Get knocked down, get up again: How Warwick Parer discovered that going broke can be the start of something special

Warwick Parer had it all, then lost it all, and in the process found a way to turn his life around, writes Michael Blucher

Jun 21, 2024, updated Jun 21, 2024
Warwick Parer with his wife, Jenny.

Warwick Parer with his wife, Jenny.

It was a throw-away line from his 14 year-old son Nelson that reassured Warwick Parer, as a recent bankrupt, that everything was going to be OK.

Not just OK but good. Really good.

“Dad we’ve had so much more fun as a family since we went broke!” the teenager, one of six children, told his father at a time he needed to hear it most.

You know what? It’s true, Parer pondered to himself. There’s merit in simplicity, even scarcity.

But let’s rewind at few years, to the back story, because it’s a beauty. And needs to be explained.

In his early 40s, Warwick Parer and his medico wife Jenny had the lot – a happy healthy family and a thriving retail business that funded their lavish lifestyle.

On top of their rambling acreage home in the Gold Coast hinterland, there was a glittering array of success symbols – a six bedroom beach house on a double block, nestled up against the sand dunes of Palm Beach, a 50ft boat, an extensive commercial property portfolio, it went on – life could hardly have been more perfect.

Warwick’s Robin’s Kitchen business, which consisted of 56 stores (not franchised) spread across the eastern seaboard of Australia, employed some 400 people and turned over in excess of $45 million annually. The business was booming – practically the only dilemma the principal faced, was where to focus the future expansion of the lucrative retail chain.

But hold the saucepans.

In just five mind-numbing months, it was all gone. The stores, the staff, the enviable cash flow and of course the houses and the boats, all the accoutrements of Warwick Parer’s personal success, was torn from his grasp.

A big time southern based retail rival resented Parer’s growing share of Australia’s multi million dollar kitchenware market. He resented Robin’s Kitchen increasingly bright future. It was time to exert his power.

Parer has done his best to put the punishing experience behind him and is reluctant to get too specific about what happened, other than suggest he was the target of a planned, ruthless, highly unethical “pincer move”. One of the country’s hard-nosed “captains of industry” set up a bear trap involving senior banking contacts, intimidating landlords and suppliers and other illegal weapons. Over a period of four months, it bled Parer’s business dry.

Despite Parer’s impeccable credit record, his banker cut off funding for the purchase of stock. Parer was forced to eat into his cash reserves for months on end. With a business of that scale, the key business indicators quickly started spinning in the wrong direction.

Parer asked questions about what was going on and why, the absence of plausible answers told him everything he didn’t want to know.

He was being squashed, like a bug under a work boot.

“When you have 56 shops, 400 staff, a head office and a giant warehouse, the overheads are very high,” Warwick explained. “If a billionaire decides to hit you with multiple blow torches at once, it is almost impossible to survive. We fought with everything we had but we were never going to win against power and money like that, particularly when they don’t play by the rules.”

Over four or five months, the bank, at the clandestine direction of a much larger, much more powerful customer, effectively shut down his business.

He watched on as his arch rival paid $400,000 for the entire business including $5 million worth of stock.

Aggrieved by the horrible sense of injustice, for months Parer seriously contemplated fighting the matter out in court. He was counselled very strongly not to do so. The combined corporate might of the perpetrators was not just formidable, it was impregnable, their fighting fund, limitless. If he took them on, he would lose. Badly.

Move on. Put it behind you – forget the past, focus on the future. In five years time, you’ll be back on your feet doing something great, his lawyer insisted.

It was the hardest advice he’d ever received, but also the best.

“Every instinct told me to fight – to try and remedy what was clearly wrong,” Parer admitted last week. “But the advice was right – it didn’t matter what had happened or how – there was a reality I had to face, and it wasn’t pretty.”

Not pretty? It was a downright ugly. The Parers had all six children in private schools on the Gold Coast, on top of countless other financial commitments. Even with Jenny’s wage, working as a GP, they were in a world of financial pain.

Just when Warwick thought life couldn’t get any worse, it did. In March 2014, the same week Robins was finally put into liquidation, his father and life mentor, long serving Howard Government minister, Senator Warwick Parer (Snr) passed away unexpectedly.

Around the same time, Warwick lost his hearing as a result of an inner ear infection. Then his sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. When would the “hits” stop coming?

For almost two years, Warwick wallowed in self pity, flipping the blame for his business failure on himself. The 95 per cent he’d initially attributed to the dastardly deeds of his adversaries, soon became 95 per cent his own doing. His downward emotional spiral continued unchecked.

Only the unconditional support and “ridiculous” generosity of his family and friends kept him looking forward, instead of dwelling on the injustice of the past.

“So many people were nothing short of amazing – it was a like they were reading my eulogy like I was still alive,” Warwick said. “They offered to pay our bills, my family bought our house so we didn’t have to move, I even had school principals tearing up private school fees.

“The support we received was mind blowing and at the same time, humbling.”

And then out of the mouth of babes. “Dad, we’ve been having so much more fun since we went broke”.

“That was an epiphany,” Warwick said. “Nelson’s comment was so insightful. When you have those material possessions, you feel compelled not to waste them. When you’re on the boat, you’re thinking, we’re wasting the beach house. You’re at the beach house, you’re not using the boat. First world problems I know, but that’s where your mind finishes up.

“Suddenly, having nothing was a relief – a massive weight off my shoulders. Almost overnight, I was overcome with a sense of calm. I came to realise the only thing that really mattered was Jenny and the kids, my family and friends.

“Jenny was incredible – my rock. Many relationships don’t survive an experience like that. ‘Get knocked down seven times, get up eight’ was her mantra.

“We also realised the kids were looking to us and we were determined to show them what resilience looked like, knowing it would serve them well later in life.”

Jenny encouraged Warwick to move on and find a new passion. Find something you love doing.

With the backing of his family and loyal friends, Parer started exploring alternative business opportunities – a renewable energy project, a footwear range, even a chain of cooking schools, but nothing engendered any true sense of passion.

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Then one innocuous Monday night, sitting in the lounge room of their rent-free home, he tuned into the ABC’s Four Corners program – an expose on the country’s private drug and alcohol rehab industry.

He sat in on the couch seething with anger. That feeling of injustice and unfairness boiled to the surface again.

It seemed the sector was made up almost exclusively of three types of operator – the overwhelmed, under-resourced government providers, the “shonks and spivs” and the religious zealots, looking to build their cult following. WTF?

The only other option – Bryon Bay style retreats charging $10,000 a day – and who could afford them, other than celebrities who’d run off the rails? There were next to no facility that provided good service and value for money. Genuine care.

His business brain – and his passion – kicked back into gear. With his management experience and Jenny’s medial qualifications, could they do this?

Research, analysis, exploration, countless interviews, site visits – very quickly, it became clear there was a gaping hole in the market for an ethical, affordable facility, committed to helping people overcome their addiction. And sadly, addiction was a booming industry.

Three years later, in 2017, Parer, who’d started his professional life as a property lawyer, opened the doors to Gunnebah Addiction Retreat, in the hinterland of northern New South Wales.

He’d borrowed money from friends and family and bought a horribly rundown yoga facility, developing the six acre property into a one stop addition recovery retreat, cherry picking the best ideas and practices he could find, and channelling them into his own shoe-string operation.

Jenny joined him, supplementing her medical training with additional study into addiction. For the first few years, together they were typically working seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, and hardly breaking even, but they’d found true purpose.

“I liked business, I liked creating things but I needed to find an avenue that genuinely inspired me. This time it had to be about more than just making a living, more than money,” Warwick Parer reflected. “Working in the addiction space became that inspiration.

“Addiction is so badly misunderstood. When most people think of addicts, they think of unkempt people covered in sores living in the gutter. Mad people, dangerous people, weak people. They don’t think of the Goldman Sachs banker, or the civil engineer or the high school principal. In my time at Gunnebah, I’ve had six school principals – acting school principals who the moment they start holidays, head straight to an addiction clinic.

“The substance abuse, be it drugs or alcohol, is just the symptom of a far deeper problem – stress, pressure, loneliness, the breakdown of a marriage, financial problems – there are whole raft of reasons people become addicted.“

True to his word, Parer has kept the facility affordable, charging $650 a day, against a national average price of $1500 for private rehab. He views the business as a “community service”. If the Parer’s eventually make money, Warwick expects it will come from building the value of their asset over time.

Earlier this year, as a result of an increasing amount of work with military veterans, he saw the opportunity to open a second addiction facility, in the Southern Highlands, halfway between Sydney and Canberra.

“Many of the veterans coming to Gunnebah from the Sydney/Canberra area were stressed about being too far away from family. There was nothing like Gunnebah in driving distance from Sydney or Canberra,” he explained. .

The Southern Highlands Addiction Retreat services private individuals and NDIS participants but was specifically established to cater to current and former military personnel, an industry section Parer is intensely passionate about, having spent two decades in the army reserve.

“Our military have some of the highest rates of addiction in the community, and many don’t understand the type of help that is available,” Parer says. “We’ve only just opened up in the Southern Highlands, but I expect that facility will grow rapidly. Regrettably, the demand is enormous.”

Having got back on their feet financially, the Parers have repaid all their debts, even the outstanding school fees that were “torn up” to help them get through. Ultimately, there was no requirement to do so – Warwick Parer insisted.

The best news of all, he and Jenny are both doing something they genuinely enjoy.

It’s exhausting and constant, but highly rewarding.

“I don’t like the saying that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ – that’s rubbish. Bad experiences leave a lot of scar tissue. I do however believe that really good things can come from really bad events and that’s what happened to us. Helping people beat addiction can be sad but it is overwhelmingly the most rewarding thing I have ever done.”

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