As the CEO of Vittoria Coffee, Les Schirato is exactly the man you might imagine him to be. He knows the name of every single worker in his Silverwater coffee headquarters, from the guy on his eighth sales call of the morning to the forklift drivers shifting crates.
He cuts a sharp figure in an Italian suit (always). He played Santa Claus at the staff Christmas party every year until the kids worked out who he was. He's been working in the same company for most of his adult life. And he's the man who tasted his first coffee as a four-year-old boy.
"I was a skinny kid and my father was worried that I was anaemic," says Schirato. "[My parents] used to make an egg flip in the morning for me and put it in a bottle. I didn't like eggs, so to disguise the taste, they used to drop coffee in it."
He still remembers the taste, and it was his first foray into a lifelong obsession with coffee. His father, who worked as a sales and deliveryman for Cantarella Brothers – today, the imported food arm of Vittoria – would deliver coffee all around Sydney and beyond. The back seat of the car would always smell of freshly roasted beans. It was an immensely comforting smell to Schirato.
Growing up visiting the Italian delis and restaurants where his dad sold all those products – bottled water, parmesan, vinegar, olive oil, baccala, olive paste – gave him a very specific palate. To the horror of his friends, to this day he's never even stepped foot in an Indian restaurant.
His parents, having arrived in Australia in the 1950s as Rolando and Teresa, quickly Anglicised their names to Ron and Tessie. "They didn't want to give me a proper Italian name, so they called me Leslie so I'd blend in. Today I wish my name was Alessio." Even though he was born here, Schirato felt different. Uncomfortable. Speaking Italian made him stand out in a way he didn't like. "All those stories you hear where migrant kids were scared to eat their lunch at school and threw it away instead, that's how I grew up."
All those stories you hear where migrant kids were scared to eat their lunch at school and threw it away instead, that's how I grew up.Les Schirato
When Schirato was 16, he went to work for Cantarella Brothers, like his father. On his first day, he went out on a delivery run with one of the truck drivers. "At about two o'clock, he said, 'OK. Now we're going to go and park the van and we're going to have a little sleep.' And I thought, 'What the hell is going on here?' The funny thing is that Italian truck driver is still working for us today."
Schirato isn't too sure if he still takes those naps, but, he says, "he deserves them".
Apart from his seven years at Fiat (he left the company after he started seeing Luisa Cantarella, Mr Cantarella's daughter, for obvious reasons), Schirato has been with the company for more than 40 years. He ended up marrying Luisa and coming back to the company in the early '80s to help market and sell to Australians outside of the Italian community. Today, he and his wife own the company together, having gradually bought the rest of the family out.
But back in the '80s, it was a different story. It was a tough time for Australian businesses across the board, and the company was in danger of folding. Schirato says fixing the business was a job that was semi-thrust upon him. He felt that all those people he'd grown up with in the business were counting on him to make it work. "In some ways, I didn't know what I was doing, and I probably wouldn't have taken the risks and the debt that we had at that time if I was a good businessman."
He was frightened. He was good at sales, he was good at marketing. But the recession had caught a lot of people off guard. And business wasn't his strength at that point. "I remember going home and saying to Luisa, 'Look, we've got to mortgage our house. We could lose everything. We might have to go live with our parents again,' which was a good incentive to be successful."
Schirato was back every night with the senior management team, just working on ways to dig the company out of the red. Luisa would bring his clothes and he would get dressed at the office. He had dinner at the factory nearly every night for nine years, just trying to save the business. What it meant, though, was that he learned every facet of the company.
There wasn't a part of Vittoria or Cantarella Brothers that he didn't know how to run. "I had a baptism by fire and the biggest thing I learned was people. The people who loved working with me and who, even though I was scared, put their trust in me. I had to show that I had all the answers even when I didn't."
He credits a strong working culture with pulling the company out the other side. "We worked together. We laughed together. I was crazy. We joked. But, at the same time, we worked hard and got results. And it was that camaraderie that made us grow."
Schirato says he based his business skills, to a certain extent, on military strategy – employing a uniformity to everything from the way they dressed, to the way they spoke. "The reason I did it was I didn't know what I was doing. And through the years, I grew and I learned, but it was exciting."
It's the devotion to family, really, that makes the company Les Schirato has built exceptional. "People work long hours and they do so much. And we tend to have people that stay. I've got three generations of family members working for us: their grandfather, their mother, and their kids. It becomes this culture where the kids know me and my family and you watch them grow."
"To me, it isn't money that drives me to be successful. Of course, the byproduct is great, but you get to the stage where you just love it. I mean, passion's a word that everyone uses. If I go to a supermarket, I still fix up the supermarket shelves," says Schirato. "I get hurt when I hear people make comments like, "oh, Vittoria is a multinational. They don't care as much." Well, it's actually the opposite. We were a little boutique, and we've grown and we're a successful coffee company now. People think that we don't care as much as some little roaster. It's not true. We care even more."
"Our biggest issue is success. People tend to think that if successful, you couldn't be as good as the little guy on a drum roaster on his own. And that's not true. It's like Penfold's Grange. You can't say Grange isn't any good any more because it's successful."
For Schirato, his work is his life. "I work with some of the best chefs in Australia. And I feel so lucky that I'm in that industry. I loved what we were doing and I loved my job and I was very passionate about it. You don't do it for the money. You love what you do and it shows, right?"