Paul Nicolaou.Paul Nicolaou … “I can’t rock up and say, ‘Listen, I want this, minister …” Photo: Tamara Dean

Less than six weeks into his new job, Paul Nicolaou is beginning to understand that, contrary to popular belief, there is indeed such a thing as a free lunch.

At the end of a meal at one of Sydney’s most spectacular locations – the Opera Bar at the foot of the Sydney Opera House – a request for the bill is met with a polite message from a waiter that payment will not be necessary. ”Oh, this happens all the time,” Nicolaou says, slightly embarrassed. The truth is, to be feted in this manner is quite a turnaround.

As chairman of the NSW Liberal Party’s chief fundraising body, the Millennium Forum, Nicolaou spent 10 years wining and dining some of the country’s most influential corporate figures, convincing them to part with millions of dollars in political donations.

Now, a push by a group of Sydney publicans has led to his appointment as chief executive of the NSW division of the Australian Hotels Association, one of the state’s most vocal and influential lobby groups. In hotel circles at least, Nicolaou has morphed from professional host to celebrated guest.


The job is far more than a string of free lunches (for the record, the Herald insisted on paying the bill), coming as it does at a time of heightened concern about alcohol-related violence, with a focus on pubs.

The NSW government’s new anti-violence regime for licensed venues, ”three strikes and you’re out”, began on January 1, threatening publicans with the loss of their licence for repeated breaches of the Liquor Act.

In the wake of a scandal last year over the alleged bashing of a patron by security guards at the Sydney city venue Ivy, the Premier, Barry O’Farrell, has declared he is ready to give police whatever extra powers they request to combat the violence, including possible further restrictions on opening hours of hotels.

And the federal government’s proposed poker machine reforms have introduced financial uncertainty to an industry increasingly reliant on gambling revenue.

With the livelihoods of many of the AHA’s 2000 NSW members riding on his appointment, it is an intimidating environment for any new chief executive. Nicolaou, armed with a marketing degree and a thick file of business, political and community contacts, is determined to fashion a new image for the hotels industry.

”One of the roles I will be playing is to get the message across that we are part of the tourism and hospitality industry,” he says. ”We’re employing 75,000 people.

”We’re giving something in the vicinity of $25 million out to community groups, whether they be sporting, hospitals or other charitable organisations. It’s really getting the message across that we are there to work with business, government and the community as our way of helping grow NSW.”

Hence Nicolaou’s choice of venue for today’s lunch. At an outdoor table on a sunny late summer afternoon, the Opera Bar, with its views of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, reverberates with the foreign accents Nicolaou wants associated with his industry. A nearby table of Americans is competing with the squawking of seagulls and a stiff breeze blowing off the water.

Dressed neatly in a navy suit, regulation white shirt and blue tie, Nicolaou chooses a selection of appetisers to share – chilli salt squid, grilled chorizo, mixed olives and yam crisps – followed by a main course of baked barramundi paired with a glass of a Venetian pinot grigio.

Nicolaou, who lives in Lane Cove with his wife, Sophia, an optometrist, and children Peter, 13, and Constance, 10, has a colourful and inspiring story to tell.

His parents, Coula and Costa, grew up in Egypt, to where their families had migrated from Greece in search of opportunity.

But in adulthood they left Egypt, in different years, as nationalist policies became threatening to non-Arabs. ”So, literally, my parents came here [in the 1950s] with the luggage they had, with no money whatsoever,” he recalls his parents telling him.

Coula found work as a seamstress in Rockdale, while Costa, who died last year, began on the General Motors-Holden’s assembly line at Pagewood. They met at the Greek-Egyptian club in Sydney.

Nicolaou was born in 1964, the year the Beatles toured Australia. His mother tells him he was named after Paul McCartney. He has a younger brother, Anthony.

From high school at Waverley College, Nicolaou went on to the University of NSW where he earned an arts degree majoring in industrial relations and economics and a masters of commerce in marketing and organisational behaviour.

It was there, during his student leadership days and a three-year stint as president of the Greek society, he discovered a talent for fundraising as he set out to find the $200,000 required to establish modern Greek studies at the university. ”I had functions after functions. We had Greek taverna nights, we had annual balls where I had Nick Greiner and Bob Carr attend,” he recalls.

After university, Nicolaou applied for and won the position of fundraising manager at the Children’s Hospital at Camperdown and then at Westmead when the hospital relocated. In his late 20s, he found himself managing a team raising $12 million a year.

By 2002, Nicolaou’s political ambitions had well and truly matured. He won preselection as the Liberal candidate for the state seat of Ryde but was beaten at the 2003 election by Labor’s John Watkins, who went on to become deputy premier.

”That was a difficult election because we changed leader from Kerry Chikarovski to John Brogden and it was the time when we were sending troops over to Iraq,” he says. ”I was smack bang in the seat of Bennelong [held by then prime minister John Howard]. There were a lot of people who were a bit angry with the prime minister because of that.”

But from the loss came an unexpected opportunity when the then state director of the NSW Liberals, Scott Morrison, approached him to take over the Millennium Forum job from Michael Yabsley, citing his fundraising prowess.

”I said, ‘Scott, this is a big call. Anyone can raise money when you’ve got children and a children’s hospital and you can market that. But politicians? Come on!”’ He agreed to do the job for six months and stayed for a decade.

In a move that raised some eyebrows in political circles, last year Nicolaou stepped straight from raising money for the Liberals through the Millennium Forum to lobbying the new Liberal government as managing director of Premier State, owned by leading Liberal and former minister Michael Photios.

The move came nine months after the NSW AHA donated almost $600,000 to the NSW Coalition before last year’s state election, beating the January 1 deadline that banned political donations from hotels.

The NSW AHA is a client of Premier State, but Nicolaou says he did not deal with them as a lobbyist and the association had nothing to do with him being chosen as chief executive.

However, he does not shy away from the fact his political connections would have been attractive to the association’s membership. As an example, Nicolaou has known the Hospitality Minister, George Souris, whose portfolio includes liquor and gaming, for almost 20 years. ”He’s seen as a leader in the Greek community and I’m involved in the Greek community,” Nicolaou says.

”And we’ve always got on famously because of our heritage. [But] I know I can’t rock up and say, ‘Listen, I want this, minister, I want that.’ He ain’t going to give it to me. It will never happen.”

So what does the association want from the new government? Mainly consultation over policy changes that affect the industry.

”For example, if they banned smoking in al fresco dining areas, there’s a lot of people coming into Australia from China and other Asian countries who smoke,” he says. ”That’s going to have an impact.”

(The week after our lunch, the Health Minister, Jillian Skinner, announced smoking bans for outdoor areas such as bus stops and playgrounds but exempted outdoor dining at pubs and clubs until 2015.)

The hotels association will be closely monitoring the effect of the ”three strikes” regime. ”That’s going to be reviewed in due course,” Nicolaou says. ”We want to be part of that review process.”

Meanwhile he has been in talks with the NSW AHA president, Scott Leach, about the first plank of a strategy to overhaul the image of the state’s pubs.

It involves introducing a voluntary accreditation process for hotels that would be loosely modelled on those available for professionals such as accountants.

”You’ve got to remember that a local hotelier is going to make sure that their pub works,” Nicolaou says.

”But sometimes now, with some of these pubs that have been bought out by Woolworths and Coles and the multi-hoteliers, you’re going to have a manager there who’s going to just run the pub like it’s a nine-to-five job.”

”I’m not saying facilities aren’t well managed,” he stresses.

”It’s another thing just to make sure we bring some belief in the community that we’re doing our bit to control the issues that are perceived to be associated with hotels.”