Darrin Northey – Element Bar

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Darrin, tell us a little about your working background …

I spent 25 years in banking and believe me, it’s not as boring as it sounds.

My whole career was spent working in the areas you see of a bank – branches, online, commercial banking and business banking. My last few roles were running digital, call centres, retail and business banking. I’m not a finance geek – I don’t see banking as fundamentally any different to what I do here. It’s about providing great products to customers, wrapped around exactly what it is that they’re after. It’s also about constantly looking to find your point of difference. To me, that’s the fun part. You’re challenged with trying to bring something new and fresh to a long-established industry.

After 20 years with Westpac, I went to work at CUA, the largest credit union in Australia. That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in my career. I was so passionate about my work and worked with a group of people really inspired to change the way the industry looked at things. And the fact that we were owned by our customers meant you only had the one stakeholder to look after – your customer – and all decisions were based around that. The CUA experience holds me in such good stead here, as we could be innovative, creative, and there was room to explore. It was a very different approach to the more traditional, stable and conservative cultures I’d previously experienced in the industry.

So why the decision to step away?

I loved what I was doing, but felt that it was time for a change. That sense had been building over time for me. I thought about all that I had learnt over 25 years and what fired me up each day, and there was a burning desire to go do something completely different. There comes a point when you ask yourself if you should keep doing something as part of an organisation, or whether you want to explore the broader world out there. I wanted to take a punt.

Tell us about how you came to own Element Bar.

As it turned out, my partner, Christina, found out the same day I left CUA that she was pregnant, so it was an exciting time in our lives. We weren’t leaning particularly towards hospitality, but were keen to try something away from Brisbane and on the coast. I heard about this space being available from an ex banking colleague, actually. I’d also lived and worked in Coffs previously, so knew the region. I came and had a look and had a sense right away about what I could do with Element Bar, and it all went from there. We took on the lease and opened in February last year.

What did you hope to achieve then – and has this changed?

It’s very much what I pictured and while we’ve certainly had to adapt things along the way, I sit here a year later and I’m thrilled with what we’ve created. We’ve remained true to our original vision. Of course, we also keep very open minded – taking on board feedback from staff and customers. A place needs to appeal. It’s a cool place that people love the look of, but it needs to have its own soul and personality. It needs to feel authentic, and that comes down to how our people interact with customers, the food, the service, the ambience, the entertainment – everything in part contributes to the authenticity. This place is not about me – it’s a different experience for each person coming here, and we have a very diverse customer base, so integrity has to be at the cornerstone of what we do.

Does social media play an important part in your marketing?

Without a doubt, that’s our number one marketing tool. We use it to portray our personality. Our communication has to be aligned with our brand personality; it shouldn’t feel fabricated. The posts are informative but are fun too and I’d like to think, relatable. We’re newer to Instagram, but find it very effective.

What challenges have you faced?

You mean apart from opening Element and welcoming my son within a three month period! Let’s just say, last year was tough, and my partner Christina was absolutely amazing – overseeing the move and adapting to motherhood beautifully, even whilst I was knee deep in getting the bar up and running.

My biggest challenge is not spending 24 hours a day here! Finding the right people to work with can be another challenge. Also, finding the balance between needs and wants can be difficult at times. There are always a limited number of resources, so you have to weigh up the most important priorities to ensure you’re still delivering a great product/service. Consistency is hugely important. We like our winter months to be the benchmark, rather than relying on the summer/peak periods.

Can you share 3 top business tips with us?

You’ve got to have a vision and know what you’re trying to create. Without this, how else do you get people to come along for the ride, or bring out the best in those working with you?

You need amazingly good people. That’s a constant challenge. I work hard to find the right people and recognise that it works both ways. They need to feel it’s the right fit for them too.

It’s one thing to be committed, but it’s a whole other thing to really bleed your vision and your place. I’m a big believer in the need to demonstrate your passion and be very hands on. People will give you so much more if they see how passionate and driven you are in your own business.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by those who think differently. I can be a bit OCD (obsessive compulsive) and somewhat of a perfectionist, so it’s really great to hear the point of view of others. You can’t be arrogant and lose sight of the fact that you’re all working together. I never want to be a culture driven by fear, where people don’t feel that they can talk to me and share their opinions. In listening to others, you’re opening yourself up to great opportunities.

How do you unwind away from work?

I’m loving time at the moment with our young son. I get such a kick out of watching him cruise around. We’ve got a good routine. Sunday is our family day. I try to have two days off through the week – it helps that we’ve moved very close by now too. The three of us will often go out for breakfast together as well. We still enjoy coming to Element during our time off, seeing live music and having a drink. I also love to play the guitar. Admittedly, I play badly and can’t sing, but I find it really peaceful and therapeutic. It’s great to have such talented local entertainers – I watch them with a blend of admiration and envy!

Many thanks Darrin.

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