Hatem Saleh has built the Atlantic Group into a powerhouse Melbourne hospitality business by being passionate, driven and just doing what he loves. By Frank Leggett
“Things were often tough in my younger years so, at about 16 years of age, I decided to get myself a job. Hospitality seemed like it could be interesting and I found employment at a local function centre. It was a venue in Tullamarine called Melrose Melbourne and it’s still around today. That was the beginning of my career.
“I stayed at Melrose for a few years then went out and worked in a variety of cafes and restaurants. I managed to save some money and when the opportunity came along, I started my first restaurant, Atlantic, at the age of 21 in 1994.
“Owning and running my own restaurant instilled a passion in me for the hospitality industry. That was really the beginning of the Atlantic brand.
“Melbourne was crying out for a venue that could seat more than 500 guests so in 1998 we opened a function space called Atlantic South Wharf, right next to the convention centre. This was followed by a second function venue called Sumac and then a bar called Alumbra in 2002.
“All of our venues were running really well and everything was going great guns. Then the Victorian State Government announced plans to develop South Wharf in 2006 and issued us a notice of compulsory acquisition. It was quite a shock. We had spent years growing the business, growing the brand, employing staff and all of a sudden, the rug was pulled out from underneath us.
“The compulsory acquisition was meant to be complete in three months but we managed to drag it out for nine months so we could fulfil our obligations to the many functions that were already booked.
“We relocated to Central Pier, Docklands, in 2007, and the diversification of our business continued. We now have bars, restaurants, nightclubs, venues, eateries, function centres and bakeries scattered across Melbourne. Our first international venture, The Atlantic restaurant Dubai, opened in 2017. Our external catering arm, Tommy Collins by Atlantic Group, has set the bar in regards to quality and service.
“I really feel that the thing we’ve done very successfully over the past 20 years is to grow people. We’ve probably had 20 of our staff who have gone off and started their own cafe or restaurant in the past decade.”
In our Atlantic Group Major Events department, we provide premium catering to a range of high-profile events, including the Melbourne Cup Carnival and the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix.
“With over 1000 staff we host 1200 events each year and welcome over 1.5 million people to our hospitality and event businesses at Central Pier. While the Atlantic Group has been very successful, for me, success comes as a result of doing something I really love. When you’re passionate and engaged, it makes you focused and committed. It also encourages you to be nimble and a little bit agile. You need a healthy dose of resilience in this industry. You’ll go through challenges, you’ll have hard times, you’ll have many hurdles to get over. It’s resilience and a belief in yourself that will get you through those challenges.
“At the end of the day, success is contingent on the people you employ and the people you place around yourself. Tony and Peter Schiavello are my business partners and also on our board. They supply a mentorship that flows through to the group general management team, to the executives, and then to everybody else on staff. We ensure that our recruitment strategy focuses on people who are passionate and love their job as much as I do.
“I really feel that the thing we’ve done very successfully over the past 20 years is to grow people. We’ve probably had 20 of our staff who have gone off and started their own cafe or restaurant in the past decade. That has a lot to do with that sort of mentorship that they receive through our business.
“At the same time, we also have staff that stay with us for the long haul. Just recently we celebrated with four people who had been with us for 10 years.
“I’m very proud that the Atlantic Group has been in the city for years doing good, interesting things while really pushing the boundaries in terms of quality. We’re researching food trends. We’re looking for great locations. We’re designing. We’re interior decorating. It’s very exciting.
“The hospitality industry offers magnificent opportunities. You just need to be committed and willing to give it your all. I’d tell any interested young person to give it a go and put in your best effort. With focus, drive and passion, you can be very successful indeed.”