I’ve lost, and I’ve won: A Business Talk with Mr Neil Slater 

“Every day throughout 1988, I would stand at the Queen’s Wharf and count how many people would be inside the three restaurants there at the time”.

We’re talking with Neil Slater, restauranteur and business leader recounting how he determined, via his own market research, whether his vision for Scratchley’s could come true. Thirty years later, and Scratchley’s is an iconic Newcastle destination for waterfront dining.

Hospitality is renowned for being choppy, and ‘making it’ isn’t for the faint hearted. Yet, Mr Slater has developed a reputation around the region as a can-do kinda guy.

When I explain that strategy to Long & Co is about winning, he is quick to establish his grounded perspective. “Strategy to me isn’t so much about winning, as it is about losing not being an option. I’ve lost, and I’ve won a lot over the years”.

Wearing losses like a champion

That’s the funny thing about winners, even their losses are to be admired. Mr Slater speaks of the sweet victory at Shepherd’s Cottage ‘The Terrace’, only to later lose its DA application. “They (Council) listened to a drummer in a rock band above my self-funded community survey!” He can laugh at it now, but it was painful at the time.

Alas, Mr Slater and his vision were a good 15 years too early for Newcastle. I mean, to dare to dream of a new Newcastle in the 1990s and early 2000s. Before the train line went. A time when you could wander down Hunter street naked without encountering a soul. And voters knew a vote for the incumbent would keep investors out and parking-a-plenty.

No, Council wanted nothing to do with Mr Slater’s vision for Pacific-style dining on top of Memorial Drive – who would? So, they promptly rejected the DA application, and the little cottage is still sitting there today. Alone and neglected.

Neil Slater, Newcastle restaurateur speaks to Long & Co about building a business

Neil talks to Cat Long about the importance of wearing your losses well.

But the losses don’t stop there

Once bitten, twice shy. Most of us know how this story ends. The restauranteur who persuaded Council and State, but was overruled by the Federal Member of Parliament, Mr Peter Garret. As an Oils fan, this extraordinary intervention into local politics on heritage grounds seems a little uptight for a rockstar. But history will show that the nay-sayers triumphed over Mr Slater and his fanciful proposition for another restaurant – this time at Nobbys Headland. Mr Garret firmly put his boot on it.

We could name a few more losses (accusations relating to electoral fraud) because that’s the darned thing about these leaders. They want change. And, in the words of Mr Hilton Grugeon, “people are scared of change”.

Mr Slater's Scratchley's is one of Newcastle's premier dining venues.

Mr Slater’s Scratchley’s is one of Newcastle’s premier dining venues. Photography by Jessica Parish

The moral of the story?

To win in business you take your losses and you move forward. Mr Slater had a dream of an energy efficient restaurant. They built the current Scratchley’s on these principles and won an award as the most energy efficient building in Australia.

Rather than ruminating about his $400,000 loss at Nobbys Headland – Mr Slater brought Australia’s leading food rescue organisation, OzHarvest, to Newcastle.

Today he is happy to greet his customers at the door at Scratchley’s and leave Newcastle’s progress to others. With his wife and sons joining him in the business, they are often spotted by passers-by early in the morning. Folding cardboard boxes into the bin and offloading crates from trucks before the city wakes.

When all is said and done, Neil Slater has won the respect of Newcastle and the region. An achievement most people would envy, and nobody can take away from him. That’s a winning formula. In business and in life.

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Cat Long and Lauren McNeil Long & Co

Cat Long and Lauren McNeil, Long & Co