It pays to keep eyes on the pies

Former NRL superstar Sean 'Garlo' Garlick turned his once fledgling retail pie business into a wholesaling empire, supplying the likes of Coles, the Navy, and countless New South Wales outlets.

The problem with success as a professional athlete is that it can’t last.  The body can only do it for so long before calling it quits, and fame deprivation syndrome is inevitable. But does it have to mean financial  deprivation as well?

Sean Garlick had two key assets as an NRL superstar: his body and the name “Garlo”. One of those has now faded as a money-earner; the second is coming into its own.

Garlo’s Pies is Sean Garlick’s answer to the age-old problem for professional athletes of what to do next. Sean was lucky:  he had a catchy nickname and a brother who could make a decent pie.

And everyone — not just sports stars — can learn an important lesson from Sean. Go big or go home.

A room full of pies, famous rugby league players, a stopwatch and TV cameras. That’s how Garlo’s Pies was introduced to the world in 2001 and now it churns out 12,000 pies a day, employs 40 people and turns over $8 million per year.

So how did he do it? By getting three crucial moments right: the launch, heading into wholesale and a huge one-off gamble on advertising.

Sean’s brother Nathan (seven years younger) had finished his baking apprenticeship and, while fantastic at making the pies, became frustrated with the people he was working for and gave it away to start driving a truck.

Sean didn’t like what he saw.

“This is a waste of your talent,” he said to his brother. “Would you be interested in getting back into this game if we had our own shop?” They wasted no time recruiting their dad, Terry, who was wrapping up a 40 year career as a wharfie. Sean’s sister, Dana, and wife Samantha soon joined in too. A family business was born.

Nathan started baking pies like a madman and Sean set about using his fame to market the business.

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Sean and Nathan Garlick

He was no ordinary player. He’d played for South Sydney as a young man, then switched to Eastern Suburbs, then came back to the Rabbitohs and was captain in 1999. In his early days, believe it or not, he appeared in movies alongside Rachel Ward and Nicole Kidman as well as starring in Home and Away in 1991. And he was a policeman throughout his whole playing career.

During a famously hard time for the club in 2001, Sean stepped up and was a key fighter in the battle to get Souths reinstated to the NRL. He’s one of the NRL’s favourite sons.

So when he said he wanted to launch his business with a pie-eating contest, The Footy Show happily broadcast it.

Big Artie Beetson, along with greats like Mark Carroll, Craig Salvatori, Mark Geyer and Daryl Broham all stuffed themselves until Geyer was crowned champion after eating a staggering 14 meat pies. He won the contest but would have been nursing his guts for days. The real winners were definitely the Garlicks.

Over the next couple of years Garlo’s Pies took over Sydney.

“We had 13 stores in Sydney in the next four years – eight of them company owned and five were franchises… We had to start finding sites that were equally as profitable, which was difficult, and some failed miserably,” says Sean.

It’s a seasonal and volatile business because, as Sean found out, people are keen on pies when it’s cold and rainy but not so much when the weather is good.

It was wholesale, not retail that turned their pie domain into an empire.

Coles approached Sean in mid-2009 wanting to sell the pies and instead of diving into the deep end, he played hard to get.

“I’d heard they screw small business on price and terms and I didn’t think it’d be good for our business if they were selling our pies for $1 each – how would we get $4.50 for them in our stores?”

But Coles agreed to his terms and prices and stocked Garlo’s in 20 stores right away. Six months later they came back wanting to stock the pies in 206 stores around NSW.

This is where things got tricky. Garlo’s had to beef up their production and throw money at bigger and faster machinery.

And Sean was worried people wouldn’t know to look for the pies in the supermarkets and so wanted to get the word out.

At the worst possible moment, one of his franchisees went bankrupt owing the business a stack of money.

With his back to the wall, Sean decided, against the advice of pretty much everyone around him, to double down and risk the lot. He took out a $50,000 loan and plunged it all into an intensive one-month advertising campaign. They also started going around to the supermarkets giving free samples, something they still do regularly.

It worked. Brand recognition skyrocketed and they were set.

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Terry, Nathan, Sean and Jackson Garlick

On top of Coles, they now supply IGA and the Australian Navy, plus countless schools, sports grounds, hotels, food trucks and service stations around NSW.

It’s yet to be seen if they can perform away from their home ground but they’ll give it a shot. The pies are almost all halal certified and they’ll soon be exporting them to the Middle East, USA and South Korea.

So is this the start of a family business dynasty? Too early to say. He’s still only 44 and has plenty of ideas for the future. If he was approached to sell, he’d have a good think.

But a family rugby league dynasty could be a handy fall back plan. He’s got three sons and the oldest two, Jackson (19) and Bronson (17) have already been scouted to pull on the red and green for the Rabbitohs like their famous dad and the third, Campbell, is one to watch too (he’s in year seven). When they’re not training or at school they work at Garlo’s.

So there you have it, sports stars — you could do worse than go big like Sean ‘Garlo’ Garlick.

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