What makes Keystone tick? Christopher Holder talks to Managing Director John Duncan to find out.



It’s impossible to generalise. But it’s fun. Whether you’re talking about the Gordon Gekko-style ALH Group, the gastro-pub delights of the Colonial Leisure Group, the Singo/Dicko knockabout rich mates’ pub play, or the tight Sandhill crew of Richmond… the bigger players each tend to fall into a mould. They either stick to a proven venue formula, or a familiar suburban patch they know like the back of their hand, or they have the big investment banker backing and it’s a beer ’n’ pokies production line.
Keystone is harder to pigeonhole. The Keystone portfolio is diverse: everything from boutique wine bars to corner pubs to huge late-night entertainment complexes; and it’s hard to identify what the common denominator is… other than the fact they’re well run and profitable.
Keystone Managing Director John Duncan and his business partner Paul Schulte are clearly passionate about hospitality and, with the rate of Keystone’s expansion, they’re obviously ambitious, but I wanted to know a little more about what makes Keystone tick.
John Duncan isn’t a hard-head. He’s an affable, laconic bloke who likes a beer. He doesn’t strike me as someone who delights in spreadsheets, but he talks almost fondly of ‘processes’. He has a couple of generations of hospitality in his family, but (at least initially) decided to strike out on a different career…

John Duncan on his Career Change: “I was a builder by trade; a site foreman. Then in 2000 an opportunity came up and we got involved. From there we’ve just picked up the ball and run with it.”

That opportunity was to launch Cargo Bar on King Street Wharf, just as Olympic mayhem was about to descend on Sydney. It was a once in a lifetime chance. But with the stakes so ludicrously high, it was hardly the ideal launch venue for a hospitality novice — even with one that had beer in his veins… so to speak.

John Duncan on Staffing: We invest in our staff. We teach them a lot about procedure and creating experiences for guests. And at all levels — cellar staff, wait staff, bar staff… we train everyone. We spend money on that training and it’s worth it.

And if the Cargo Bar was a ‘sink or swim’ moment, then John and his cohorts not only emerged spluttering to the surface, they powered their way like a young Thorpie to a podium finish. Cargo Bar has been a huge success by any measure, and continues to be 13 years later.

John Duncan on Budgeting: Spend money where it’s worthwhile. Furniture for one — buy the best, and it’ll last. And allow for a contingency: no matter how many times you look at the plan you’re always going to want to add or change something once you get the furniture in the space.

Bungalow 8 followed. Which can hardly be described as a huge departure — another heaving nightspot on the same pier, with largely the same sort of demographic — but it only served to raise the Keystone stocks.

John Duncan on Looking Good: Choose the right materials for that area and really make sure it’s going to last. If it doesn’t. Fix it, because it’ll cost you more in the long run. We build for the long run. Cargo Bar is 13 years old and retains many original features — it looks great.

From there? Wine bars. And wine bars before wine bars were a blip on the Sydney radar. Starting in 2005 with the Gazebo in Elizabeth Bay, followed by The Winery, The Wine Suites, and Manly Wine, all for the 30-plus “vintage” patron as John describes them.

John Duncan on Expansion: When you’re expanding as a company and travelling a lot it’s very important that you’re in the venues — feeling, living, breathing it. We’re a large group now, with 700 staff, and it doesn’t get any easier. So key management is also very important.

The wine bars show Keystone’s entrepreneurial spirit. Cargo Bar and Bungalow 8 embody the essence of ‘Sydney International’ with their schmick ’n’ sexy sizzle; they’re vastness; and, of course, their location — King Street Wharf is ‘destination’ with a huge buzz but little soul. So the curious peregrinations into the comparatively micro world of wine bars demonstrates a whole knew side to Keystone… it’s like discovering that Bruce Willis likes knitting. But it’s a beautiful side and one that led the way in the Harbour City.

John Duncan on The Cross: It’s a precinct where a lot of operators have taken a hit with the new Friday/Saturday night restrictions. Is it solving the problem? Probably not. Just diverting it elsewhere. The one thing that’s not being addressed is what’s happening with the drugs — the stuff no one wants to talk about. I love Kings Cross, I come to Kings Cross daily and it’s obvious to me that drugs is a massive issue.

The next Keystone bombshell was The Sugarmill, an enormous corner site in the epicentre of the visceral thrill that is Kings Cross. It was an old bank building. Keystone gutted it and transformed it into a multi-functional fun palace. But unlike Sydney’s new harbourside projects, Darlinghurst Road has history and personality to burn. With lessons learnt from the more boutique wine bar ventures, Keystone got its groove on.

John Duncan on Being Hands On: Until our partnership with Coco Republic at the Newtown Hotel we’ve mostly worked with an architect (Humphrey & Edwards) and spec’ed the furniture and finishes ourselves. I could probably tell you every finish we used in this venue (The Sugarmill) without too much trouble. I mean, who would have thought to put a vinyl floor back into a pub (which we did in Newtown)? Bring it back! You can drop a glass and it’ll bounce back up at you… with the beer still in it!

The Sugarmill, Kit & Kaboodle, and the freshly-minted Sweetheart’s Rooftop Bar as a multi-headed hydra of a brekky-till-dawn entertainment complex, manages to be immense and quirky. There are any number of design punts that mostly come off and it’s a site that effortlessly shares the same heartbeat of the mad/bad precinct it clearly champions.

John Duncan on Launch Strategies: Most of our venues have been designed from scratch — a blank canvas — which can make it easier to get the launch right… you’re not inheriting problems. With the Newtown Hotel renovation, the best thing we did was trade as Freaky Tiki for nine months. We got to understand the quirks of Newtown and the trading patterns, which all went into informing the fitout and launch.

John talks about running “venues for locals” as being part of the Keystone DNA. But for a man who’s made his fortune from running large venues in precincts not known for their locals (King Street Wharf and Kings Cross) you wonder if they’re hollow words. More charitably, I’d suggest that it’s Keystone’s new DNA… spliced in, you might say. This is none more evident in the highly sensitive Newtown Hotel relaunch. Many locals were extremely dubious of Keystone’s intentions. The fact that Keystone has given Newtown precisely what it wanted has won over even the most sceptical of observers. One suspects Keystone has a new string to its bow.

John Duncan on What’s on the Radar: Since last October we’ve launched the Newtown Hotel, Sweethearts in November, and The Rook in December. That’s three venues in three months, with a whole lot of capital invested. But we’ve got things in the pipeline and you’ll be the first to know! We’re always looking at something new to grow the business. We’re geared up ready to go, we can take on more quite easily.

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