American-born Jim Carreker went from being the chief executive officer of a tech company to launching one of Australia’s highly respected restaurants—Appellation at The Louise in the Barossa Valley
I was born and raised in Athens, Georgia, in the US. I studied engineering and pursued a 30-year career in the technology industry—for the first 15 years as a systems designer, then as a product line manager, and then as a product division general manager. In my mid-thirties I had an entrepreneurial itch and proceeded to create a new tech company and served for 15 years as its CEO. By my mid-fifties, I was ready for another challenge, at an age when some of my peers were thinking about playing golf or serving as advisory directors to start-up companies.
From personal travels with my wife Helen, we had observed that the great wine regions of the world often had outstanding small restaurants, and many had complementary luxury hotels. We made a decision to become hoteliers and find a wine region where we could develop a business together that offered guests the types of experiences that we had enjoyed. After a search that included Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and all the wine regions of Australia, we relocated to South Australia, having decided to launch a restaurant and accommodation in the Barossa Valley.
It was, of course, an intriguing and atypical transition. I was not only changing industries, but countries, too, with cultural differences. However, with a bit of outside-the-box thinking, I was able to successfully apply many of the principles I had learnt as an engineer and CEO to my new hospitality vocation in Australia.
For instance, an entrepreneurial approach suggests finding a radically different solution to a classic challenge. In our case, this was to develop a destination restaurant with co-located guest rooms at a time when virtually all regional Australian properties were focused on filling room nights. Back then, the food-and-beverage cost centre was simply adequate to feed the overnight guests.
We recognised that the Barossa had a fine international reputation for its wine exports, but there was really no appreciation that the local food sources were of equal quality to the wines. By establishing restaurant Appellation, sourcing outstanding local produce and operating the business to celebrate the dining experience at a level comparable to the best of Napa, Tuscany, Provence or Franschhoek, we set out in a new direction. Guests came for the dining experience, and wanted to stay overnight. The confidence to take this completely different approach came from my earlier career experiences.
I had learnt that to get to the root cause of a challenge, you have to be a good listener. If you’re not a good listener and if you’re not receptive to the feedback that you receive from your clients, you won’t be able to refine your approach and adjust your intended solution. So one of the most important messages that I share with my staff is to be a good listener and have a conversation with our customers and then share that feedback with the entire team.
I am a believer in employing people who are locals. At Appellation and The Louise we have a team of about 45 people and, typically, only one or two are new to the Barossa. The rest of our staff members have lived long-term in the local area. I give special emphasis to this because travellers these days are seeking authentic experiences. They want to know the inside story, to be booked into experiences not open to the public and to meet the local characters. And local staff have this knowledge.
Finally, one of the other important things I have learnt ever since switching industries is that success in both technology and hospitality involves a commitment to long hours and a 24/7/365 engagement. You have to truly love to serve your customers when they are relaxed and away from the other obligations in their lives—and that’s generally evenings, weekends and holidays. I never viewed this change as being ‘retirement’; in fact, the word does not exist in my vocabulary. The joy of hosting a wedding proposal, a 40th anniversary, or just a night out together is fulfilling. Work has to be about bringing joy to guests.