02/06/2011 - 00:00

Maher’s in a club of his own

02/06/2011 - 00:00

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The number of small, late-night bars is growing, but veteran nightclub owner Bob Maher remembers a time when there was only one.

Maher’s in a club of his own

BOB Maher began working behind the bar of the first-ever nightclub in Perth – Top of the Town – in 1965.

“In those days you didn’t sell any alcohol, you brought your own,” he remembers.

“You’d pay your cover charge and go in and hand your bottles over and you’d get tickets.”

Mr Maher then became a bottle collector, roaming around the club picking up empty bottles.

“I was pretty good; I used to carry 14 in one swoop,” he says.

His entrepreneurial nature soon recognised an opportunity – he noticed the cleaners were making good money, so he started a cleaning business which he ran during the day, selling his services to the nightclub while working at the bar at night.

“I loved the industry and all of a sudden I was on first-name terms with all the seriously popular bands around Perth, and that was a pretty cool thing in those days,” Mr Maher says.

When Top of the Town’s owners started Pinocchio’s in Murray Street in 1967, he moved to the new venue and became manager. He briefly left the industry to sell real estate but his love for nightclubs was reignited when he and his wife “babysat” Gobbles for three months for a friend.

During that time, a new club, Beethoven’s, was opened, and Mr Maher was poached to be full-time manager, negotiating a 20 per cent share of the new business knowing he didn’t want a career as a manager. His career in nightclub ownership was born.

Mr Maher’s portfolio has included: Gobbles; Peppermint Cloud, formerly known as Pinocchio’s; the remaining share of Beethoven’s; The Old Melbourne; Fitzgerald’s; The Racket Club; F Scott’s; and The Hip-E Club – just to name a few.

And he now owns Black Betty’s, The Aberdeen Hotel and Eurobar.

He says the trend towards corporate ownership of venues hasn’t affected him because “it’s not as easy as giving a manager a list of instructions on how to run a venue”.

He says corporate players can fail in the industry if the venue operators don’t live and breathe the industry.

“It’s about reading the market; it’s always changing.”

Mr Maher, who now shares responsibility with his son Ben, says they put more energy into the managers, to enable the venues to be self-run, allowing the pair to focus on the back end of the business from the Northbridge office of Boss Entertainment.

“You don’t get good managers. You need good owners to get good managers,” Mr Maher says.

“And a good manager of one club won’t necessarily be a good manager of another club. They have to really know their clientele.”

He says he has a very close-knit, long-serving administration team behind the company.

“It’s a family business in theory,” Mr Maher says.

“Ben came along [to the business] about 10 years ago. He has a more analytical sort of management.”

Mr Maher says the nightclub industry has survived the recession but faces other hurdles, such as the trend of pre-loading – drinking large amounts of alcohol before going out – and the use of recreational drugs.

He says clubs also have to deal with increasing levels of red tape, sometimes-difficult relationships with police and the media, and a “decline in public standards” of clientele.

Mr Maher believes the influx of punters via the new Mandurah train line, fly-in, fly-out workers, and backpackers have created some problems in clubland, but says it’s important not to forget the nice people.

Mr Maher says he’s always had live bands in his venues because of his desire to support local musicians.

He remembers bringing a young John (then Johnny) Farnham to Perth six times, and putting on his debut Perth concert at the Esplanade to offset expenses incurred from a slow-sales Sounds Incorporated tour.

Mr Maher says he’s almost gone broke twice but has reinvested in the industry to turn around declining businesses.

He says people can renovate and rename venues but the public won’t see the change unless you completely gut the place and give it a new entrance.

The best lesson he’s learned is to never judge anyone, as people aren’t always what they appear to be on the outside – for better or worse.

He says the nightclub industry has given him more exciting encounters in most nights than many would have in their entire work life.

“I’ve met murderers and I’ve met beautiful people; the highlight of this industry is the people you meet along the way,” Mr Maher says.

His memories are, overall, fond ones of his time in the business, with things considered enormous challenges at the time now the funniest to look back on.

“I’m one of the luckiest people in the world,” he says.

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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