From the time she could walk, Angela Vithoulkas was destined to enter the business game, catching her first shoplifter at just three years old. Fast forward a few years, and Vithoulkas still hasn't taken her eyes off the prize; taking care of business.
Vithoulkas is now a formidable and well credentialed business champion, with a growing awards cabinet, and a long list of successful business ventures. As the director of the Vivo Café group, Vithoulkas has, along with her brother Con, taken control of struggling businesses and turned them around - time after time.
After almost 30 years of success in the hospitality industry however, Angela has now turned her hand to a more challenging frontier; a political revolution. Angela has formed a new political party, The Small Business Party, which is going to initially contest the NSW State election in 2019.
Never one to come in under-prepared however, Angela has spent the past 5 years on the City of Sydney council as an independent member. Over the past five years Vithoulkas has been involved in a number of successful initiatives and programs and has served on the Economic Development Sub-Committee.
As the Deputy Chair of the Economic Development Sub-Committee, Angela has overseen great successes in the development and implementation of some key economic policy decisions. One area that has truly benefited from her work is the tech and start-up realm, one where Vithoulkas says "with good economic and platform decisions, Sydney can truly be a world class start-up hub, developing ideas which impact all people across the globe."
With her successful re-election in 2016 as an Independent councillor on a platform of supporting small business, Angela began to realise that businesses in Sydney, and greater NSW were looking for someone to champion their cause to Government. It was with this re-election that Angela began to develop her plan for The Small Business Party.
"One of the most frustrating things as a small business owner, is seeing Government make decisions that hurt people like me, without even considering that hurt might occur" says Vithoulkas. With over 700,000 small businesses in NSW, employing over 1.5million people, Angela thinks the time is right to show the major political parties that small business can no longer be ignored.
"The turning point for me politically came in the 2016 election, people had come to me for months to talk about policies that were hurting them and their business in some way" says Vithoulkas. One key policy decision which started the influx of complaints was the controversial CBD-Sydney East Light Rail project.
From the day the project began, Angela has been an outspoken advocate for the small businesses along the route, who were destined to suffer. When asked about the early days of the light rail project, Angela tells me that "we had told them [Transport for NSW] that this plan was going to have a major effect on us - no one wanted to listen however". The message businesses and residents were given was to "think about the uplift at the end - it's short term pain, for long term gain" says Vithoulkas.
"As soon as the project began, and the buses stopped coming down George street, we knew we were in trouble" Vithoulkas says. As Transport for NSW had made the decision to stop the buses heading up George Street, businesses were beginning to see a drop in their trade. In some cases, Angela says, "these people lost 90% of their revenue overnight".
Given her small business position on council, and her outspoken opposition to the project, Angela quickly became the people's champion on the Light Rail. From her own business, Vivo Café at the corner of King and George, Angela has led regular meetings of stakeholders, hosted other advocates like Alan Jones, and taunted the NSW Government to make amends for their decisions on this project.
"The Government and Transport [for NSW] had been quiet on this project for a long time. It wasn't until we started uniting our voice and getting the media involved that they started to pay attention" Angela says. Vithoulkas tells me that it is this unwillingness to listen to the voters in NSW, particularly in small business which frustrates her the most. "I told Andrew [Constance] and Gladys [Berejiklian] over and over again, how hard this was for all of us. They promised me it would all be worth it, and nothing changed, but as soon as they get some negative media, they show concern" Vithoulkas says.
Now that there is significant media attention on the issue, and with the contract consortium ALTRAC now engaged in legal battles with the NSW Government, you would be hard pressed to find someone in NSW who doesn't know about the project. Vithoulkas says now however that, "even with everything happening, the damage clearly laid out for them, Transport [for NSW] are still not doing enough for these affected people. Lots of businesses have already gone under, and hundreds more are just clinging to life, and the best the Government can offer is a rental relief package which barely covers 3 months' rent."
With a class action suit now forming with Vithoulkas at the core, Angela is confident that "businesses will band together and take their fight directly to the Government". She is saddened however that "no matter the outcome or payments from the class action, it won't bring back those businesses that have closed, the family homes already lost, or the marriages that have already broken up".
As we speak however, Angela is constantly reminding me that the light rail project is just one of many the Government has committed to, without any consultation for small businesses. "We have at the moment, a Government that are so focused on spending infrastructure money, that they are blind to the damage it is doing - either that or they are wilfully ignoring it" says Vithoulkas.
Across NSW, the Berejiklian Government is spending billions upgrading roads, tunnels, railways, and buildings. On each of these projects, businesses and residents are speaking out about the damages and disappointment they are facing. Angela says this is "part of a turning tide for NSW. Every party swears they care about small business first, yet none ever make decisions supporting them. The Small Business Party is here to do just that - listen to business and then act for them and their families".
Angela tells me of another project, on the North Coast of NSW near Ballina, and one which has small businesses at its core. The Pacific Highway upgrade from Woolgoolga to Ballina, which is part of a $4billion upgrade plan. "Up there toward Ballina, there are 23 small businesses and their families, that are owed $7.5million, because the Government allowed them to get ripped off" says Vithoulkas.
"RMS [Roads and Maritime Service] contracted this upgrade to a firm from QLD, which then sub-contracted earthworks out to another mob from QLD. These guys went on to sub-contract their role to these 23 businesses, and then stopped paying them" says Vithoulkas.
"The hard part here is the Government had oversight on this project, and kept handing money to these companies, even though they knew it wasn't being paid down the line. Now, there are businesses in financial ruin, marriages have broken up, and Melinda [Pavey] is still trying to pass the buck, claiming its bad luck, but all part of business" Vithoulkas claims.
Angela tells me about the story of these families, and unsurprisingly has a mountain of information to substantiate her tale. The ill-fated 'Wave 5 Debacle' as she calls it, is another example of the Government not taking the right steps to protect people when undertaking contract negotiations. "Much like the light rail, these families might have been able to protect themselves if they had any warning - or if the Government had done the right thing from the beginning" says Ms Vithoulkas.
It is stories like light rail, wave 5, and many others that have cemented a key policy area for Angela and the direction her new party is taking in the political realm. "I am personally looking to get into the NSW Upper House, as I believe this is where I can have the most impact in protecting NSW small businesses" Angela says.
"One area that I feel I can make a huge difference, is in stopping bad policy before it happens - taking the small business concern to the most influential table in NSW. With a champion in the Legislative Council, I will have the opportunity to directly influence policy decisions, to be a check and balance for the Government in ensuring that their decisions don't hurt small business" Ms Vithoulkas says.
"All too often now we see Government scrambling to compensate or support the people they have failed; this is a terrible business model. We should be making contract and policy decisions at the beginning which add contingency plans and take into account all the impacts that might occur as a result of a project.
Wouldn't it be nice to hear in the news for once, that Government was prepared for, and did enough for those they ruin day in and day out? That is my plan with The Small Business Party - to be a voice of conscience in Parliament, and one that represents business as an independent leader, and not one trying to save my seat" Angela says.
"There is space for a small business party - I would even say there is an appetite for one. Small business is all too often referred to as the engine room of the Australian economy, but if we were an engine we would be well and truly out of warranty by now." Vithoulkas says.
"Across NSW we are going to field a number of candidates for both the lower and upper houses. Small businesses are everywhere in Australia, and there has never been a voice to stand purely for them - until now" Angela says.
"The NSW election will be just the beginning for us, as we take our ideas and our passion nationally, we hope to become a central point of support for any small business owner.
We are out and about each day listening to businesses about their issues and working on ways to advocate for them." Ms Vithoulkas says.
The political landscape in Australia is an interesting one at the moment, with Prime Minister Turnbull recently recording the longest streak of losing news polls , surpassing that set by former Prime Minister Gillard . Increasingly across the country, voters appear to have become tired of the bickering and point-scoring which ultimately leads us nowhere as a nation.
The next two months will be pivotal for the Government and their Labor opponents federally, as 5 by-elections take place across the country. Their outcome may well determine who the next Prime Minister is, a result which will most certainly influence what happens to businesses across the country.
As the major parties fight over company tax cuts, income tax cuts, and the GST, little concern is given to the small business sector. Fundamentally the major parties cannot truly represent small business, as we are but a small (pun intended) part of the political agenda. Like an old mom and pop corner store, no-one realises they love us till we are gone.
The Small Business Party seems like they have the right ideas, and the right leader to truly represent small business. In keeping with their motto "because small business matters", Angela and her team are poised to become the only dedicated business voice in politics.
Angela believes the next few months are going to be vital for the party and for small business as a whole. "I am committed to this party and to all small business owners across Australia. I will listen to anyone's issue and help wherever I can - anywhere in Australia" Vithoulkas says.
Angela passionately says that "If small business is the engine of the economy, then we sure as hell better start taking care of it. No car I have ever owned worked without an engine, and our economy is the same. Without small businesses, there would be millions of Australians out of work, revenue and taxes would be lower, and the country would be even worse off than we already are.
All across the country our Government is selling us out to big business and foreign interests. The Prime Minister, the various Premiers, and their teams forget where it all began - at the local grocer, the local chemist or the local mechanic. Without small business I wouldn't be where I am today, and I will do everything I can to make sure my family and the next generation get their chance as well."
The Small Business Party is contesting the 2019 NSW State Election on the 23rd of March 2019. For more information, head to thesmallbusinessparty.com.