'People lost everything, there was nothing they could do'


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In more than 30 years in business, City of Sydney councillor Angela Vithoulkas has seen the difficulties faced by small business owners. Her successful career in public and business life has been acknowledged through numerous awards including being named the City of Sydney Business of the Year, NSW Entrepreneur of the Year, and the 2007 Telstra Women's Business Owner of the Year.

In 2015 she was named one of Australia's 50 Influential Women Entrepreneurs, and in 2017, one of Australia's Top Nine Influential Female Entrepreneurs.

Recently she has spoken out about the suffering of the small business community during extended lockdowns.

Angela Vithoulkas small business city of sydney councillor vivo

What are the first-hand effects of COVID lockdowns on small business?

For me the worst thing is hearing the desperate stories of people who are coming to the realisation that they won't recover, regardless of whatever else is happening - more vaccinations and road maps. There are too many small businesses who have hit the wall saying even if they reopen, they won't last, and that's all due to money. A significant part is that we've never realised a lot of financial crises in this country directly. COVID is the first thing we weren't prepared for.

What have been the biggest difficulties for you running a business?

I lost my business, Vivo Cafe [on Sydney's George Street], during the building of Sydney's light rail and in a way, prepared me for COVID. It was probably the single saddest business event of my life.

It was something that I predicted and realised what we were going to face. I was spot on and prepared for it financially and then spent 1122 days watching my business die. When you have something that goes on so long and devastates so many people there's no lifeline.

No one sits down and says, 'How can we help?' This was exactly what has happened during COVID. People lost everything and there was nothing they could do - they couldn't be better at their job, the only thing that could help was buckets of money pouring into the business to prop it up while it was happening.

With leases, you get sued by the landlord for the remainder of the lease, or you stay in the lease because you don't want to file for bankruptcy. And you do what you can. For me, that meant selling a house. It made me uniquely able to understand what everyone is going through now.

Do you think there will be a lot of businesses that will never be able to open their doors again?

About 50% of existing small to medium enterprises have increased debt to between $100,000 and $300,000 because of COVID.

Most businesses are leaseholders so they're on a limited timeframe to work out how they are going to be able to pay that off on top of everything else, and make a living.

What was your first job?

My parents' milkbar at Mount Pritchard. My dad built me a box to reach the counter so I could serve people and that's how I learned to count - through serving. My mum explained how to give change and that was to count up and make the change.

I was born in a shop. My mother's waters broke in the shop and that's how I was born. I spent my baby days in a box under the counter. My parents bought and sold businesses all the time so I was always forced to change schools.

What's the best money advice you've ever received?

I'd have to say that my parents clearly had been a big influence on me financially, and my parents' advice in all our businesses was not to overpay ourselves. We never drew a boss wage, we often drew the lowest wage to respect the business and value ourselves. We were taught to work for the business, not ourselves but the business that supported other things.

The business is making this money so what we will do with it? Whatever business you have, make it earn its keep. Retail is here today and gone tomorrow. You can never guarantee what you've got so make it earn its keep while you've got it.

What's the best investment decision you've made?

Minding my pennies. My mother used to save coins and she used to put the coins in big lolly jars and I'd say, why do you do that? And she'd say, so I can watch it build up.

You put it in a little jar and you save a little or you put it in a big jar and you watch it grow. If you put it aside and promise not to touch it, it will be there when you need it the most, and that's how I bought my first car.

What's the worst investment decision you've made?

Buying off the plan. I bought a couple of properties off the plan in one block from a shady developer and had to spend the six years paying for that mistake in court.

It was finished poorly and leaked like a sieve. I would never buy off the plan again - if you buy an existing property, you can have it inspected.

What is your favourite thing to splurge on?

I don't splurge - I'm a big-ticket item person. If I know that in two years I'll need a new car that's it for me.

If you had $10,000 where would you invest it?

Debt - wherever there's debt. It's a no brainer.

What would you do if you only had $50 left in the bank?

I don't view money in terms of a denomination. I may have no money in the bank - it wouldn't reduce me to panic. It depends on where the rest of the money is. Who keeps their real wealth like that now?

Do you intend to leave an inheritance?


Would you like to see any changes in the way people look at money post-COVID?

Yes, I think we really do have to bring resilience to the small business owner.

They need to feel empowered as to what that looks like, and that's about small business owners being able to negotiate better knowing what we can and can't manage when that rainy day comes.

And it's also for landlords to take into account online businesses where people are able to pivot from their store. If you are a residential tenant you need to have lots of protection.

In my business I gave my landlord 18 years of business but I had no rights at the end.

Finish this sentence: money makes ...

... rich people smile and poor people panic.

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Julia Newbould was editor-at-large and later managing editor of Money from November 2019 to February 2022. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.