London, New York, Paris, Healesville

When entrepreneurs dream of making it big, they often look to expand internationally. However, one entrepreneurial couple has shunned the idea of going offshore, and proven that you can start building a mini business empire in a country town.

When entrepreneurs dream of making it big, they often look to expand internationally. However, one entrepreneurial couple has shunned the idea of going offshore, and proven that you can start building a mini business empire in a country town.

Last year David Shepherd and Gianpaolo Federici moved from inner-city Sydney to Healesville, in the Yarra Valley, about 1? hours from Melbourne.

They began by buying a bed-and-breakfast business in October. The next month they opened a cafe, Essenza. They also run an online store selling hampers (www.KafeKulcha.com.au). Next month they open an 80-seat restaurant in nearby Mont De Lancey. And they have plans to purchase one house every year to operate as a bed and breakfast.

"When we were considering moving on from Sydney, we were thinking London, New York, Paris," says Shepherd, 43. "But we came to Healesville and saw an opportunity. It's a beautiful town near the wineries and we just love it here."

Healesville may seem like an unlikely town from which to build an empire. However, the couple are building a business which they hope will fund their retirement in about 10 years. Before starting their businesses, Shepherd was in a senior corporate role as national key accounts director for Sensis. Federici was an officer with the Australian Federal Police. They gained experience in hospitality when they ran a cafe in Darlinghurst from 2004 to 2006.

After visiting the area on holidays in 2010, they decided to take the plunge in May last year. In doing so, they traded their busy urban life in inner-city Sydney (population 4.6 million) for Healesville (population 9700). Although the town might be small, it services nearby towns and is a popular destination for tourists on weekends.

A rocky start

The pair were prepared to invest their life savings into starting over and had their hearts set on purchasing a 25-bedroom lodge which already included accommodation and a restaurant. However, the deal didn't go through. "We initially wanted to have everything under one roof," says Federici.

So they decided to run several smaller businesses. It's a strategy that has proven to be a smart one as they've been able to fine-tune the systems in each business before moving on to build the next one.

Finding opportunities

Not long after buying a bed-and-breakfast business, Barolo, they were walking past a dark and narrow laneway off the main street of the town. "It was full of boxes and crates," says Shepherd. "It had been used for storage for many years."

But they saw that it had potential. "We thought of the laneway cafes in Melbourne they're quirky, tiny places where you can go for great food and coffee. That was the vision we had for this space."

The result is Essenza, a bustling cafe they have squeezed into the tiny area. It's a bet that's paid off. "We had a revenue projection for the first 12 months and we hit that within two months," says Shepherd. "So it's exceeded our expectations in terms of the number of people passing through."

Benefits of country life

One of the key factors for success has been a much lower cost for overheads compared with Sydney.

"Our rent is less than one-tenth of what we were paying in Sydney, our insurance is half the cost of what we're used to, and we have more revenue than before," says Federici.

However, Federici emphasises that robust systems are vital. "It's important to constantly strive to improve and maintain consistency in all aspects of your business," he says.

Shepherd adds that it's also easier to build networks in the country. "We source locally so that means dealing with people up and down the street," he says. "If something goes wrong, you can just walk around the corner to fix it."

Challenges of doing business

While the benefits seem plentiful, Federici says there are also challenges. "There's no real sense of urgency so there is a little bit of a country mindset instead of a city way of thinking," he says. "Plus it's very difficult to find highly skilled staff."

However, the pair emphasise that the benefits far outweigh the obstacles.

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