The arty CEO thinking outside the frame

"Never accept no for an answer" .... art lover and property developer Will Deague.
"Never accept no for an answer" .... art lover and property developer Will Deague.

His trendy hotels have helped mega-famous entertainers Justin Bieber, Serena Williams, Prince and Michael Buble get a good night's rest. But you can be sure young entrepreneur Will Deague had a few sleepless nights himself when he decided to construct three art-inspired hotels during the depths of the global financial crisis.

It wasn't the only thing on his mind. At just 30 he had taken over the reins as CEO of his family's fifth-generation property development business, managing more than 500 staff.

But Deague, whose motto is "never accept no for an answer", decided to go against the economic tide, ploughing ahead with construction of his Art Series Hotels.

It's a move that has paid huge dividends for the Asian Pacific Group and Deague, who was last night named the southern winner of the Emerging category in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards.

Deague began working with his family's company as an 18-year-old and oversaw his first construction project at 20, having to prove his mettle to colleagues who had been in the family business for decades.

"I think to gain the respect I worked so much harder," says Deague. When asked how many hours he works these days, he says: "I wouldn't even count."

The Ernst & Young judges last night noted the 34-year-old had put a modern twist on a heritage legacy business, growing revenue by 100 per cent in the past four years.

One of Deague's most successful ventures was a marketing campaign that encouraged guests to steal a $15,000 piece by graffiti artist Banksy during their hotel visit. The end goal was to sell 1000 hotel nights during summer.

The move netted massive international exposure, one million hits to the Art Series website and 2000 nights sold. Last month the campaign also won the hotel chain a Gold Lion award.

"We got that much publicity it was ridiculous," says Deague.

Next up is further national and international expansion, but probably not too many long holidays. "If I go away for more than 10 days I start to get a bit restless," says the entrepreneur.

Online gun

Meanwhile another young gun, Dean Ramler, founder of online furniture retailer Milan Direct, was named the southern winner in the Technology category.

Ramler started his business at just 24, pioneering the concept of selling designer furniture in Australia purely online. By December 2011, he'd sold half a million pieces of furniture.

"Online's all about giving your customers what they want and when they want it," Ramler said last night. "We pride ourselves on having 24-hour service."

Ramler pointed to the well-coiffed Donald Trump as his business idol.

"I grew up when Trump became massive in the media. I've got a library of Trump books at home. He thinks big and there's no limitation with Trump," Ramler said.

King of jeans

Another man with seemingly limitless energy and ambition, Just Jeans founder Craig Kimberley, was named Ernst & Young's Champion of Entrepreneurship.

It's hard to believe now, but the idea for Just Jeans came more than four decades ago, when Kimberley visited the US on a buying trip and noticed some shops there were selling only jeans.

So he returned to Melbourne, opening his first Just Jeans store in Chapel Street in 1970. Another two stores followed the next year and by 1993 there were more than 200 Just Jeans stores across the country.

The retailer was later housed under a wider company, The Just Group, which also acquired Jacqui E, Peter Alexander and Portmans.

The founder sold his stake in 2001 but is still involved in the retail industry.

"I'm so lucky that I found something that I really love," Kimberley, now 70, said last night.

"Not everyone can be an entrepreneur I suppose. The entrepreneur is really breaking through the barrier and being above the normal run of the mill people out there," he said.

Kimberley said successful businesses removed "unhappy cogs" and embraced change.

"Change is in our lives all the time and it's the businesses or companies that are just cruising and think they're doing well that really get into trouble."

Other category winners in the southern region were:

* Services: Simon Crowe, Grill'd

* Social entrepreneur: Daniel Almagor, Engineers Without Borders.

* Industry: Peter Law, Australian Independent Rural Retailers

* Listed: Anthony Podesta, McMillan Shakespeare

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This story The arty CEO thinking outside the frame first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.