Regardless of that, I would never have asked for help."

"I believe that for the first few years they really didn't know what I was doing anyway. I never had any partners and my idea at the start was to work as many hours as I could and get those bills in. It's hard to do any development without capital or a financial history.
"I always wanted to support them. Now they work for me and do absolutely whatever they want – when they want."

Coming from a small family of migrant parents from Kalamata and Limnos, he knows all too well what struggling to make a living means. Now that he can afford it, he visits Greece every second year with his wife and children, to ensure they stay connected to their Greek heritage.

"We couldn't afford to really go as a family when I was young, but I made up for that many times," he says.

"I have been to the homes my parents grew up in their villages – and have met them all. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to bring my parents along."

To make his own living, young Kosta spent quite a few years packing boxes in a warehouse with a friend. At the time, he admits "things were just cruisy", he did not have much to get by but would not worry about life either, "it was just what we were going to do on the weekend and that's it".

Not even in his wildest dreams did he imagine that he would be able to purchase a home with his wife, let alone run a successful construction and development enterprise.

"I think if someone had run the thought past me at that time, I would have laughed for a few days. I wouldn't have taken it seriously at all," he muses, "Just too hard to imagine back then."

At some point later on, he was hired as a form worker with the same company that employed his dad, a concrete finisher. They would take on jobs together as a team, but he soon realised it wasn't his calling. Even though he loved the industry, he could not cope with the labour-intensive job and returned to the warehouse until he could figure out what to do with his life.

"I knew I had it in me to do something more than pack boxes. I didn't see this as being my future," he continues.

"I had 20 jobs before I landed my first estimating role. I loved the industry but couldn't work like my dad did. I think the potential of property kept me interested and I decided to send out a number of resumes. I would say 50 in total, just using the local Yellow Pages, and got a call from a smaller builder in the area. I started the next day and that set me on the path of learning the ropes behind the scenes as an estimator."

That first administrative position, at a small family company called F Vitale and Sons, paid a minor $24,000 a year, but for Kosta it became the springboard for his current success. He in fact worked for a few companies, before venturing out on his own.

"I worked for others most of my life. The last few years on doing so, I realised a lot of builders made mistakes and errors that I necessarily wouldn't make – so I thought. Regardless of those mistakes, they were all doing well in a buoyant market and I thought, if they could do it, so could I," he says.

The only difference was, everyone Kosta worked for at that level had second or third generation wealth passed onto them, or had multi-million dollar business people as partners or investors. He had a $200,000 mortgage on his first flat with his wife, two cars, one of which they had to sell, and absolutely zero capital.

Launching the business was easy – making it work and pay bills, that was different story − especially while studying for his builder's licence at night.

"It was certainly no walk in the park," he exhales. "The pressure is constant and you have a lot on the line. Although calculated, your decisions are what you stand by at the end of the day."

Consistency and not putting one's head down when things don't work out is his only secret to success, aside from choosing to complete small-scale projects and delivering on his targets one step at a time. Meanwhile, even though he has experienced errors in judgement, he wouldn't have it any other way, as his idea of doing things right is to learn from mistakes and to avoid repeating them.

"I wouldn't do anything differently, only because the mistakes I've made, sometimes had to be made.
"Everyone feels good when they succeed but you don't really know who you are until you fail. It's what you do after failure that you should judge yourself on."

It was from mistakes, his own and those of others, that Kosta came up Profilr, his own construction recruitment website, cutting the cost of intermediates and agents while speeding up the process.

"Profilr was a concept I thought of a couple of years ago. It's a platform dedicated to the candidate in the construction and property industries," he explains.

"They create a fee profile of themselves and recruitment agents or employers register free and look for candidates. I found that I was paying an excess of $100k in recruitment fees a year – maybe more. Since then, the response and feedback has been overwhelming. I want to further develop it over the next couple of years and then turn it up a notch."

As for future plans, Kosta's main focus is the apartment and commercial building sector in inner-city Melbourne and Victoria rather than taking on large construction projects. He even predicts there will be price adjustments for apartments over the next year to 18 months.

"I have acquired a few sites and they are currently in planning. My construction arm will expand next year, so at this stage our year is basically a full book. I think the key is to keep the same model I have now and just keep it going, work hard and take a break every now and again."

Finally, if there is one piece of advice he would give to young people wanting to start their own business, it's this.

"No one owes you a thing. No one will do you any favours unless they expect a favour back. You have to work hard and get it yourself. Work hard when things are going well, and harder when they are not."

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