Coraggio: the ‘life-changing’ impact of a unique business community
Richard Skarzynski has been a private business owner for the past 40 years, building a family company that employs 1,000 staff across four business, but it wasn’t until he was introduced to Coraggio that his entrepreneurial journey was ‘life-changing’.
“I’m 63 this year and wish I’d known about Coraggio when I was 23,” says Skarzynski, the Coraggio CEO.
Coraggio, a unique community of private business owners and entrepreneurs, is no ordinary network. Established in 2010 by a group of 12 entrepreneurs who were battling the fallout of the GFC, Coraggio now has 50 peer-to-peer advisory boards on the eastern seaboard helping 600 members tackle the challenges of running their private businesses.
Coraggio, the Italian word for courage, epitomises the origins of the executive community and is a symbol of the enduring spirit of entrepreneurs.
“You need plenty of courage to run a private business in Australia,” says Skarzynski.
“The 12 Australian entrepreneurs who founded Coraggio started their businesses from nothing – out of sheer hard work and sacrifice. But in 2010 they were facing a crisis.
“The smallest business at the time was $30 million and the largest was $400 million, and combined they supported 5,000 families through their workforce. The average age of the entrepreneurs was about 55 and each of them lived in Sydney, although they didn’t know each other at the time.
“After being customers of the major banks for more than 20 years, the banks gave these businesses 30 days to pay back their loans or speak to the receivers.”
The 12 entrepreneurs came together to help each other, meeting every Friday at the Kirribilli Club, sharing stories and discussing strategies to pull themselves from the brink.
“At the end of 50 board meetings, not one of the businesses went into receivership,” Skarzynski says.
“The magic of these first board meetings was essentially 12 smart people sharing their experience. None of them had university degrees and all were in their 50s with bucketloads of experience, helping each other through tough times.
“The founders knew they had something special here, so they decided to continue the tradition by meeting every month.”
Coraggio’s first advisory board was officially established in December 2010.
“Today, more than 12 years later we have boards right across the eastern seaboard and we’ve never had an insolvency among our members in that time,” Skarzynski says.
“We are a community that is based on values - not on money, but the values of Australian businesspeople working together.”
Skarzynski first joined Coraggio in 2015, following the retirement a founder as chairman of one of the advisory boards.
Skarzynski, a straight-talking businessman who was well versed in the challenges of running a private business, was initially sceptical after being approached to take on the vacated chairman’s role, jokingly asking whether Coraggio was a ‘cult’ or ‘religion’.
“Our family has always been in private business for 40 years,” he says. “The son of a Polish ethnic family, I first went into business at the age of 23, and our family now employs over 1,000 people across four businesses outside of Coraggio.
“I was 54 when a mate of mine, who was a shareholder and one of the 12, asked me to join. After meeting the shareholders, it was lifechanging.
“I didn’t think such a thing existed. None of us are taught how to run private businesses and I only wished I had met these guys at 23, because I wouldn’t have made a million mistakes between then and 54.”
Skarzynski’s first advisory board meeting as chairman drew Coraggio members from Canberra, Tamworth and Hornsby. It’s not unusual for members to travel for hours for their monthly meetings.
“The private owners would come from everywhere, so it wasn’t Sydney centric, and they came every month - ready for a full day’s meeting.
“The one thing we found is that running a private business is very lonely, yet business owners tend to cover it with bravado. But Coraggio is a place where they can talk freely to other business owners who also have built their businesses through sacrifice.
“Our advisory boards become our members’ tribes, enabling them to benefit from the experiences, insights, and support of others while increasing their professional and personal development and accountability as a business leader.”
When Skarzynski was appointed as Coraggio CEO four years ago, he was given free rein by the founders and shareholders to expand the advisory board network and grow the positive impact Coraggio was already making for private business owners.
Coraggio now has about 50 advisory boards that bring together 600 members every month in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Skarzynski plans to ultimately cap Coraggio at 75 advisory boards and 1,000 members.
“We have 12 shareholders who have put $7 million into Coraggio and who aren’t looking for a return on that investment,” Skarzynski says.
“They just want to look after their members. Our smallest business today is $400,000 and our largest is $800 million.
“The typical age of the owners is between 40 and 60, but our youngest member is 21 and our oldest is 82. All they want is to be able to sit in a room and not be sold to.”
Skarzynski says Coraggio advisory boards are a place where business owners have ‘hard-hitting discussions’.
“Business owners regularly talk to other business owners, but they never talk about that last 5 per cent, and that’s the most important part. It’s the 5 per cent that hurts, that part that they’re vulnerable on.
“The things that will keep one business owner awake at 3am are the same things that keep every private business owner in Australia awake at 3am.
“Our advisory boards are not a time for sales talk. The are a time to talk about why we do what we do. When you sit in an advisory board meeting with 14 other people and these questions get asked, you can easily feel very vulnerable if you haven’t given them much thought.
“But the importance of these discussions can affect so many people. If you’re employing 30 people or more, their destiny is in your hands, and that’s a big responsibility.”
Skarzynski emphases that Coraggio is not a millionaire’s club, but rather a community of hard-working Australian families.
With a membership fee of $20,000 a year, the average Coraggio member owns a business that turns over about $5 million and employs about 30 people.
Coraggio’s success is measured by its high membership retention rate and, more pointedly, none of its members has been placed into receivership since joining over the past 12 years.
“Private owners measure the value we offer in two ways,” Skarzynski says. “At the end of 12 months after joining, they look at the difference that we’ve made. If they have a net cash difference, if their business is more profitable after joining us, then we have succeeded.
“The second is if they have developed a five-year plan for their business because that makes them happier as they have their hands on the lever of their business.”
Coraggio advisory boards meet on the first week of the month on the Gold Coast, the second week in Melbourne, followed by Brisbane and Sydney on the third and fourth weeks respectively. Most cities have multiple boards running at the same time.
“We have built a community of about 200 members in Melbourne, where we only want to have a maximum of 15 boards – so a total of 225 members,” Skarzynski says.
“Our aim is to cap total membership across the four cities to 1,000, which will make our community big enough to continue well into the future.”
Coraggio ensures members are suited to their assigned advisory board by allocating resources early on to place them with the ‘right tribe’.
“You might be on the Gold Coast, but we might find the right tribe for you is in Brisbane, or even Sydney. This is a very important part of the process,” Skarzynski says.
“I run an information session every two weeks and meet every potential new member. This allows us to look at each other in the eyes to learn if we are a mutual fit.”
A typical Coraggio member is someone who started their business from nothing.
“They don’t have any arrogance and they are willing to learn. It’s not about becoming a better leader. This isn’t a kumbaya and a cup of tea. This is 12 to 15 smart people getting together for a full day so that their businesses thrive.
“We’re proud of what we do. We are very transparent. I have learned a lot over the past few years from some very smart people and we want our members to do the same.
“We don’t want our members to have a good experience; we want them to have a great experience.”