How pub mogul bought his local bar and went on to become a millionaire

Seven years ago, Australian dad-of-five Stephen Hunt scrabbled together the money to buy his local. Here he shares the frantic start to building his pub empire across the ditch.

Today, I’ve got seven pubs worth over A$100 million ($108m). But it all began with the purchase of one pub. It was not a great experience. In fact, that purchase nearly sent me bankrupt before I’d even begun.

It was 2015 and I was 42. I was living in the Hunter Valley with my wife and children. As it happens, my local bar, The Rutherford, was up for sale for A$4.73 million. I’d worked in bars for decades but had never bought one on my own.

After a few days of mulling it over, I thought, “Yep! I’m going to buy this bar!” I didn’t have a fraction of the money needed but I knew this was the bar for me.

I had A$600,000 from early investors, and A$400,000 from a recent property sale so I had my first million. Then the bank lent me A$2.73 million. Brilliant. Now I just needed to raise A$1 million to complete the purchase.

I made a list of the top ten people that I thought would be interested. I pitched them, they agreed and promised to deposit the money the following day. Off the back of these commitments, I signed the contract. Too easy.

I was beyond excited except that when I went back to collect the money, they’d all changed their minds. That wasn’t part of the plan. I was now A$1 million in the hole and I needed to come up with it within 24 hours or be sued for over A$4 million. What a way to start a business!

Time was running out

I went back to the original ten people who’d expressed interest and said, “I know you’re not interested but do you know anyone who is?” Fortunately, they did.

My first meeting was with two parents from my son’s school. I answered all their questions, and tried to stay calm. At the end of my presentation, he sat back, looked me in the eye and said, “I’m in for A$200,000.”

As I packed up my bag to leave, he said, “Who else is investing?” I told him, and out of nowhere he said, “Make it A$250,000”.

I drove like crazy to my next meeting, went through the pitch, and watched them like a hawk to gauge their reactions. “We’ll think about it and let you know in a few days.”

I didn’t have a few days. I had two hours!

As I got in my car, backing out, I said to one of them, “Mate,” I said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but just out of interest, if you were to invest, how much would it be for?”

“We’d invest A$300,000. Each.” And then with a few words that would change my life, he said, “It seems like you need an answer sooner rather than later, so consider it a done deal.”

I was ecstatic. I now had A$850,000 in the kitty, one meeting to go and one hour to secure the deal.

I hadn’t met these investors before but from the moment we sat down, we hit it off. Turns out, we grew up in the same neighbourhood. Before I had even finished my pitch, one of them said, “Steve, I’ve heard enough. I’m in for A$50,000.” My heart sank. I was still A$100,000 short.

I had to concede defeat. Just as I was about to walk out the door, the other two fund managers stopped me and said, “Do you have room for more?” “Possibly. How much are you looking to invest?” They said, “A$50,000. Each.”

I had done it! I had raised A$1 million in eight hours and in the process saved my house, my savings and the future of my family.

That little bar turned out to be a great investment for everyone and formed the foundation of my A$100 million pub empire but it was a helluva way to start my business journey.

I learnt many lessons from this experience. For a start, don’t take people at their word, don’t count your chickens before they hatch, and most importantly, don’t buy a bar before you have the money in the bank.

Stephen J. Hunt, author of Find. Build. Sell. (Wiley A$29.95), is the founder of Hunt Hospitality and a leading publican in Australia with a portfolio of properties valued at over A$100m. He was the 2021 winner of the Outstanding Business Leader Award, employs over 300 people, and lives with his wife and five children in the Hunter Valley.

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