Accidental owners thrive on small town life

THE sign on the wall of the bar, a small citation for the work of John and Gina, says it all. It names the Hamilton Inn, the post office and the cafe – these days all three of them in one three-storey sandstone building – circa 1824, off the highway in this lovely Central Highlands town.

Like small towns everywhere, it’s not uncommon for buildings like these to do double and triple duty, just as farmers are also firemen, truck drivers are inevitably mechanics, and shearers turn their hand to just about anything. That’s life in the country. And the Hamilton Inn is the centre of life in this town of 200 or so people, especially now a local bakery and coffee place have closed. Halloween, as an example, was busy, with a number of local kids in full costume.

One large downstairs room still bears the marks, along with the spiders’ webs, masks and witches hats of their celebration. The expansive building has a full commercial kitchen sitting at its centre, with a bar to one end and the cafe at the other, just beyond a quirky space that is now the local post office. Operating all of these elements, often several simultaneously, are John and Gina who came here 19 years ago. The story of how it happened bears repeating.

They were working in Sydney, running a corporate finance management consultancy business. “A client had this idea of buying the Hamilton pub, down in Tasmania,” recalls John. “We did the numbers for him, went through the business case thoroughly. That’s what we did for our clients. “Because we saw the business case was viable, especially with an associated mineral water bore on the property, we decided to involve ourselves financially. But the next thing, that client had disappeared, and we found ourselves owning a pub 1000 kilometres from Sydney!” The business employed managers for the first six years and it took until 2009 before John and Gina could disentangle themselves from business in Sydney. “And here we are!” says Gina.

“Nineteen years of running the place tells you we made the right decision.” The cafe and post office do a decent trade, and the pub caters to locals, tourists and a stream of tradesmen, accommodation for roadworks crews, and a couple of blokes from the coal mine up the road. “We already employ four people full time,” notes John.

“Business is pretty good, with the upstairs accommodations, all with ensuite, usually full.” At the Inn, there’s a cellar door operation coming together, and John is thinking about what he might build on the oak-lined paddock between the Inn and the highway. Then there’s the no-small-matter of the mineral water bottling plant in the pub’s big back yard that needs his close attention.

Meanwhile, four open fires need tending. There are some 25 people coming for a community morning tea in the next day or so, then a group from a BMW bike club for lunch soon after that. “This place is open seven days a week, and seven nights,’’ says Gina.

“Thanks for coming, and for listening. But right now, there’s work to be done.”