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‘Incredibly challenging’: Radek Sali learns through failure

Sali made his fortune as the chief executive of vitamin company Swisse, which was bought by international giant Biostime in 2015 in a deal that valued the company at $1.67 billion. It was a $250 million payday for Sali. He had previously spoken of “sailing close to the sun” at times, carrying $15 million in personal debt when Swisse was nearly sold for $30 million. It would have paid Sali only $4.5 million, leaving him bankrupt.

Radek Sali with Nicole Kidman at a Swisse event in Shanghai in 2016,

Radek Sali with Nicole Kidman at a Swisse event in Shanghai in 2016,Credit:Hu Chengwei

Fortune favoured Sali that time, but Made has proven a bigger challenge for the entrepreneur since he took a majority stake in the restaurant group in 2016. A few months later, Made self-reported a historical $2.6 million underpayment of its workers to the Fair Work Ombudsman, though there’s no evidence Sali knew the underpayments were happening.

This figure later increased to $7.8 million and administrators were appointed in February. Around 350 employees lost their jobs across Made’s 18 restaurants and fast-food outlets including Gazi, souvlaki chain Jimmy Grants, Yo-Chi frozen yoghurt stores and restaurant Elektra Dining Room.

Along with celebrity chef George Calombaris, Sali has found himself at the centre of media scrutiny over the collapse, as administrators KordaMentha prepare to hand down a creditors report next week.

A week before Made collapsed, companies linked to Sali were registered as secured creditors in the business and documents lodged by Sali with the administrators show he was owed $13.74 million. Administrator Craig Shephard of KordaMentha declined to comment.

Sali is tightly managing his public image through an external public relations firm and preferred to answer questions in writing.

In his emailed response, Sali says the team at Made was “extraordinary” and did “everything possible” to turn the business around. “These colleagues have unfairly found themselves at the centre of a national debate and the subject of misreported facts,” he says. “This takes an extensive personal toll on individuals that have done everything in their power to try to avoid this disappointing outcome.”

He says the combination of the staff underpayments, bushfires and COVID-19 outbreak created a “Black Swan” event for Made, with revenue dropping by up to 50 per cent.

At the time of Made’s collapse, Sali said he would ensure workers entitlements were paid, but it is now likely that a large proportion of the payments will be made under the government’s last resort scheme, the Fair Entitlements Guarantee. It will take months to determine these entitlements.

Radek Sali and celebrity chef George Calombaris at Jimmy Grants in Fitzroy in 2016.

Radek Sali and celebrity chef George Calombaris at Jimmy Grants in Fitzroy in 2016.Credit:Paul Jeffers

    One former Made employee, who does not want to be named, says Sali brought a very “entrepreneurial vibe” to the restaurant group. “I felt the decisions made at the top end did not always consider how they would impact frontline,” the employee says.

    “Does he know hospitality? No. Does he know business? Yes. But I don’t know if he had a chance. Looking back now with hindsight, he bought into a big situation.”

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Sali brought five former Swisse executives to Made. “He did surround himself with friends and staff,” says the former employee. “There were often comments we had vitamin people running a hospitality company. There were so many expensive people and there is only so much margin in a souva.”

Sali sees Made as just one investment that was not successful out of the many he has made. Through his company Light Warrior he has investments in raw milk distributor Made By Cow, DNA testing company My DNA, electrolyte drinks and tablets maker Hydralyte, advertising agency Stratosphere and yoga and wellness festival Wanderlust Australia. “Thankfully, we’ve had more ups than downs,” Sali says.

Chief executive of My DNA, Lior Rauchberger, says Sali adds a lot of value to the businesses he invests in by drawing on his previous experience. “What I like about Rad is he doesn’t feel the need to talk all the time,” he says. “He is a deep thinker he is always listening, listening, listening. When he does have something to say, it is quite analytical and insightful.”

Sali is also chair of Food and Wine Victoria (where chief executive Anthea Loucas Bosha describes him as “creative, dynamic and entrepreneurial”) on the board of his beloved Hawthorn Football Club and a committee member of non-profit business organisation the Bteam for Australasia.

He says besides work he is focused on his wife Helen and their 17-month-old daughter. “We waited nine-and-a-half years for her, so every moment is precious,” Sali says. “To relax and unwind, I meditate. I walk to and from work. I go to the gym and do yoga.”

Friend and business partner Adem Karafili was the former managing director of Swisse and grew up with Sali in Melbourne’s Hawthorn. “He is 100 per cent people first,” Karafili says. “Even through this, his biggest worry is not the money, the administrators will follow the money trail, but he doesn’t want to let anyone down personally.”

    Sali is still looking for the positive in the past month. “It is in my nature to always look for the learnings in all that I do, and I truly believe that you learn the most through failure,” he says. “Let’s face it, there will always be failures in life, for all of us, but it is how we choose to deal with these failures that defines us.”

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