Othello’s tower

From a small village in Cyprus to selling his company Hudson Pacific Corporation for $88 million, Zoe George speaks with Ken Skoullos.

It’s not often you meet a person with a story that has you intrigued the entire time. A life so interesting, full of drama, risk taking, survival and triumph it’s almost hard to believe. This is the story of Ken Skoullos, the food wholesaler and manufacturer who went from a small village in Cyprus to recently selling his company, Hudson Pacific Corporation, for a whopping $88 million.

Growing up
Born in the village of Achna, which is now under Turkish occupation, Ken was spoilt rotten, raised in the home of his grandparents, next door to where his parents resided with his four brothers and one sister. His family was well off, always being able to provide for their family in all their needs.

He underwent his secondary schooling at The American College, where he learnt English from a young age and also loved being a team leader. Ken describes himself as a popular student, always wanting to be captain of his team and spending a lot of his time playing sports and at the beach with his friends.

Like every other male in Cyprus, doing your national service in the army is a rite of passage, compulsory but also a bit of fun for most, venturing away from the home for the first time. Ken, who was a sergeant major, and his team of six men were stationed as lookout at Othello’s tower, an old Venetian castle on the pier of Famagusta.

Little did they expect that this would be the year that Turkey invaded Cyprus. Turkish tanks arrived and villages were destroyed, cities abandoned. Ken describes being “left for dead”, how he decided to jump into the water with his men and swim to the nearest shore, where they made their way on foot over the British border and crossed over to the ‘safe’ side.

His family, along with many others, lost their homes, their savings and had no option other than to relocate. Later in life, he named his first restaurant Othello in memory of his post, which had such a significant impact on his life, and a memory he never wants to forget.

After a month in Athens, Ken and his family made the move to Australia, via a short stint in London for a few years. He often considered staying in London but his family ties were just too strong and he knew he wouldn’t be happy without them nearby.

While in London, he enrolled in college while working part-time at a clothing factory, working hard for a new beginning. He describes it as a shock, going from a lavish lifestyle in Cyprus to the life of a hardworking refugee, his life so far paving his determination to survive and succeed, to fight and take risks.
During the first three months in Australia he tried to get any job available and ended up working at the railways in Flinders Street. This wasn’t for long as he quickly moved on, and thanks to his education, he was able to find a job working as an office manager for a logistics company.

He worked hard and a year later, in his mid 20s, was able to buy his first business investment, with his brother Theo. They bought a souvlaki bar in Lygon St. which was where it was all happening back in 1979. He kept his job working full time as an office manger and then working nights at the souvlaki bar with his brother. This hard work meant that 18 months later, he was able to buy his first apartment in cash.

Having two incomes gave Ken the financial stability to take calculated risks, buying another successful business and more houses. By his mid-30s he had a blooming business portfolio, four properties and three children. With all his hard work he also made sure he enjoyed the finer things in life − travelling, his family and investing.

Ken was struck a blow when his sister fell ill during pregnancy, losing her kidneys, and the reality hit that no amount of money or success in the world would outweigh the importance of health and family. Having such a close bond with all of his siblings, he was completely devastated and impacted by his sister Thalia’s illness and eventual passing at the age of 34.

Hudson Pacific
The chain of events that led to the development of Hudson Pacific were described as “accidental”, the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. He bought a food service company called AK foods which had gone into receivership, and then went on to also run the canteens in all the police headquarters − Russell Street, William Street and St Kilda Road − resulting in a 10-year stint with Victoria Police.

AK foods then moved to Brunswick in 1988 and Ken decided it was time to expand, which wasn’t easy to do so organically, so he bought more established businesses and acquired their customer base. By the year 2000 he describes his daily life as “taking calculated risks every day”. He humbly admits to buying Hudson Pacific (another small ingredients trading business) because he “liked the name” and the operator. He says it just “sounded right” and “corporate”, thereby adopting this name for all his businesses and thus forming Hudson Pacific Corporation.

He purpose-built his first warehouse in Tullamarine, which is where Hudson Pacific still resides, and amalgamated all his businesses.

From the Tullamarine premises, Ken turned his attention to manufacturing, and began shredding cheese and adding value to dairy products, which grew from small volumes to Dairy Country, which now employs more than 120 staff and turns over in excess of $200 million.

Then came pizza and garlic bread manufacturing, which manufactures exclusively to Coles and IGA supermarkets, and a biscuit factory called Bakers & Co., which also exports to Asia. After a string of highs came something of a low, where an external syndicate approached Ken last year, with the potential of merging a number of like companies in the food service sector with Hudson Pacific, with a view to floating the group on the stock exchange (an IPO − Initial Public Offer).

This attempt failed as the market, and investors did not warm to the idea, but gave HPC a huge amount of exposure in the financial media publications, which sparked the interest of one of their major clients, the RFG (Retail Food Group) which approached them to purchase the corporation in a vertical integration move, which will no doubt align their companies and give them economies of scale as well as very cost effective synergies. This has now resulted in the sale of the company for the very neat amount of $88 million. RFG hopes to expand and grow across other states of the country as well as internationally.

What Next?
I ask Ken what his plans are for the future; surely someone who has worked so incredibly hard his whole life and achieved what others can only dream of doesn’t plan to slow down any time soon! His answer is clear and simple: “To enjoy my family, friends and travel.” He says he wants to relax and just enjoy life, seeing his children and their families grow and being a part of that, as well as being a little selfish and travelling the world as much as possible. I can’t say I blame him, but I most definitely envy him.

Such an amazing life story of such a great man, full of generosity and love, always sparing time to help whoever needs him. A man who started with a lot, lost it all and then built it up from the bottom again.

* Zoe George is the The Subtle Mummy www.thesubtlemummy.com and www.facebook.com/thesubtlemummy