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The Great Australian Dream
THEY ARRIVED IN AUSTRALIA AS MIGRANTS, OVERCOMING FINANCIAL AND LANGUAGE BARRIERS TO PLAY THEIR HAND IN SHAPING CANBERRA INTO WHAT IT IS TODAY.
Meet three families who’ve made the Great Australian Dream a reality.
Among the bustle of corporates and Parliamentarians in Barton’s busy Realm Precinct, sits a trim, softly spoken man in a pressed suit.
He is the man who helped create the swanky restaurant where the pollies are nonchalantly sipping pinot noir, the hotel where business travellers are busily wheeling suitcases, the café where a group of young friends are gathered, nursing soy chai lattes.
As the founder of one of the largest property and investment companies in Canberra, Doma Group, Ivan Domazet is behind some of the city’s most successful and pivotal developments in areas including the Kingston Foreshore, and most significantly, the Parliamentary Triangle in Barton.
But before all that, back when those sites were little more than dusty paddocks, Ivan set foot on Australian shores with just $20 in his pocket and the clothes he had on his back.
Born in 1946, Ivan grew up in the Croatian village of Bijeli Vir, some 211 miles south-east of Zagreb, the country’s capital city. It was post-World War II and times were uncertain; Germany was crushed and the map of Europe was being carved up by the United States and the Soviet Union.
By the time Ivan hit his teens, prospects were bleak: he could choose to join the army, enduring tough conditions, or he could pave a new life for himself. Either way, the decision was an emotional one: he’d have to do it without family.
With two friends, Ivan spent several days dodging armed Yugoslavian soldiers and hiking across the Slovenian Alps before arriving safely across the border where they were greeted by Austrian police. The boys were taken to a detention centre 20 kilometres outside of Vienna for questioning, before the process for asylum and resettlement began.
At the time, the choice for resettlement was between Australia, Sweden and Canada. Australia was hailed as “the lucky country”; advertisements promising golden beaches ran before movies in theatres, enticing Europeans to pack up their lives and start a new one in the land of leaping kangaroos and koalas.
“I can’t remember exactly why I chose Australia now,” Ivan says. “I think at the time, it was because it was the furthest away I could go from Europe.”
On 28 October 1964, at 18 years old, Ivan arrived in Australia, part of the surge of two million migrants who came to the country between 1945 and 1965. He spent four days in a migrant reception centre near Albury, before the most unlikely of circumstances landed him a job.
“I was playing a game of soccer and back then, people used to come to the camp on weekends looking for players to recruit for their home teams,” Ivan says. “These guys saw me and asked if I would come with them to Canberra. I said ‘Sure – why not?’”
On the drive to Canberra, Ivan mentioned the names of some people near his village in Croatia who had recently moved to Canberra. By chance, his driver knew them and Ivan was given board with his fellow Croatians on arrival.
“The Croatian community was very supportive – back in those days. There was probably only about five to six hundred Croatians living in Canberra but it was tight-knit,” Ivan says. “It was easier to meet people, easier to find job, easier to find everything.”
With his skills Ivan soon found work as a glazier, but the language barrier proved too difficult.
“I would be working and the others would start laughing, and I didn’t know if they were laughing at me or not,” he says. “I felt very uncomfortable.”
Through his soccer connections, Ivan met a group of fellow Croatians who were painters, before venturing out on his own, painting houses through word-of-mouth. He eventually landed a job sub-contracting for what was the biggest construction company in Canberra at the time.
“Back then there was too much land and not enough people,” he says. “And the government was handing out loans for $7K. So I bought a block of land for $150 and spent every evening and weekend building our first home.”
After building his three-bedroom, single garage home, Ivan and a friend went halves in a block of land, built another home, and sold it for a profit. One development quickly turned to two and three, and eventually Ivan was making enough to quit his job as a painter and set his sights on the property business full time, marking the berth of his career as one of Canberra’s most influential developers. The kid from Croatia had made it.
In an office overlooking the impressive Nishi building in NewActon, Tim Efkarpidis is reflecting on his first time on Australian shores.
Whip-smart with a slick sense of humour, Tim admits he’s not one to talk himself up, ploughing through any successes with humility. But Tim, born in the city of Katerini, near historic Thessaloniki in Greece, has played a hand in creating Canberra’s most innovative precinct.
Since it was built from the derelict Acton hotel site over 10 years ago, NewActon has given Canberra boasting rights across the country: a thriving, unique cultural hub with quirky cafés, funky bars, arts events and a tight-knit community feel. Most days you’ll see tourists gazing up in awe at the exquisite sculptures or snapping photos on their iPhones of the intriguing design of the precinct’s signature hotel, Hotel Hotel. Countless television shows have requested to film in the area, drawn to backdrops such as that wooden staircase in the foyer of the Nishi building, already one of Canberra’s most recognisable landmarks.
The award-winning precinct is by far the family’s proudest achievement to date, and although he helped develop it, Tim says it has exceeded all his expectations.
“I’m very proud of it as a family and as a team of dedicated people in our company,” Tim says. “I think personally it turned out better than expected. I don’t think it ever finishes though; there are always things you can add to it and improve it. I think the main thing was we didn’t listen to the negativity – there are always a few people who do not understand what you’re trying to do. There’s always going to be three or four people who try and fight it.”
Like Ivan, Tim didn’t speak much English when he arrived in Australia to meet with his brother, Tom, in August 1963. But both managed, working at cafés, restaurants and hotels to make ends meet. He copped his fair share of racism at the time, but took it with a grain of salt.
“You might get told go back to your own country, but you just ignore it,” he says. “It happens in every country – my parents dealt with racism in Greece because they were from Russia, so it is everywhere.
“Sometimes you’d feel alienated and upset, but you had to accept it and move on. It was what it was. If you don’t care, at the end of the day, it goes away. Once you think like that, then it doesn’t matter.”
With his brother Tom, Tim ventured into the supermarket industry as active members of the ShopRite and The Warehouse Group. At the time, the independents captured in excess of 45 per cent of the ACT’s supermarket trade. Before selling to Woolworths in 1996, the brothers created their own group, including Supabarn and Cannon’s Quality Fresh.
“After that, we decided it was time to try something new,” Tim says. With his sons Johnathan and Nectar, Tim helped to launch property development and creative production business Molonglo Group, beginning work on the NewActon precinct at the end of 2006.
Johnathan, who is a director of the group and established Hotel Hotel with Nectar, says he originally had aspirations to work in foreign affairs but eventually fell into the business after becoming immersed in it.
“Growing up, I had an appreciation for what Dad did and he always was a source of motivation for Nectar and I,” he says. “There are many advantages working with your family – the main one is you can trust them and that they’re going to do the right thing. Even when you are arguing, you know you both want the same thing, it’s just I want to go left, and they want to go right – but we still want to reach the same destination.”
The family is extremely proud of its heritage; in fact, the “community feel” of the precinct was designed to emulate certain Greek communities, where students, art lovers, business travellers and locals alike can mingle.
“That was one of the most difficult parts of the development,” says Johnathan. “Coming from a Greek heritage, I knew I could go out by myself because you knew you’d meet other people, and they were your instant friends. You feel connected.”
I ask Tim why he thinks so many European migrants have overcome vast barriers – language, money, isolation – to work their way to the top.
“You soon learn that you’re by yourself – with no family, no friends – so you have to work your butt off because nobody else will do it for you,” he says. “If you don’t do it, you might as well go back. You have no choice.”
It defines the drive behind successful first generation migrants: many tell stories about sacrificing time with their families to work 15–hour days, seven days a week, just to make sure their children can have the opportunities they didn’t.
The value of his father’s work ethic was never lost on Johnathan, as he tells: “When we were growing up, Dad always said ‘I don’t care if you’re going to be a garbage collector, just as long as you’re the best f*king garbage collector there is’.”
Though the late Giovanni Balzanelli also established a career in property, he ended up turning his attention to something a little meatier: the butchery industry, to be precise.
Today, Four Bee Meats Balzanelli Smallgoods is an award-winning business that produces meat for delis across Canberra and interstate, priding itself on meats locally handmade the traditional way.
Giovanni’s son, Marco, took over the business when he passed away in 2002 and when you walk into the Queanbeyan store, Giovanni is everywhere – from the black and white family photos on the walls to the photograph of his family home in the Italian village of Canicossa, printed on all the packaging.
“It’s really important to us to keep that connection,” says Marco. “To me, it means everything to continue along the lines of what my father started. I think what people really relate with, is the traditional aspect of our business.”
Giovanni and his wife Carla arrived in Australia from Italy in 1960, at 29 years old.
“They were actually going to try and go to Argentina at the time, but they weren’t taking any more migrants, so the only place they could go was Australia,” Marco says. “They had no idea where Australia was. But they jumped on a ship, and they started their life here.”
When he arrived, Giovanni knew about 150 words of English, the result of self-taught lessons on the long ship ride on the way over. With no family in Australia, the couple was taken to a migrant centre near Albury before receiving sponsorship to come to Canberra, where Giovanni worked as a labourer at Parks and Gardens.
“There were other Italian people working there as well who realised my father’s potential and helped him with getting a job on the Scrivener Dam when it commenced,” Marco says. “With a French company called CITRA, Dad ran his own job on the dam. Once the job was finished, they sent him and Mum to Queensland to work on another dam. They were there for two years. After the job, Mum and Dad both knew that Canberra was the place for both of them to raise their family so they came back here with my brother Andrew in tow.”
In the early 1970s, Giovanni began building units and houses, before investing money into a farm at Goulburn in 1979. Here, he started a piggery, selling meats to local shops, before eventually moving to Queanbeyan where the family have been ever since.
“We started out with a small butcher’s shop on Monaro Road in Queanbeyan, we were there for about five to six years, then we purchased a place in Fyshwick, a small factory,” says Marco. “We’ve been manufacturing in Fyshwick for all those years.”
Marco has fond memories of accompanying his father to the farm or butcher’s shop as a child.
“I remember the smell of the meat, and we’d make our dinners using it – Mum was the best cook, she’d cook anything,” he says. “Meat in the Italian way of cooking cuisine is very up there – the beautiful salamis, the slow-cooked meat. Mum would never cook a pasta sauce in less than four hours.”
Keen to help his father out, Marco joined the business when he was 16, taking a butchery apprenticeship.
The business has since expanded interstate, and has about 14 employees including Marco’s daughter Sandra, who runs the marketing side of the business, and wife Dolores who works in the Fyshwick office.
“There is so much hard work involved in this business,” Marco says.
“I’m very proud at the progress we’ve made, the quality of the products and the family we’ve grown. It was hard, because we had a dream of manufacturing a product, and it wasn’t easy but we were surprised at the outcome, because we did establish ourselves pretty quickly in the market with our product and know-how.”
Marco recalls when Giovanni retired from the business at 65, he still found it hard to “completely let go.”
“Dad had retired but he’d always be poking his head in – it was good though, I would enjoy making him a cup of coffee and talking to him about what we were doing,” Marco says.
When it’s the business you built from the ground up, it’s a difficult task to take a back seat and relax.
Though Ivan Domazet says he’s “semi- retired” these days, he enjoys coming into the Doma Group office in the Realm Precinct at lunchtimes to watch it thrive. Working with son Jure, who Ivan describes as the “front man” of the business now, the father and son’s relationship has only strengthened over the years.
“We’ve never had a fight in the entire time we’ve been working together,” he says. “Maybe it’s because we’re both strong,” he offers, with a chuckle.
“I never listened to anyone – lawyers, accountants – I only did what I wanted to. I’ve always been someone who looks forward. I think that’s why I’ve been successful in what I’ve done.”
Similarly, Tim Efkarpidis says the word “retire” doesn’t exist in his vocabulary.
Each day he rises early and dons a suit, heading into the office with a smile.
“I don’t know the meaning of the word retire,” he says. “I don’t want to die, I want to live.”
All photography by Martin Ollman