James Kennedy talks life lessons in business & the importance of family

 

By Rachelle Unreich, 26 May 2015 - D'Marge Magazine

Rolex watches don’t often cross paths with the lives of teenagers, but James Kennedy was rarely your ordinary teen.

By the age of twenty-nine, he was thrust into taking over the family business and carrying on its legacy from his late father, Louis Kennedy, who ran one of Australia’s finest luxury goods stores with his wife, Martha.

Rachelle Unreich sits down with the Managing Director of LK Boutique to talk about managing ego in business, his father’s influence on his life and the importance of family values to succeed.

RU: Was going into the family business something you always wanted to do?

JK: It was probably always the job I was going to have. But I had a passion for music at one point, and loved the idea of music production. Then I got a job in finance, which got me into the corporate world, and then eventually I ended up going into the family business, something which I have no regrets doing.

"You need an ego in business. Nothing wrong with a healthy ego, but arrogance and ego are two different things."

RU: What did your father teach you about business?

JK: The key things were loyalty and playing fair. I’m still old school in the sense that if you shake my hand and we have a deal, that deal is more solid than any contract. I’m a big believer in standing by your word. I don’t worry about the other party so much, I get what I need, as long as it’s fair.

Am I ever disappointed when someone doesn’t stick to a handshake? It happens every day. But I’m a big believer in karma as well. I try to play fair and do the right thing both, and to date I’ve been rewarded from it.

You need a lot of luck in business, but hard work does bring luck. And I’m always trying to do the right thing for the business, for the employees, for the family, and I put it all back to the mystery of what karma is.

RU: What did you learn from your father’s approach?

JK: My father Louis was from Hungary and grew up in the Holocaust; I went to a private school in Sydney. The contrast of experience was quite wide. My mother was a driving force as well, especially in the last ten years of my father’s life when he wasn’t well. He was fair but firm.

He always liked the finer things in life, and he certainly wasn’t short of any ego. He called his business LK, he had the LK number plate on his Rolls Royce and he also had LK initials at the bottom of his swimming pool.

I’m a little bit like that in that sense – you need an ego in business. Nothing wrong with a healthy ego, but arrogance and ego are two different things. I believe you also have to be humble and show humility, but you need an ego to get up every day and go at it. I think I probably take a bit of that from him.

RU: Your store specialises in the finest luxury goods. If your house was on fire, what would you take?

JK: Apart from family photos, probably the thing I would grab is my watch box, which has my watch collection in it. It has the first Rolex I ever got, that my parents gave me when I was in my teens for a birthday. There’s a handful of watches that my parents gave me before my father passed away.

RU: What would you rather spend your money on – experiences or possessions?

JK: A combination of the two. It’s the old adage of retail therapy – spending money does need to be therapeutic, and that’s one part that’s missing in retail at the moment. Shopping is supposed to be fun and enjoyable. You work hard for your money and you want to enjoy it.

When you’re running your own business, you need time out, so holidays are rewarding, especially if you have nice service. It doesn’t have to be something that costs a fortune; I’ve had great service in corners of the world that are not expensive.

“THE BIGGEST THING FOR ME AND WHAT WILL DETERMINE MY SUCCESS IS THE PEOPLE AROUND ME.”

RU: What else is rewarding for you?

JK: I think the progression of the family business over the last four years has been really rewarding. Building a team of three people to 80 or 90, doing that piece by piece – you don’t realise as you are going through it what you are achieving, but it’s incredibly rewarding to look back.

The biggest thing for me and what will determine my success is the people around me. I could be the smartest guy in the world, but it won’t make a difference if I don’t have quality people around me who I respect. Be humble and always understand what you have.

Ultimately I pretty much say that day to day problems are just First World Problems – a business deal that doesn’t go through, an outcome you don’t get, or a staff member who leaves…

RU: How do you de-stress?

JK: I go to the gym. And since I live in both Sydney and Melbourne, I get to move around quite a bit – half a week here, half a week there. Most of my close friends are in Sydney, and those are the friends who are the most important. They keep you grounded. You’re still the same kid as you were at school, and they have no qualms about reminding you of that.

RU: What’s your favourite place in the world?

JK: I’m a big fan of Switzerland. I always fly into Zurich and travel from there. It’s quiet and safe and clean and such an amazing country. I’m also a big fan of Italy and Greece – I try to get away for a holiday at least once a year.

RU: Being the son of a Holocaust survivor – what’s the legacy of that?

JK: It’s challenging. There’s always that little bit of extra pressure on the generation that takes over from another, to not screw it up, and I was thrust into it early – at 29, 30. I had to take on this responsibility and I was green at that time. It wasn’t just about taking over a business, but about becoming the patriarch of the family. It’s a big responsibility.

My father didn’t overly talk about the Holocaust, but it’s there in my mind with respect to the fact that things could always be worse. It goes back to First World Problems. There’s death and suffering and those are tragedies – everything else pales in comparison.

When you think of what my father had to go through – crawling underground to get food for his family and avoid getting shot at, at the age fo 17 – you can imagine the concept but never really grasp it.

RU: You talk about wanting people to enjoy shopping. How do you do that for your customers?

JK: I’ll give you an example. We had an event a couple of years ago at an exhibition space, with our sales staff from one boutique there. A group of customers went up to the sales staff and hugged them. That’s a kind of warmth I encourage. My parents built the LK business from relationships. You knew my mother Martha, you knew Louis, and you had relationships with them.

It’s not transactional. It’s about ensuring longevity in that person, whether they buy another piece or not. The fact is that I focus least on trying to make money, and that’s what ends up coming out of it.

Quality of product, quality of the store – all those things are important. But that all falls away if you don’t have quality staff who are loyal to the business and want to be part of the journey.

RU: Before you became CEO and worked on the floor, what was your most memorable transaction?

JK: Once, a guy won a few million dollars in the Casino and came down to the store with half a million in cash, and bought a Patek Philippe watch for himself, as a little gift. There was a benefit to that – before you go losing all your money again, you can at least walk away with something.

RU: What do you do when you’re not working?

JK: I go for dinners, catch up with friends, and sometimes having a night on the couch is enjoyable. My favourite TV shows are Grey’s Anatomy, and I’m a big fan of Suits and Modern Family. Entourage and Arrow are others I enjoy. Some of it is junk, but sometimes junk is necessary when it comes to unwinding.

Photography shot exclusively for D’Marge by Phillip Papadis