Lots of entrepreneurs have great rags-to-riches stories, but few can top Abraham Hatoum, the founder of clothing alteration franchise LookSmart Alternations. Hatoum arrived in Australia in 1985 after enduring a childhood in which is family was forced to flee Palestine, his father was murdered and his family home was bombed.
But on arriving in Australia and completing his studies, Hatoum set about building a business that has almost 100 franchisees and annual turnover of $28 million. Fresh from winning the 2010 Ethnic Business Award, Hatoum recounts his inspiring story to SmartCompany.
I should really start by saying congratulations on the award.
I appreciate that. It was a big thing for me. I won $10,000, but awards are never about money, it meant a lot to me. It’s about accomplishment I guess and I’m hoping to use it for a good cause.
It’s a great milestone on your journey through business, which has been really amazing. Can we go back to the start and can you tell us about your childhood?
My parents were born in Palestine, in Haifa, in Nazareth. In 1948 they fled to Lebanon thinking that they were going to go for a week or two, but they never thought that they would never be able to go back.
My family were quite wealthy, they had massive, massive ownership of land and were very comfortable. So my grandfather came with a big tin full of gold, but when he arrived in Lebanon, someone, you can consider him a thief, actually took all the gold and we were left with nothing. My grandfather stabbed this guy seven times to try and get the gold back, but he never got it back and he got seven years in jail.
So then my dad had to start working pretty early, he was not even a teenager yet. He built himself a cart and I think the first thing he was doing was selling bananas, but he was very, very business orientated and he built himself another business, the first mobile food van in Lebanon. He served coffee, sandwiches, refreshments, you name it.
I used to go with him, I served customers, I learnt a bit of the business background through that.
Your first taste of entrepreneurship.
Exactly. Now in 1975 the war started in Lebanon and everybody stopped working. My dad’s business was seized and his van was standing next to our home in a refugee camp. It was rotting, pretty much rusting.
So as a child, maybe because I’m an entrepreneur by nature, maybe I got it from my dad, I’m not sure, I came up with an idea that I wanted to open my own business. So at the age of 10, I got my two cousins and I brought them to my house and I said, ‘Let’s make a business plan”. My two partners were 13 and 14 at the time, so they were surprised. I said look, my dad has a machine in his van to make juice drinks and I said why don’t you get a few glasses from your house, I’ll get a couple of knives and you get the bucket and you get whatever.
So in that business meeting we did a feasibility study and we basically had very little funds, but we bought four little metal wheels and then we went all around and collected timber from everywhere and built the cart and off we go. We went to the market, we bought oranges and then straight into the army barracks and embassies, wherever there were large crowds of people, we were there.
Pretty soon we were making money you could not believe at that time. We were so happy and we started buying ourselves all this food and drinks and all the toys that we wanted. When we went back home every day, everybody saw how much money we had and all the kids in the area wanted to copy of us.
So we kind of created a mini economy in the camp.
And created some competition?
What happened was many of the kids built their own carts and they started selling Lebanese pizzas and refreshments.
Now, the adults looked at the kids working and making money and they were inspired. My dad was the first to actually say hey, I’m not going to sit and play cards, I’m not going to surrender to the circumstances. So my dad opened a fruit stall near the camp.
But there is a very, very sad story to this. An absolutely shocking story that I never shared with anyone until recently. After a few months he was killed in that fruit shop and as an 11-year-old, you know what I did? I blamed myself for my dad’s death and I have lived with my nightmares for the rest of my life. Why did I think this way? It’s because it was me who started a business, and then everybody started copying, and then my dad opened his business because I started and hence I blamed myself. I lived with this for many, many years.
I had a very, very hard life when my dad died, because we were separated into three groups. My brother and I went to one orphanage, my two other sisters, the young ones, went to a separate orphanage, and the two adult sisters and my mum had to obviously work and assist us where they could.
And it was those circumstances that drove you to decide to try and come to Australia?
Well after we separated into three groups, I started working as a labourer and I had a number of encounters. In one of them I was almost beaten to death, with broken bones which required surgery, and this was basically for racial discrimination. The following year a bomb exploded next to me and I stayed in hospital for probably two or three months with pretty serious injuries.
At that time my sister got married to a Palestinian man in Australia, so when they heard what was happening to us we were accepted to come to Australia on a humanitarian visa. So we came to Australia and that was the biggest breakthrough for me.
What were your initial impressions of the place?
It’s like coming from hell to heaven. That was my initial impression.
Did the family immediately go into business?
No. When we came to Australia, obviously we didn’t have any money and our tickets were paid for by relatives. When we arrived the Palestinian community helped us. Some people gave us furniture, a microwave, you name it.
So it was quite a tough start but we knew that Australia is built on fairness and opportunity and if you work hard, nothing can stop you. And we knew we wanted to build a better future. But because I had a dream in my head that I wanted to be successful and because I lost my dad, I always had in my mind that I wanted him to be proud.
So I decided before I stepped foot in Australia that I am going to finish my education, I wanted to have a degree. So the first thing that I did was basic English, and I tried to go to school. But they wouldn’t take me because I was too old, I was 19-years-old. So they told me if you want to continue your education, you have to go to TAFE.
I went to TAFE and they said you’re going to have to do Year 11 and 12. And because I wanted this dream so much, I decided to go and do my high school and finish four years in one year. So there I was, no English, a new country, new system, new everything, you can imagine the hardship that I went through.
But because I was a mature age student they had special conditions, so instead of doing 10 subjects I did five. I did three units of Arabic and three units of Math and I found myself the next year at university. But I had no idea of what a lecture was, what a tutor was, my English was nothing and I was lost, I was crying at night. But I’m the type of person that never gives up. And a three years course took me 12 years to finish, but I never gave up and I graduated after 12 years.