Sean Garlick, the Founder and CEO of the much-loved Australian family business Garlo’s Pies, recently sat down with Angela Vithoulkas on her podcast The Brew to detail his extraordinary life and career, as well as share his business wisdom.
Now in charge of a successful venture which produces over 40,000 delicious pastries in a single day, Garlo’s Pies CEO Sean Garlick’s journey to business success has been anything but regular. In a long career which has ranged from a movie star and playing professional rugby league to patrolling Sydney’s streets as a policeman, Sean has picked up a wealth of knowledge about business and life in general.
Sean stumbled across his first career field purely by chance. After spotting a television crew filming a commercial in a nearby park on his way to school as an 11 year old, he was offered a role as an extra. After doing well, Sean was offered an audition for an upcoming Captain Crunch cereal television advertisement, which he landed despite having no prior acting experience. The highlight from his acting days remains his part in the acclaimed 1985 Australian television film Fortress which starred Rachel Ward, in which he played the role of school student Sid.
While carving himself a lane in the television industry, it wasn’t acting that held Sean’s main interest. His passion was rugby league, harbouring an ambition to play the sport professionally since his junior footy days with La Perouse. He realised his dream in 1990 when he made his first grade debut for the South Sydney Rabbitohs. A tough hooker, Garlick played for over 10 years at the top level, seeing out the majority of his career at Souths broken up by a stint with Eastern Suburbs.
His incredible work ethic was on display from a young age. In the days before professional rugby league became a profitable business, players were required to work a full-time job around their training and playing commitments. Having noticed that a large majority of league players happened to be cops, Sean decided to follow in their footsteps and joined the police force at the tender age of 19. He described the experience as one that forced him to learn quickly about authority and taking charge. The memory of walking into work on a Monday after a bad game on the weekend also sticks in his mind, saying, “You had to cop it; if you had a shit game they told you at work!”
During 1997, when the ‘Super League War’ over player compensation broke rugby league into two separate competitions, rugby league became decidedly more professional. As part of the ARL competition with Eastern Suburbs, Sean’s pay doubled but so did his training expectations, meaning he had to cut his police work down to one day a week. He enjoyed staying part of the police team, but his priorities drifted as he began his own family and his playing career wound down.
In the years following his retirement from football, Sean became part of South Sydney’s management team. While enjoying the role as Football Officer, he wanted to engage in interests outside of his rugby league bubble. It was then that the idea for Garlo’s Pies was born.
In 2001, with his younger brother, Nathan, a talented pastry chef who was disgruntled at the idea of working to have someone else pay his wages, Sean brought forward the notion of a family owned pie shop. With Nathan making the pies, father Terry assisting with deliveries and cleaning, and Sean in charge of the business aspects of the company, they bought a small space in Maroubra Junction to work from.
Having worked on The Footy Show at Channel Nine, Sean gauged then-CEO Glenn Pallister’s opinion on television the business’ grand opening with a pie eating contest between former big-name footballers. He jumped at the idea, and the broadcast did wonders for the business. Having deciding on baking just one hundred pies on opening day, assuming a slow start to proceedings, they sold out completely in just one hour. Sean attributes this response to his market relatability, saying, “Pie people and football people are the same people.”
As their business grew quickly, a move to a larger shop in Mascot was implemented, undertaking more wholesale orders to schools and cafes. Things progressed quickly, and soon Sean and Nathan were approached by two former Disney executives from America. An offer to expand their business to the States was tabled, which they accepted. Nathan and his family moved overseas to manage the business, with Sean joining briefly for a few months, as they found success in the US market.
Homesickness soon hit Nathan, though, prompting a move back home. With both brothers in Australia, they attempted to manage their American chains from Sydney. Ultimately, this broke down, as the liaison between themselves and the Disney executives didn’t work out as envisaged. A learning curve, Sean realised that small business and big business are two completely separate entities with different ideals.
He quickly came to the conclusion that supplying to supermarkets would be the best option for the company going forward, commenting, “You’ve got to stick to what you’re best at.” The move has been a masterstroke, with Garlo’s Pies dominating sales through IGA and Coles. A new base in a 4,500 square metre “Super Bakery” in Kingsgrove has helped Garlo’s cater to the demand for their product.
The hardest task over the years, Sean says, has been ensuring that the pies taste the same. Going from using an ice-cream scoop to fill pastries with meat and hand-opening flour bags, to implementing industrial machines and massive flour silos, the changes have been extreme. Through it all, though, Sean states that nothing has changed, saying proudly, “They taste exactly the same as when we first started”.