Born in Ikaria in 1934, 85-year-old Nik Chapley (Tsapaliaris), who migrated to Australia after WW2, is today considered one of the most successful businessmen in Australia, however his life journey was not always paved with rose petals.
“I remember the beautiful but also hard years back in Ikaria, the war that broke and forced us to flee the island, the three years spent in the Sahara Desert as refugees and the long hopeful journey to Australia. Despite the hardships though, if I had my time again, I would not change anything in my book of life, because those experiences were the ones that shaped me and made me the man I am today,” says Mr Chapley, who managed to scale to the top despite the hardships.
The early years
The first few years were relatively prosperous for the Chapley family.
The family patriarch, Spiros, a shoemaker by trade, had already left Ikaria and settled in Australia where he worked hard so that he could provide for his wife and his two young children that he had left behind.
“My father didn’t like Australia or maybe he just loved his island too much, therefore, his initial plan was to work Down Under for a few years and, once financially stable, to return to Greece,” says Mr Chapley.
When World War II broke out, things took an unexpected turn for the family and Spiros was no longer able to send funds back to Ikaria.
Fearing the worst, Nik’s mother decided to take her two children and flee the island in a small boat.
They ended up in the Sahara Desert as refugees under the Red Cross Care Scheme (1942).
“We spent three very difficult years there. I will never forget the hunger, the poverty and the inhumane conditions that we had to endure. The greatest lesson I learnt there is that the worst thing that can happen to a human being is to become a refugee and lose their own sense of self and dignity,” says Mr Chapley who returned to his little village in Ikaria in 1945.
Back in Ikaria
Post WW2, Greeks all over the country and particularly the islanders, were struggling to stand on their own two feet.
The financial struggles and extreme poverty were impossible to overcome, so the young mother would often write letters to her husband begging him to let her join him in Australia with their two young boys.
“Our father used to write back saying Australia was not the place for us, and he was adamant that we stay in Ikaria until he returned. Our mother continued to work as a seamstress, spending most of her days visiting neighbouring villages in an attempt to exchange the clothes she had made for some oil, bread or vegetables,” says Mr Chapley who remembers the day that he and his brother reached the point where they had absolutely nothing to eat.
“Our mother was absent for three days and had left us with our grandmother. As we got hungry we decided to unlock the food chest she kept in the kitchen only to find that there was not one single grain of rice left for us to eat, so we literally turned it upside down, collected the rice powder that had accumulated in between the wooden slats and boiled it to share with our grandmother.”
When the young mother returned, she convinced Spiros it was time for them to join him in Australia.
The family reunited on January 28, 1949.
14-year-old Nik and his brother started working at their father’s little deli in rural Australia.
Nik would wash dishes while reading the dictionary in an attempt to learn how to speak English.
In 1969, on Christmas day, he married 16-year-old Stamatiki and together they had three children.
After years of setting up eateries in rural Victoria, the first one being the very popular Wattle Café, the family sold up everything, and in 1979 they moved to South Australia.
The two brothers bought their first supermarket in Adelaide, but their joy was overshadowed by the death of their father, who suffered a heart attack and died inside his shop at the age of 60.
Spiros never returned to Ikaria.
READ MORE: Ikaria: The island of long life
Fast forward to today, and the Chapley family is considered one of the most successful Greek families in Australia.
One of ‘Mr Nik’s’ (as his staff lovingly call him) supermarkets, Frewville Foodland IGA, has been awarded the World’s Best Supermarket (International Retailer of the Year) by the Grocers Alliance (IGA), for three consecutive years and it is considered Australia’s first certified organic supermarket, with one of the largest range of fresh produce in South Australia.
There is even a health-and-wellness section and live music instore, including a piano and guitar, showcasing local talent.
“My brother and I have always done business together and we continue to do so, but we also like to venture and do things separately. We are certainly proud of how far we have come and what we have achieved, but at the same time we are most grateful to our staff, because they are the most important asset in our business. Our relationship with them is based purely on respect and honesty, therefore – awards aside – it is most rewarding and motivating to see that everyone who works with us loves what they do as much as we do,” says Mr Chapley who employs more than 1000 people in his three supermarkets.
“I don’t believe there are any secrets to success rather than treating every person with respect and remaining humble and disciplined along the way.
“No matter what anyone might have, if it is not shared and enjoyed with others, then it’s not worth having,” concludes Mr Chapley.