2006 – Theo Conos

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Theodore Conos was born on 17 January 1926 at Bethesda Hospital, Richmond, to Michael Economides and Florence (nee Augustes). At six weeks of age he was critically ill and was admitted to the Royal Children’s Hospital where his life was saved. Over the years he has expressed his gratitude and been a charitable donor to the hospital and on his 80th birthday in January this year he requested no presents but donations to the Royal Children’s Hospital.

Theo hails from a line of hereditary harbour masters who served under the Turks on Kastellorizo. When the situation on the island deteriorated his father Michael Economides fled with two friends to Egypt in a small boat, and then immigrated to Australia in 1908, finally settling in Melbourne in the 1920s where he opened what is believed to be the first Greek Restaurant in Melbourne it was called “OMONIA Restaurant” and was located, in Lonsdale Street.

Michael Economides was the foundation president of the Kastellorizian Brotherhood 1925-1926. Theo grew up largely in Carlton. He went to Faraday Street State School. By the time he was twelve the family had moved eight times and at one stage during the polio epidemic the family moved to Adelaide to escape the disease. His parents then bought a fruit shop in Lygon Street Carlton. Theo attended the Collingwood & Essendon Technical colleges then went on to RMIT to study architecture. Theo worked full time in the business eventually taking it over when his father died, he was 20 years of age when he had to relinquish his studies. He stuck with the fruit shop for several more years, rising at 3 AM to shop at the wholesale Fruit & Vegies market now the Queen Victoria Market Melbourne When he sold the shop and ventured into the hospitality business he didn’t succeed, but he learnt from that experience giving him a strong foundation for his future ventures.

Theo’s business success story began in the 1950s when he opened a coffee shop in The Causeway (off Collins Street), followed by “Studio” coffee shops at Northland, Southland and the new Chadstone Shopping Centre. This was the beginning of a long and most successful business career. He rapidly built a business empire controlling 60 businesses over a period of 40 years; at one time he was running 40 shops and employed 300 staff. The businesses comprised of Nibs coffee shops, Ilios restaurants, a plant nursery, Golden Sands Receptions, and 16 jewellery shops, mainly located in Melbourne CBD, Northland, Southland, Highpoint and Chadstone Shopping Centre, Westfield Shopping Centres, Australia on Collins, Collins Place, Bourke Street, also country Victoria and in New South Wales.

When Theo opened the IILIOS GREEK restaurant in Lygon Street Carlton, in 1983, Claude Forrell of the Melbourne Age reported: “Ilios is the poshiest (sic) Greek restaurant in town and the best looking eating house in Lygon Street. It is the result of a 25-year dream that has cost Mr. Conos $750,000 to build. Quite an achievement for a Carlton born business man whose family came from the tiny Greek Island of Kastellorizo. For 25 years Mr. Conos has dreamt of something more than a coffee lounge. Now he has a place of which Carlton and the Greek Community can be proud”. (Theo’s son Dr Michael Conos recently remarked that it was a big undertaking in other ways too, because Theo, born in Australia, went to Greek school and was taught by Kyria Vraxna to hone his native language) Theo’s son Peter believes that his father’s greatest achievement was his contribution to the economy in employing hundreds of Victorians and many interstate workers in the hospitality and service industry. Peter also gave an example of Theo’s humanitarianism: “Dad continued to operate a coffee shop for four years when he didn’t need to (at the old McEwan’s building in Bourke Street) because he felt sorry for the four ladies who were all over sixty years of age and who needed the income.” Theo’s greatest sources of pride and love, according to his son Peter, was his family, his Greek/Kastellorizian heritage, employing people (giving them a go – giving them a job) in his many business, the Carlton Football Club and philanthropy. (Theo made the initial kick-start financial donation to build the Greek Aged Care Home Fronditha. When Evangelismos Church was being restored he donated the large stained glass windows. He supports many charities and institutions, including the Royal Children’s Hospital.) Despite the time needed to build and manage his business empire he found time to be involved in the community, sitting on various committees. During the mid-1950s he was President of the Olympic Athletics Club incorporating Football, Soccer, Tennis, Squash and Cultural Activities The Olympic Club was where many Kazzie boys played the sports. Theo was one of the founders, The President and Committee member of the Carlton Gold Coterie for a number of years. He served as President in 1973 and 1974 and was a committee member of the Kastellorizian Association. (As noted earlier his father Michael Economides was the inaugural president).

Theo was married to Jan Widdicombe for 18 years and has five children – Michael, Peter, Fay, Susan and Lisa. He is their respected father and he speaks with them daily. He has twelve grandchildren – Michael and Janet have Stephanie, Emma, Theodore and Anton. Peter has Sara and Max. Susan has Megan and Jamie, and Lisa and Anthony have Alexander, Nancy, Bella and Gabriel. In his book A Month of Lunches, Kevin Childs of “The AGE” says that “Theo Conos combines the qualities of successful Greeks in Australia: business hard headedness and romance,” and goes on to describe many of his business dealings and his thoughts on sport and Melbourne’s heritage buildings. He speaks of one of Theo’s romantic gestures: “…he commissioned a series of paintings on Phar Lap, but he fell in love with them, wrote poems to go with them, and couldn’t bring himself to sell them.” He still has them today adorning the walls of his home. Theo is also what one would call a staunch Kazzie and he has a remarkable collection of Kastellorizian photographs. He also has a good memory and it is hoped that one day he will complete writing his reminiscences, both on his extensive business dealings and his knowledge of things Kastellorizian. Kastellorizians have always been seekers of opportunities and success, prepared to work hard to achieve their dreams. Theo epitomises this ethos and from humble beginnings he built a huge business empire “truly and industrialist of his time”. He has succeed and continued to hold the respect of his peers along the way and also involved himself in community work and the Kastellorizian Association, this marks him as a worthy recipient of the Kastellorizian of the Year Award.