Once an immigrant from Pretoria, now one of the most successful businessmen in the country, he owns and manages a huge swathe of Western Australia under the radar, much of it with John Bond, son of the late Alan.
“I haven’t had one fight with 25-plus partners in 30 years and I don’t believe in written partnership contracts,” he says, staring directly at me through steely-grey eyes, as my jaw drops.
Luckily, I know exactly what he means. The Yiddish word “faribel”, pronounced far-ee-bel, means to hold a grudge for years or decades over some trivial slight, like someone else getting the word “chief” in front of their managing director title. It can even linger for generations like a clan blood-feud, or a weak bladder.
“Tsooris” translates on Google as: “Big troubles, like plagues of lice, gnats, flies, locusts, hail, death.”
Fights with business partners can fall into this category. We Jews don’t like to understate things.
Like Eskimos who have 100 words for snow, in Yiddish we have many words for arguing or getting upset: angry and confused (tzedroozled); angry and concerned, as in why didn’t you call? (be-cucked); deeply offended forever (broygus).
It’s the hot-blooded Mediterranean and Jewish way. But the Perth-based entrepreneur wants none of it. Schwartz, 62, who with two other partners brought the South African Nando’s franchise to Australia — and whose holdings now spans companies with turnovers in the multi-millions, employing about a thousand people — calls his empire a “fight-free zone”. A man who suffered great humiliation as a boy due to misunderstood dyslexia, he got rich on kindness. As a result of his own shame he learned empathy and shunned the “greed is good”, armpit-sniffing culture that plagued his iconic predecessors in the 80s and 90s.
“If you care about your partners, if you truly want the best for them and nurture them and care about their wellbeing and thriving — then they will treat you exactly the same way,” he says.
“No faribels. Your partners and managers become tied to you. Like a good marriage you stick together in the hard times. As long as there is caring, there might be disagreements but don’t need to end up in conflict.”
I’ve been writing about the hard-nosed world of property for 25 years. Is it not prudent in some circumstances to have written partnership agreements and lay things out clearly?
“No. You can’t cover everything that happens between people and it starts you off on the wrong foot, like getting married preparing for divorce,” he says. “Just nurture and respect people and you’ll get it back. The main ingredient of successful partnerships is to make sure you give more than you take, and trust each other, and communicate often.”
So love conquers all? “Pretty much,” says Schwartz, gazing at me with an unflinching stare and firm-set jaw that belies the kind of gentleness and almost Pollyanna optimism of which he speaks.
Sceptical as many may be, he has 18 solid partnerships with 25 actual partners — across a swathe of industries including petrochemicals, retail, manufacturing, new technology, opticals, commercial property, and others including household chemical manufacturer/distributor Pascoe’s, and the West Australian Lexus franchise; he’s a stakeholder and director of a company that supplies the leather to Audi and Mercedes. I called a few of his many heavyweight partners including John Bond and a respected finance journalist who does some work for him and, yep. The unbelievable is true. His partners call him “fair” and use terms such as “a good man”, “always prepared to listen”, “level-headed”, “kind”, “unique”, “a pleasure to work with”.
Most said “I’m very lucky to be working with him”. As one said: “The irony is when you have someone who believes in you and trusts you like that, you are more likely to try harder to make them happy.”
His motto: “Choose partners very carefully. Would you want to go on holidays with them? If not, they wouldn’t make a good partner.”
He’s had partners since the tender age of 13. Even when he was pint-sized he created a start-up with his good friend Yehudi. “I’d been given tropical fish tanks as a birthday present.
“I noticed I had baby fish in the tank one day and quickly read up on what to do with them. The advice was to separate them from the adults because they would otherwise be eaten. Yehudi and I then figured out if we could buy a second tank and grow the fish to a size where we could sell them we could pay for the tank just with the babies I already had.
“I used my bar mitzvah money — and two years later Yehudi and I had 30 tanks and became a supplier of exotic fish to one of the biggest tropical fish stores. That was in the late 1960s. By age 15, we sold out of the business. A successful exit!”
He and Yehudi are still close friends after 50 years.
In life, he continues to make sure the big fish don’t eat the more vulnerable ones. In his world, ego is a dirty word, a destroyer of friendships and business partnerships, the knife in the heart of reason.
“Ego is manipulative; it stalks you subconsciously. Ego is the only requirement needed to destroy any relations. As someone once said, relationships never die a natural death; they are murdered by ego, attitude and ignorance.”
“Everyone knows the right path, and believes that their view is right. But people who are evolved know that there are many rights. I try to sit in the seat of the person in front of me. It’s not that I don’t have ego, in fact its part of the evolutionary process of survival, but it’s how you control it. When you are logical in an argument you get at solution.”
He hates micromanagement, which takes away power and self-respect of all those you work with or manage. “My role in the business is as an enabler, not a boss. Give people responsibility and freedom and they give you a wonderful result.”
His buzzwords are “empowerment” and “autonomy’’. “I stand in their shoes, I don’t have to be right. We need to conserve our energy so we can fight the battles outside, not within.” And the results are pure gold.
He says his success with partners largely comes from his discerning eye, which evolved as a result of his disability. “I had to develop coping skills because I wasn’t considered smart.”
He learned to observe people, which helped him later to cleverly choose partners and managers who were exactly the right ingredient for his corporate stew. A dash of the charmers, perfectionists, the mediators, captains, navigators, and a smidgen of strategists.
“There are many people who fit with me and each business, but first you have to ‘know thyself’ so you can honestly match and complement talents and skills.”
He’s a Master Chef of corporate management; his mother would be proud of his cooking skills. He was born into the furniture business and worked with dad Percy, his “role model and mentor”. When he arrived in Australia in 1990 he cut his teeth establishing the Nando’s franchise in WA, which was successfully expanded to 12 stores and then sold out for a healthy profit. Then he chose his brother Ian as a partner and acquired a tiny two-man business “filling jars with methylated spirits”.
Always an opportunity spotter, he thought: “Hey, let’s formulate other products to put in the bottles” — and Pascoe’s was born, now distributing more than 1000 domestic chemical products around Australia. He’s still in a loving partnership with his brother today. Shortly after, he co-founded a property syndication and management company, Primewest, with John Bond and the third founding director, Jim Litis.
John Bond says working with David’s unconventional way is satisfying and meaningful — very unlike the “survival of the fittest” ethos of the 80s when his father Alan was a king. John, whose been with him for 20 years, says: “I’ve learned so much watching David handle and mentor people … he’s taught me about compromise, and skilful negotiating. He always focuses on the bigger picture, never bogged down by trivial human relations issue that can run you off the track.”
Schwartz admits he had an unpleasant encounter once when he and his partners fought over their first year’s profit from Primewest 20 years ago. It was the grand sum of $14,000 and the partners didn’t at first agree on how to divide this relatively small profit. They got over that and have never fought since.
Not that he’s Mr Nice-Guy. “I stand my ground, that’s for sure. There is no letting go if I feel there’s something I need to get across. I can be very tough,” he grins, narrowing his eyes. “It’s about knowing when and where to stand your ground — compromise is always possible.”
He’s in Sydney regularly to visit his three kids, and we are talking in a small Sydney eatery, overlooking Bondi Beach with a contented wife Melanie who keeps stroking his arm like a new love. When he leaves the table she tells me it is all true. He is a loving husband and she feels “blessed” to have been his partner for 35 years.
This is ultimate testimony to any business leader: a faribel-free home.