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James Ace and Bert Haines are the owners of Queenstown Mexican restaurant, Margo’s. Their dream of opening a Mexican restaurant had been five years in the pipeline before last year’s first nationwide Covid lockdown almost scuppered it.

But on just 15 per cent of the original budget, the owners managed to create a restaurant that has been cemented as a local and visitor hotspot. Ace shares what he has learned along the way.

How did you start your business?

I came to Queenstown from Sydney in 2009 to manage the Minus 5° Ice Bar and The Boiler Room. In 2011, the owner of the businesses and a long-time friend wanted a quickfire sale. I had no money so I jumped on the phone to my uncle Chris and asked him if he was keen to partner with me and back me into my first business.

After a bit of back and forth, he was keen, so we went 50/50 and set up Future Bars (now Future Hospitality Group). The only condition was that he got his money back first. We had a stellar first year, and I was able to pay my uncle his money back within the first 12 months.

I brought on our general manager Bert Haines in 2013 with the intention of growing a hospitality empire together. Since being in business together, we’ve created, owned and operated eight businesses across Auckland and Queenstown, four of which we still own today.

What were some of the early challenges you faced?

A big challenge was going from being a typical late-night hospo rooster to becoming a business owner with a lot of responsibility.

Having left school early and with no real business experience, I quickly realised that owning a business was a whole new world. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but I knew I needed to be flanked by great people to grow a successful company.

When Bert came on board in 2013 he focussed heavily on strengthening our systems and putting his leadership skills to good use by stepping into a role as our people and performance manager.

Together, we’re taking the company from strength to strength. Bert and I have quite different skillsets but very common goals. We work incredibly well together and neither of us is afraid to put our egos aside to let the other person make the call in the best interest of our people and our company.

Ace says his key advice for small businesses is to seek out professional business coaching from day one.
Ace says his key advice for small businesses is to seek out professional business coaching from day one.

Was there a moment when you knew for sure that you were on the right track?

I reckon that moment has only just come about in the last six to 12 months.

It’s starting to feel like the thousands of hours of work we’ve dedicated to honing our craft in the business of hospitality, everything we’ve been getting educated on, all the lessons we’ve had through failures, and the constant hunger to learn more, is all starting to make sense.

We’ve had a few wins along the way – the most recent example of this was building a brand Margo’s on the smell of an oily rag by being more resourceful and creative than ever to deliver a new business in the heart of a pandemic.

It was a big risk for us. If it hadn’t worked, there was every potential that we would’ve gone tits up. But we delivered on our vision, and this goes down as one of our best moves yet.

What is something that you would change if you had to do it all over again?

Business coaching from day one.

We’ve only really taken business coaching and advisory seriously in the last couple of years. We’ve always had mentors and dabbled in advisory but if we’d had a dedicated hospitality business coach from day one, we’d be about five years ahead of where we are now.

Going from late night hospo roosters to business owners was a big shift, especially when you love a beer.

Our mission is to be the “All Blacks of hospitality”, so you can imagine the All Blacks trying to win the 2015 World Cup without their coach, it just wouldn’t have happened.

Having someone holding you accountable and driving you to perform at an elite level would be super challenging on your own, so invest in a coach or an adviser who can help you reach the top.

What advice would you have for other small business owners at the start of their journey?

No one ever went broke making a profit, so stick to your knitting.

In the early days, we paid a little too much attention to what our competitors were doing. We were almost reactive and making decisions based on what they were doing, which can leave you feeling distracted and confused.

Nowadays, we’re hyper-focused on our own innovation and work hard on doubling down on what we’re good at.

We’re not aiming to become the biggest company in the world, but we are aiming to become the best, as that’s what we believe will help us achieve a successful and sustainable company over time.