Hospitality giant wasn’t a success overnight

Hospitality giant wasn’t a success overnight

7 December 2016

John Lawrenson (Hamilton 1991-1992) recently opened his seventeenth venue, The Roaming Giant, at the small cost of $5 million dollars. It’s a culmination of everything diners love about his hospitality empire, The Lawrenson Group, and it’s been four-and-a-half years in the making.

Now that it’s finally open, the numbers are in and the punters are loving it. John says it’s so much more than he ever imagined.

The 38-year-old started The Lawrenson Group about 10 years ago, slowly building the group one-venue-at-a-time to where it is today, turning over $30 million a year.

It’s been a long journey and one that didn’t come without its challenges. John says he has been knocked down time-and-time again by possible investors, business partners and his own poor decision making but he didn’t let these hurdles set him back.

It all started when John was working at Taylor McLachlan in his late 20s. The temperature was seven degrees in Dunedin and he had just returned from a trip to Europe.

“I was back in a job that was paying $40,000 a year and I was looking out the window thinking I am not doing this for the rest of my life,” John said.

He had a choice. Continue working nine-to-five in a suit and tie “slowly getting fat” or live a life that he could “go to the grave happy with.”

So, he quit and went back to his pre-university job as a bar tender earning $12 an hour.

“I was surrounded by people who were too scared to take risks. They were happy to collect a salary that was less than what their clients would make in a week. So I said, I’m done with this.”

At the same time he started investing in property with the help of investors. He sold his first property within three months after some minor renovations to make a cool $30,000. From there he bought and sold property until he had made enough capital to start The Lawrenson Group.

He moved to Hamilton with big ambitions, he saw opportunities and had a vision that others didn’t. “The Hamilton hospitality scene was limited to three gang bars, Iguana, The Outback and The Bank,” he explained.

Slim pickings for a city of Hamilton’s size.

He started working at one of the local restaurants to get an idea of what the market and competition was like and within a few months he asked the owner to invest in his vision.

“He turned me down and I remember him asking me ‘What makes you so special?’,” John said.

“That really stuck with me. It wasn’t something I really understood at the time but it was a huge motivation for me, I thought ‘I’ll bloody show you!’.”

He started The Lawrenson Group within the year. First, opening Furnace and then Bar 101.

He worked 365 days a year for the next three years; a lifestyle that caused his stress levels to skyrocket, a 30 kilo weight gain and the onset of oesophageal ulcers.

“Honestly, I was supremely confident at the start and then once we started building I started developing oesophageal ulcers. I remember collapsing on my stairs at home thinking I was having a heart attack because the pain was so intense.”

The venues were a roaring success, John regained his health and over the next ten years he worked on project-after-project to grow The Lawrenson Group to the 17 venues it is today. Most of his bars and restaurants have been extremely successful, but there has been the odd “disaster”.

“I lost a couple of hundreds of thousands on one place and it was a great lesson. You need to be brought back into check every now and then,” he explained.

“I was making a lot of money and I believed my own hype. I got brought back down to earth with a shuttering thump and it was the best thing that happened to me. I’d like to think I won’t make that mistake again.”

He now has a winning formula and he plans to stick to it over the next few years as he grows the group by six new venues. He plans to launch two new restaurant bars at Tamahere and Rototuna and relaunch the Doolan Brothers failed establishments in Hamilton’s CBD that he picked up for bargain basement prices – Danny Doolans, Good Home and Honky Tonks.

He also has plans for a “Melbourne-style reclaimed industrial craft beer bar”, a new café in the CBD and a new and improved site for Victoria Street Bistro.