Al Hales: Business is a puzzle, that’s all it is

Calling himself “a master of nothing”, he is making his own way through his love for the sea and for cooking. Read the full interview with this Australian businessman and his philosophy for business. Ladies and gentlemen: Al Hales, Founder & Owner of The Clubhouse in Porto Montenegro and Co-Founder of the Out in the Open series will share his recommendations on how to run a business abroad. 

#mnetoday: Perhaps many people are asked this question by the people they meet in Montenegro: What brought you here? What did you do before you settled here and opened The Clubhouse?

AH: I first came here in 2010. Before working on Golden Eagle I was living in the South of France, I needed money and got a job as a deckhand. We came to Montenegro for the opening of the first building and restaurant. I stayed for the winter season on the boat, at that stage I was a deckhand and a crew chef. I finished on the Golden Eagle in the spring of 2011 and during the winter made plans to establish a bar in Porto. So in summer, July 1st 2011, I opened The Clubhouse with my friend Harry.

#mnetoday: What inspired you to start this bar?

AH: I realised the potential for The Clubhouse early on after moving to Montenegro. Tivat was much less developed at that stage and I though that a bar with a foreign touch could be my contribution. I was then and still am dedicated to building up this town in positive ways and I think The Clubhouse has added soul to Porto Montenegro and Tivat over the years.

#mnetoday: What were the major challenges that you faced in the process of starting up your business in Montenegro and how did you solve them? Capital, staff, clientele, legal, market? Do you still encounter any of those challenges?

AH: I would say all of the above, starting a business in a new environment is always difficult, it doesn’t matter where you go. But considering it was a small bar, the risks were expectable. My plan was to continue to grow fast in Montenegro and the bar was the first step to learning about business here. I then followed with Mitsu Restaurant, Mr Ice Company, and my Food and Beverage consultancy here in Montenegro. As for next year I plan to move into the tourism market, more on that later.

#mnetoday: What do you like the most about being a bar owner and the business side of managing a bar?

AH: I was 25 when I started my first business and at that stage it was exciting being in a new place. A growing place that is new and exciting. It was nice to be here and to meet all new people, it was exciting just to be running my own business. Mostly it was the people, learning how to grow your own business and grow your own market was exciting to me. The Clubhouse has become a famous crew bar all over the world, It’s known by crew from everywhere. I was in Puerto Rico over winter and met people in a random bar that had been to The Clubhouse. On my way here this season my taxi driver to the airport had been to The Clubhouse.  When you see people all over the world who know about something you created, it gives  you the pride and energy to continue.

#mnetoday: So many bars or businesses fail in their first year (about 90%). How have you managed to survive? What has made your business successful?  What part of this business are you the proudest of?

AH: I can answer that in few ways. I have had businesses that have failed, not all my businesses have survived. I guess what makes you survive is getting the fundamentals right in the beginning, choosing your market carefully and understanding your market before you invest. Not overcapitalizing would be another tip from me, having a conservative business plan from the beginning. Most people overlook how much work goes into a small business and I think that is the reason that most fail.

#mnetoday: What is your most popular-selling drink or signature drink here?

AH: Espresso martinis, we brought them to Montenegro and we were the first ones to serve them. We are famous for it and it is still our top selling drink.

#mnetoday: What do you look for when hiring staff?

AH: Montenegro is a little different from anywhere else in this regard. The talent-pool is small. There are few people in Tivat, and few people who actually want to work in this industry, so you don’t always have a large choice. When I need new people I first look for staff recommendations, they tell me who is trustworthy and who will work within the team. A willingness to work hard and learn new skills, trumps experience a lot of the time in Montenegro.

[quote]When you see people all over the world who know about something you created, it gives you the pride and energy to continue.[/quote]

#mnetoday: Is there anything you wish you’d known before you became a bar owner?

AH: I guess the time required for me to be actually in the bar. The life of a bar owner is not always healthy. I love meeting and entertaining people, but it can be tiring.

#mnetoday: What would be the formula that you can share for those who want to open a business abroad? What should they avoid? And what should they do?

AH: Again I would say, first don’t overextend, start a small business first, that would be my first tip.  My second tip would be to try hard to find a local business partner, they can go places you can’t always go and help cut the learning curve.

#mnetoday: Your project “Out in the open” is becoming a hit this season. Tell us more about the origin and the mission of the project.

AH: Montenegro has been hidden from the world. We wanted to show its beauty through outdoor cooking. We never planned to have an instructional element to the show. Every other cooking channel is always about how exactly to cook something. We focus on scenery and cinematography, it’s a different format. The idea and the comments we received back are more about, you know, it’s a dream, each episode is supposed to take you away from where you are. It’s not supposed to instruct you on how to cook a steak, it’s supposed to take you on holiday for 3 minutes, that’s the concept.

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#mnetoday: Which characteristics do you possess that you consider to have contributed to your business success?

AH: I’m hardworking and I usually try to work smart. I don’t like the idea of just sitting behind a desk and grinding you know. I guess one of my biggest attributes is understanding what I know and especially what I don’t know. The ability to outsource and find a piece of the puzzle, and bring it into a business. Business is a puzzle you know, that’s all it is.

I’m a master of nothing. I don’t have a business degree, before I got a job on the Golden Eagle I had never worked in a kitchen. Before starting The Clubhouse I had never worked in a bar. I just know how to put the pieces of a puzzle together.


#mnetoday: What is your passion?

AH: Cooking has always been my passion and Out in the Open is certainly a passion-project. I never did it for money, it was always about doing something fun, being outside and cooking, which is basically, what I do in my spare time anyway. I think just getting out and doing stuff, anything that makes you a more interesting person is beneficial in life.

Marcel Proust Questionnaire:

Which living person do you admire the most? – AH: Anthony Bourdain is one of my favorite people, his passion for food and travel is much like my own. He is a rebel and an amazing writer.

What is the quality you most like in a man? – AH: Honesty.

What is the quality you most like in a woman? – AH: Faithfulness.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? –AH: My greatest achievement I guess, so far, are my businesses, I’m only 31. I would like my answer to be my family one day.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? –AH: Family, friendships with interesting people and businesses that can support my lifestyle of travel and change.

What is your current state of mind? –AH: Growth, I’m looking for growth in business for the next few years and then I’ll focus on another things.

What is your motto? – AH: I don’t have one.