An eight-year old Gerard Malouf witnessed his father crying, while telling him the deepest wish in his heart was that he just wanted Gerard to be the best he could possibly be, at whatever he did in life. That conversation has stayed with the young boy right through his life as an impactful reminder to always excel in every endeavour, and at every opportunity.
Gerard Malouf believes “knowing someone's background is a portent of their morality, their future and what they might ultimately want to achieve in their life.”
If that’s true, go to your favourite map app and search for Normanton, Queensland, because that’s the unlikely starting point for his story, and you may well have no idea where it is.
Imagine you’re a young Christian Lebanese couple, a hundred and thirty-five years ago, back in the 19th Century, and you’re looking for a country to migrate to where you would be free to openly practise your religion.
No such thing as a map app back then, not even accurate paper maps; in fact, they were probably still relying on Captain Cook’s navigational drawings!
As Gerard recounts, “that was the situation my grandparents found themselves in, desperately seeking a bright new future in a country far, far away. Their search began at the beginning of the alphabet with the letter ‘A’ and Australia seemed far enough away.”
Not only did his grandparents emigrate to a country that was as far away as you could get, they found themselves living in such an isolated part of the country that most Australians couldn’t tell you where it was.
Ironically, they went from the Gulf area of the Middle East to the Gulf country of Australia, just a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Carpentaria.
It’s still a mystery exactly how his grandparents ended up in Normanton, but they did, and “my grandfather, who was as tough as they come, about five-foot high and six-foot wide, ran the pub.
“My grandmother was a delicate flower and, amazingly, gave birth to eight children.”
The patriarch of the first generation of Maloufs in Australia realised fairly quickly that if his family was going to make life a success in their new country it would have to be somewhere other than Normanton. He also knew education would be a key part of ensuring that success.
Proudly, Gerard comments that “they did an incredible job of getting their children educated, and that included sending them off to boarding schools for two or three years at a time. Three of those children were exceptional scholars and graduated from university to become doctors.”
One of those doctors was Gerard’s father.
As often happens with immigrant families, the children “wanted to excel and they had that exceptional migrant ethic, in that they had to do well to prove to their family they could do it. The three brothers finally made it to Sydney, based in the Parramatta area.”
That generation has “left a valuable legacy of what it takes to be successful. I grew up realising my family had worked hard to achieve everything they acquired. I learnt the value of contributing and being of service to your community.”
Part of that learning was the realisation that to excel, “you had to utilise your best qualities, so that you’re proud of yourself and what your family has given you. I try to instil those same qualities in my children, and in my staff. In fact, I don’t call them staff; we’re a family; there’s no hint of a class structure in this business.”
That sense of family extends to clients as well. “I deliberately use the word ‘love’ when talking about our clients. I impress upon everyone who joins us here that you have to love the person who comes through that door seeking our help. If you show love you’ll get their trust and earn their respect.”
The firm’s philosophy is that everyone is important; they’re not just a client. As Gerard puts it, “they are individuals seeking our help. They’re often from lower socio-economic areas, and, let’s face it: legal costs are extraordinarily expensive.”
Now we’re hitting a nerve with Gerard Malouf: the cost of having your day in court and the relevance of those entrusted with representing his industry.
He begins by stating that “the biggest challenges we have today are governments wanting to malign the rights of the individual. They change the laws every few years and they reduce people’s rights; Workers Compensation rights have been decimated.”
Gerard passionately continues. “I couldn't begin to tell you how sad it makes me to say to someone ‘sorry you’re off work, but your damages are minimal because of the law’. We have to adapt and somehow explain the circumstances to our clients. The recent changes to motor vehicle accident compensation law are so damning: eighty percent of people will lose their rights.”
When practitioners such as Gerard complain about the changes, “we’re accused of being self-interested, and that hurts. Sadly, those whose job it is to fight on our behalf are falling short, but I probably should stop there.”
Gerard’s passion for his industry and for helping those in need, in particular those he calls ‘underdogs’, can’t be contained.
He fears the Law Society and lawyers themselves “are such a disorganised group in many ways – some would say self-interested; they don’t organise in a manner that would help us become a strong entity. That is a great disadvantage for the general community, because who else can defend people’s rights except lawyers?”
Again he decides he’s probably said enough, and this time he’s true to his word. But you have to admire his passion for what he does and for those he helps, although he freely admits it wasn’t always the case.
When Gerard graduated from law, “I honestly wasn’t sure it was what I wanted to do. I joined my older brother in his practice and stayed there for a few years. He could sense I wasn’t motivated, and I certainly didn’t have a passion for it then, so one day he said to me, ‘you’re not doing anything and you’re going nowhere’.
“He said to me ‘Gerard, you haven’t got the passion’.
“He told me unless I committed to what I was doing, unless I sweated blood, I would never appreciate what I’m good at. That proved a turning point for me, and I’m forever grateful to him.”
Gerard took a closer look at the law and decided he needed to specialise in a certain area, and that coincided with a luncheon where he sat next to one of Australia’s most successful businessmen.
He took advantage of a piece of luck and it changed the course of his life.
Gerard recalls, “I was about twenty-six at the time, and Dick Smith was sitting next to me. I could have been overawed by the situation and sat there with my mouth open, or I could squeeze his brain.”
The question Gerard asked was obvious – so obvious most wouldn’t ask it for fear of sounding stupid or intrusive. But it’s amazing how many truly successful people will gladly pass on advice, especially if you’re keen and have a genuine desire to succeed.
He simply asked him, ‘Mr Smith, what is the key to success?’ His answer changed Gerard’s entire approach to business.
Dick Smith replied that he had a business that sold widgets and he knew he sold this widget for a certain amount to make a profit. He had another widget which he sold for a lot less and made less profit. Then he analysed how hard it was to sell the widget that makes more profit as opposed to the widget sold for less profit.
He also told Gerard the effort in selling the widget which paid him the least profit was harder, took more of his time and required a lot more effort. He commented that he saw so many people trying to make a profit in business, and in life, out of the most difficult areas, for the least return.
His next comment was the clincher for Gerard – “concentrate on the areas that give you the best return.”
That advice, combined with his brother’s observations, forced Gerard to take a serious look at what he was doing. He was a lawyer covering many areas of the law, but he wasn’t passionate about it.
That’s when he decided to specialise. He liked the law but needed to find an aspect of the law he was good at, and “realised I had developed an expertise in the area of compensation, personal injury and will disputes.”
Gerard admits he wasn’t necessarily passionate about it, but he was good at it and what followed was what can only be referred to as a ‘light bulb moment’.
“I started to like it because I was good at it, and when you become good at something, really good, you start to think of yourself in a different light. You think that maybe I do like this area, maybe it does make me happy, and strangely enough, over thirty-five years later, I am absolutely delighted with the decision I made.
“Yes, I’m passionate about what I do because I believe I am good at it.”
Gerard Malouf and Partners has become one of the most successful firms in their specialised area, concentrating primarily on medical negligence, claims against car insurance companies and will and inheritance disputes.
Another proud moment, as Gerard notes, is that “we’re the only law firm in Australia that will put in print that if you’re not satisfied at the end of the matter you can approach us, and if you have a genuine gripe, we will reduce our fee.
“The marketing specialists told us not to do it, saying that was ridiculous and was an admission of problems. I told them I don’t agree. I wanted to guarantee to our clients that they should be totally satisfied.”
Happily, Gerard adds “do you know how many times we’ve been taken up on it? Less than a handful. I believe we do satisfy the needs of our clients, because if we are the same as every other law firm in Sydney then I don’t want to practise law.”
Including his name in the business has been a key to his success, Gerard believes, especially in the legal world.
Not only has it personalised the business, “but it’s also my reputation. It’s my name on the door and anyone who walks through that door can speak to me. This is not a practice with thousands of partners and different names in the business name.
“There’s a lot of good lawyers here, good managers and senior associates, but it’s my name on the letterhead and I’m available to anyone.”
There was a time when Gerard dealt with every client, but the business has grown, having won billions of dollars for clients over thirty-five years, so it’s impractical to see every client.
However, he’s still across every case: “I get emails on everything we do, and if clients want to see me personally, I’m available.”
No matter how you gauge success, Gerard Malouf has claimed a place on that list, although he’s the first to admit his success is a direct result of that young Lebanese couple who migrated to Australia and settled in one of its most isolated areas.
He readily asserts that “it’s nothing to do with me, it’s to do with my family background. My family came to Australia as Lebanese Christians in 1887 and they came here with nothing. I’ve been driven all my life by that sacrifice shown by my grandparents and by my father and his brothers who were born in the Gulf of Carpentaria.”
Although the brothers grew up in the bush, a long way from anywhere, all three became doctors. “That same drive that got them from being a migrant family in the Gulf of Carpentaria to becoming doctors has been imbued in me. I want to achieve something great and I'm going to do it. I don't believe I've done it yet, even though we've been pretty successful. I believe we are going to do it even more so in the future.”
The first piece of advice Gerard would offer anyone starting out in their own business is something his brother told him that stung at the time, but had an overwhelming effect:
“You’ve got to sweat blood if you want to be successful.”
He senses too many people have great ideas and dreams about what they can do but simply don’t work hard enough, and he’s particularly critical of Gen Y and Gen X.
“This is probably not a very politically correct thing to say today, but the younger generation thinks things are just going to happen; it’s all going to fall into their lap, and the digital age is the major reason for that.”
Today, Gerard senses that “because it doesn’t happen quickly it’s not worth pursuing. They pull out their iPhones, hit a few buttons and get whatever they want, but getting success doesn’t work like that. True success doesn’t happen overnight; it’s going to take a lot longer.”
Given his success only came after he found an area of the law that he was good at, which led to actually enjoying it, Gerard urges anyone, especially the young, to develop an expertise in something, and get good at it.
“When you realise you can do it better than most, you’ll work at developing your skill set, and over time you’ll gain recognition and then you’ll become profitable.
“But you have to keep at it, you have to have more than just passion, you have to be prepared to sweat blood.”
Once you have obtained success, and that can be by whatever measure you believe in, Gerard warns against getting comfortable.
It’s important for Gerard to “never rest on your laurels. You have to be prepared to keep abreast of developments in your field even if that means re-inventing yourself. Because, believe me, in this digital age change happens quickly and that’s true for every area of business, whether it’s law or IT and, yes, even with widgets.”
On defining success: “most people will use money as the yardstick to gauge how successful they are but I believe it should be defined more broadly.”
“Any definition of success should also involve job satisfaction and a commitment to give back; what benefits are you giving back to society? Having a genuine philosophy of caring for the community in which you belong can boost your profile, of not only your business, but of you personally.”
Once you’ve gained some success, even in the early days, Gerard believes you have an obligation to give back to the community. “That can be in the form of supporting a local sporting team or donating to your church, but it’s important you do something.”
He truly believes you won’t be satisfied just earning a dollar until “you start to give back in some way. We’ve been doing it publicly and privately for years.”
It’s not a question of ‘should’ for Gerard. He feel it’s a must, as any definition of success for him has to include what you’re giving back.
He sums up by adding “we have many charities we support. We help hospitals, the local surf lifesaving associations and more. It’s incumbent upon all of us that we must give back to society.”
“Knowing someone's background is a portent of their morality, their future and what they might ultimately want to achieve in their life.”
“I learnt the value of contributing, and being of service to your community.”
“You had to utilise your best qualities so that you’re proud of yourself and what your family has given you.”
“I deliberately use the word ‘love’ when talking about our clients.”
“I wanted to guarantee to our clients that they should be totally satisfied.”
“I’m passionate about what I do because I believe I am good at it.”
“You’ve got to sweat blood if you want to be successful.”
“True success doesn’t happen overnight, it’s going to take a lot longer.”