If one has to describe the entrepreneurial journey of Antoine Bakhache, owner and Managing Director of Bakhache Luxuries, it is a life full of vivacity and hue. Born in Lebanon, Antoine has lived in the US, Thailand, India and Malaysia and worked and set up ventures in some of these countries. From events to jewellery to silverware to food, he has experienced it all - running businesses in various industries and now, expanding to Australia, another entrepreneurial adventure to add to his experiences.
For Antoine, what is central to any business is the people – the staff and the customers. With the former, getting the right people on board is crucial to the success of his ventures. “Your business is as good as the people that work with you. Even if you have the best brand and the best location, but you have the wrong people doing the job, it won’t work. I am blessed to be surrounded by a very good team, an enthusiastic team that is willing to learn, grow and work hard to obtain results,” Antoine remarked. “A sense of contentment and fulfilment for me is to have my team one day look back and appreciate that their journey with Bakhache Luxuries was a journey of learning and self-improvement,” he added.
There are different kinds of enterprises with different visions, goals, strategies, priorities and challenges. The one thing Antoine finds common to all these and which he pays very close attention to is the client. “At the end of it all, every business has a customer. The mission of our company, Bakhache Luxuries, is to ‘WOW’ every guest. First of all, we don't call our client a customer. We refer to him or her as a guest. If I stay in your house as a guest, you are going to do your best as a host to ensure that everything is near perfect, if not perfect – from the bedroom being spotlessly clean to preparing a tasty breakfast in the morning. It is in this same light that we consider and refer to not only our clients or customers as our guests but also our staff members and ensure that we pay attention to every detail, requests and desires no matter how minute they may seem,” explained Antoine.
Experience has taught Antoine lifelong wisdom. It has not been plain sailing for him. He had to leave his home country of Lebanon at the age of 18 years due to the war. At that time, he took a Lebanese singer and some musicians for a singing tour to the US with the help of his cousin who was based there. It was his first major failure in business according to Antoine, but he learned from the mistakes. The knowledge kept coming to him as he finished his education and continued with his entrepreneurial journey in the US.
He first worked with the Mouawad family, relatives that are in the international jewellery business, and a brand that Bakhache Luxuries represents today. He relocated to Bangkok, Thailand to oversee the company’s business there, taking the role of general manager (at 23 years of age) and managing 300 people. While others may have considered the position as just a job, Antoine ran the business as if it was his own.
From Thailand, he moved to India where he started a pizza chain, the Pizza Corner. “I was the co-founder and the CEO and built that pizza chain from scratch. I did everything from creating the uniforms, producing the menu to working with big consultants from the US,” Antoine narrated. Within six years, he grew the business to 100 outlets. But the food business is a tricky industry, and Antoine was missing the jewellery trade. So, he started to consign jewellery from the Mouawad family, organised shows for the company and sold the pieces all on his own. It had dawned on him that it took less effort for him to earn through the jewellery business than to sell hundreds of thousands of pizza.
In 2005, he decided to concentrate on jewellery, but he had two options. The first was to go back to Mouawad and expand it in the Asia-Pacific region. The second was to set up his own business, represent Mouawad and grow the business in Malaysia. He could have gone back to Thailand where he was more familiar with the setting and the language. However, he was starting a family, and Malaysia presented a better infrastructure and environment, both for his family and for the business.
As he started with Bakhache Luxuries, Antoine decided not to take Mouawad by opening in other locations. Instead, he went for a horizontal expansion of the business, bringing in high-end brands like Christofle, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, and Lotus Arts de Vivre. One of Antoine’s strengths is that he listens intently to the needs and movements of his market. Realising that the ones footing the bills for his products are the husbands, he wanted to include a business that would allow him to socialise with the men in the family. That is how he brought in Truefitt and Hill, a high-end barbershop in London. Last year, he also expanded by coming up with Bakhache Foods that included brands like Castania.
One of the many concerns Antoine had in introducing a new business or brand is the reaction of the market to it. He always worried that it might not work. “At the end of it, it's your gut feel, whether you think it will work or not,” he quipped. There is always the possibility of the business failing, especially when there are several parameters to consider in starting one. In his experience, there were times when he had to relocate an outlet, close a store or halt a business. “Closing down a business is always a 'no', and it doesn't feel that great. However, if it doesn't work, you learn – it’s a learning process,” he added.
Antoine tried opening a secondary jewellery business. He brought jewellery from Europe that was of almost similar quality but cheaper than the ones he was already selling. “That was the whole thinking. Sitting in a boardroom, it sounded like a good idea. When we executed it, we found out that the gap in the price was not enough for us to attract a new market. We were still talking to the same market. It didn't make sense, so I had to close it down,” Antoine recounted.
Another challenge that business owners face is the external forces that affect the economy and the profitability of their ventures. “The frustrating part of a business is when you are working very hard, and you know the business makes sense, as it did in the past, but the economy is low,” he remarked.
For that, he underscores the importance of taking calculated risks. According to Antoine, “There are benefits of being an entrepreneur, but there are also negatives of being an entrepreneur. It’s not all the time what you think will work, works. There are so many failures that happen, but if you are not ready to take a risk in life, do not be an entrepreneur. That’s what being an entrepreneur is all about – taking risks.”
The rewarding part for him as a business owner is to see his people grow with him. “My legacy to the people and the team that worked with me is that they have learned something. My brand manager for Truefitt and Hill started as a receptionist. As a brand manager, I'm exposing him to so many things, including EO. He's learning marketing activities, and he's doing a great job. My head of Admin and Finance joined us as an accountant. Today, he has invested money and is my partner in the food business. These people are learning, and when they like what they learn, they stick around because they’re growing individually.”
The horizontal expansion also worked well for Antoine and his business. “Diversification is very interesting and good, as long as it works with your core business and makes sense to your team. Your team must be able to handle it,” he said.
He also cites the significance of surrounding himself with like-minded business owners. He joined Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) to learn from others and share his journey with them. He started with EO Malaysia and recently joined EO Melbourne because he decided to take his business and the brands he represents to Australia. “We have bought the rights of Truefitt and Hill for Australia. Now, that we have opened our first outlet in Canberra, we are planning for another ten outlets in Australia in the next five years, as well as distributing the products. I also have a personal interest in Australia myself. My daughter will be attending university and my son is in school in Australia as well.”
For Antoine, “EO is all about learning and sharing your experiences. I think the great benefit I had in Malaysia is that I was able to share my experiences with many members. Of course, I learned quite a lot too, but I feel that at this point, I've shared more than I've learned because of the duration I have been in Malaysia with 14 to 15 years there. What I benefited big-time from EO is my international exposure. EO members genuinely give you their feedback. You're dealing with people on the same wavelength, with the same kind of challenges that I encounter and who are open to each other. I feel now that with my transition into Melbourne, I'm getting more out of EO than I'm giving out, which makes me very happy because I'm new to the business climate in Australia.”
Antoine does not subscribe to a five-year or ten-year plan because he finds the market agile and that can disrupt the business overnight. Having said that, he still does regular planning to prepare his business and his team for the next steps. “I don't plan so much ahead. I'd rather see the trend and plan. I have a picture of what I want to do in the next three years, but I plan every six months,” he explained.
Thinking of what lies ahead for the rest of his business journey, Antoine always keeps in mind the people around him. “Although I'm not a believer of the five-year or ten-year plan, I know where I want to be in the future. Whatever is said and done, it's a family business. When I say family business, it means my family and my team. I want to secure growth for them,” the enthusiastic entrepreneur imparted.
As he moves forward to the next phase of his entrepreneurial journey, Antoine appreciates the beauty of the spectrum that his experiences have brought to his life. His colourful journey has also helped others cull inspiring stories and insightful lessons that they can also bring to their paths.
Learn more about Antoine Bakhache and Bakhache Luxuries at http://bakhacheluxuries.com/.