A chip off the old block

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Con Makris began his career working seven days a week in a South Australian foundry. Today he is worth an estimated $980million and is a property development mogul. He spoke with Bob Forshaw about coming to Australia with nothing to lose but the shirt off his back and how his work ethic has formed his success.

Con Makris is a brave man. There are few 16-year-olds who would leave their country of birth to find a better life elsewhere. Most teenagers migrate with their parents and usually have no say where they go. But the Makris family was different. Con’s parents wanted him to make his own way and escape the depression that was engulfing parts of Europe, including his home country Greece.

It was the right decision for Con and the Makris family. Not least because he could find a better life, but there was also the shadow of national service looming.

“I was still in my teens, only 16-years-old and it was a decision made by my parents to emigrate, not just me. The other defining issue was that Greece had compulsory military service which was for a period of four years. Many young men left their families for abroad as a consequence of this policy. The scars of World War 11 were still very real.

Con’s first priority was to find a job, work a couple of years, make some money and then return to Greece.

“I think that was the idea of every other person coming to Australia. The years pass however. Before I knew it five years had elapsed, I had married, started a family so there was no choice but to make Australia my second home.”

The first job in a foundry was the most difficult of his life. Dealing with molten steel in searing temperatures, seven days a week, 12 hours a day can make even the most youthful of men fatigued. He backed that up with a job in a fish shop – his own fish shop. It was the ultimate cliché as Con says “the Greek in the fish shop…”

He worked hard, saved money and tried to take care of himself pay cheque by pay cheque. When he had accumulated enough money he bought the grocery store next to his fish shop. He then kept upgrading.

This work ethic that allowed him to continue to expand his business interests was instilled in him at the age of 12.

The Makris Group are a pioneering national development group, constantly breaking new ground in the retail environment. It has been a privilege for Intro to provide specialist town planning advice to assist Con and his team deliver on their vision. – Intro Design

“I was working for a lady who made garments for the wealthy establishment. I would bring small packets of fabrics to my employer, and she would decide whether or not to purchase 50 meters or 100 meters. I would then help her buy patterns for the garments. That’s where I cut my teeth in becoming an entrepreneur.  Later, I started working in a delicatessen in Athens. Back then they didn’t have supermarkets as we know them today, but instead had super delis. In this environment I learned about service and the value of good customer relations.  So when I moved to Australia, I was primed to put this raw retail grounding into practice.  I was ready to work!”

It was through his ownership of a group of chicken shops when Con’s entrepreneurial talents really came to the fore. He had sold roast chickens in his fish ‘n chips shop and was complemented about how tasty they were. So he opened a chicken shop in Hamilton Victoria, a wealthy area where he had fantastic trade. After a great deal of success, he opened another shop in Portland. Not before time, Con owned seven shops; this was the genesis of the Makris Empire! Eventually he had accumulated seven shops.

Part of the success of those shops, other than flavorsome chicken, was Con’s ability to find a property hot spot and recognize its future development potential.

“I would find a small property, buy the freehold, and then establish a chicken shop. I would then sell the business, retain the freehold property and receive rental income,” Con says. “This is how I was able to accumulate multiple assets.

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Con was now a property developer. He identified and purchased small shopping centers in Adelaide with development potential and transformed these modest centers into flourishing shopping precincts.  The cycle of purchase and development, picking off modest or underperforming centers and applying a measured strategic development application still describes the fabric of the Makris Group today. He recognized that he was operating in an intensely competitive, global and constantly changing landscape, He was prepared to commit to negotiating change, and reinvent the shopping center business model, and seize opportunities as they present.

He understood property development and he also understood the needs of the tenants, because he had been in that position himself. He is a relatable man, well liked and this trait goes beyond business skill. This trait can be the difference between success and failure.

“Over the years I have been able to build a reputation which is synonymous with sound ethics, ethics which today are still the cornerstone of every decision my company makes.  I demand this of all my employees.  This trait is what drives tenants to follow me from one shopping center to another. The most important thing you’ve got to remember is that landlords should act as partners. My partners are my tenants and my bankers.  My tenants have to work to pay the rent, and by paying the rent they enable me to pay my bank. That’s how it works. Everybody makes money this way. It’s that simple!”

It wasn’t quick movement into development and redevelopment, but that was certainly becoming Con’s core business. He knew he had to find someone with a strong finance and accounting background. Those skills were lacking, as his only formal education was a very limited time of public school enrolment in Greece.

Colliers International are proud of their long-standing partnership with the Makris Group working across retail leasing, investment services, valuations, commercial and retail management teams. Con Makris’s refreshingly no-nonsense approach to property and his competitive spirit ensures all stakeholders on a project are constantly raising the bar to accelerate success.

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Eventually he found a former banker to install as CO, who has now been with the company for almost ten years.  However, in typical tenacity, tantamount with his early foray into retail, Con also taught himself about the complexities of banking, accounting and how to read the markets.

“You can’t just see a property and think wow, I’m going to buy it, develop it and make money. You have to apply appropriate due diligence, do the sums, and then if everything points to a suitable yield, you invest.  This business is not about aggressive accumulation, it’s about making smart play; that’s when you create wealth.”

There is much more to development than buying and selling as we are learning here. The logistics of a shopping center also come into play. Con has studied this and knows how to design a shopping center.

“You have to insure that the shopping center is aesthetically pleasing. You have to provide a range of services people need; parking has to be easily accessible and plentiful. The actual configuration of retail outlets is paramount to the success of the center. For instance, the chemist and the newsagent need to be located near the entrances, from one end to the other because the shopper will use the services offered by these outlets. In applying this strategy you create increased foot traffic, an absolute must for any center to become a successful shopping destination.”

The Makris Group has developed and continues to grow through Con’s ability to read an area and its demographics, his willingness to learn all there is about his business, to be astutely aware of his competition and to zealously apply that work ethic that was instilled in him during his early teens.

All of those factors combined to help Con expand beyond the borders of South Australia.  He had a zealous appetite to navigate different markets.

“Adelaide is a lovely city to live in and raise a family, but the landscape to foster and encourage development is different to that of other cities such as Melbourne and Sydney.  Some time ago I purchased a shopping center in Sydney.  This shopping center had some ten vacant shops. Not to be discouraged, I saw an opportunity, as within the tenancy mix there were what we call in the industry, best majors, those being Big W, Woolworths and Franklin Fresh. The supporting tenancies being specialty shops were not that appealing and in fact were impacting on the desired success of the center. The task on hand was simple, improve the quality and range of specialty shops and you improve the viability of the center.  This is exactly what happened and the center became one of the best performers in the group.

Families are important to Con; the families who tenant his shop space and his of course his own family members. His sons Ross and Jason both work in the business and are astute students of the game as was their father all those years ago.  Despite having his sons in the business, everyone is aware that Con is still at the helm of the Makris Group ably supported by his CO, John Blunt.  There is though, like every successful business, a carefully planned succession strategy in place.

“Con has a deep sense of vision and purpose, and he and his team have the commitment and stamina to drive the best possible result. There are always challenges along the way, but it’s great to have our design skills recognised as an important part of the process.” – Peter Harrison, Director of IGNITE Architects

“I’ve seen other colleagues pass on the responsibility of running family companies to their children at a young age, but those children were not ready to embrace the rigors of business. They didn’t have the right work practices or ethics at that point in time. It is typical human nature for the younger generation to want to demonstrate to their parents that they can do it better.  Emotions supersede logic and that is when bad judgment takes place, bad judgment which often leads to destroying a business that has taken years to establish.  When the time is right, nothing will please me more than to see my sons take over the stewardship of the Makris Group.  They will have the confidence required to further build the empire by knowing that their father will always be in the background as a mentor and sounding board when required.  Somehow I think full retirement, whilst appealing is still some way away.”

Con has achieved an enormous amount since he opened that original fish shop. His journey has taken him to share the stage with Steve Forbes and Prime Ministers to speak about business. He has been invited to Greece to address a national symposium comprising of government ministers, mayors of major Greek states, and influential business leaders.  He has also won the prestigious Southern Australia Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. He is well recognized for his achievements, but there is no time to rest on laurels. 

The Makris Group has invested $120 million on the Gold Coast in the past year and intends to invest more. The Group has paid $65 million for the prestigious retail and office precinct below The Oracle twin towers at Broadbeach. Last April he paid $52 million for Marina Mirage, an exquisite center laced with shops selling international labels.

Savills are proud to support the growth of the Makris Group portfolio, providing state of the art technology in property accounting, shopping centre management and leasing as well as construction management and project services. – Rino Carpinelli, Managing Director – Savills SA

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He followed up by buying the Marina at the front of the centre from receivers for $7.1 million. Of the Oracle, Con told the Gold Coast Bulletin “It’s a great credit to developer Con Nikiforides — he’s done a magnificent job. It’s also a tremendous asset for the Gold Coast and has become a landmark.

“People in Adelaide who visit the Gold Coast talk about The Oracle when they return.”

Mr Makris said The Oracle had four vacant shops but that he already had tenants lined up for them.

“People tend to acknowledge the Makris Group’s reputation as leaders in the retail business and therefore have confidence in leasing retail space”.

“Soon there won’t be any Oracle vacancies; somehow we need to expand and provide additional retail space”.

Not satisfied with two prestigious retail and office precincts plus a Marina on the Gold Coast, Con is now looking at a fourth purchase, a significant landmark retail development which, if the sums add up, will become part of the Makris ever expanding stable.

The Group is also looking to do something similar in Greece. Con has partnered with two successful persons, a Dubai businessman, who has form in Middle East marinas and also banker from Boston.  Their aim is to transform Greek properties into landmark shopping precincts, mirroring those developed in Australia.

Despite his willingness to semi-retire, Con isn’t slowing down yet. You almost get the impression he doesn’t know how. When he finds a good property, he wants to transform it. He does unwind occasionally aboard his luxury boat in Greece but he says, “I never leave my business for more than a month. That’s my secret. Even though I know everything is 100%, I can’t relax unless I return to make sure everything is okay.” 

Con Makris is a long way from the kid who came to Australia to put some cash in the bank and go home. He has not only made a life in Australia, but his business has transformed economies. And it is all down to work ethic and respect. Certainly a unique individual who is built for accomplishment and engineered for success.

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Business First is a peer-to-peer magazine: written by CEOs and other high level executives, with interviews with some of the country’s best leaders.


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