Marketing and corporate fleet management may sound unlikely training grounds for running a pub and a homewares store, But Simon and Kelly Leplaw have taken to their career changes.
There is nothing on either Kelly or Simon Leplaw’s CVs that would suggest they would leave their city lives and move to Rockley, a tiny historic village, population around 200, in the NSW central tablelands. They both grew up in Sydney and enjoyed corporate careers before making the decision in the middle of the pandemic lockdowns of 2021 to upend everything and get out of town. A move that would change their lives. To exchange their corporate future for living the country life.
“The urge to move out of Sydney was always there,” Kelly says. “It was motivated by pure escapism — the desire to live somewhere you enjoy the changing seasons and colours and actually experience the climate rather than live in an air-conditioned bubble. But I was very settled in my career in corporate fleet management and Simon had a good job as the sales operations and marketing manager for Ducati motorbikes in Australia and New Zealand, so it always seemed a bit of a pipe dream.”
Since 2008, the couple had started to realise that dream by heading to the Southern Highlands every weekend to play golf in Mittagong. Kelly says she thought they would end up living the country life, but then that notion was shelved when they bought their dream home at Glenhaven in Sydney’s Hills District and further entrenched themselves in the city.
The wild cards were COVID, the enforced lockdowns and a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the nine-to-five routine. The catalyst for change came from acclaimed chef Matt Moran, owner of Aria, Chiswick and Chophouse restaurants as well as several Sydney Opera House dining outlets, and also famed for his TV roles and cookbooks. What’s lesser known is that he has deep roots in the bush as his family owns a farm near Rockley and his great-grandparents were even married in the local church. Simon had met Matt, who is a keen rider, through Ducati and in recent years they’d taken road trips through Matt’s home country in the Bathurst area.
“Matt is a great enthusiast for the region,” Simon says. “We’d be riding through the country and, chatting through helmet intercom, he’d be commenting on every breed of sheep or cattle and the soil composition and microclimate of every paddock we passed. So it wasn’t surprising that when he heard The Rockley Pub was for sale, he decided to take that connection one step further and buy it.”
Matt and Simon had spoken about the pub’s potential for years, so they embarked on the restoration project together. Within weeks Simon and Kelly resigned their jobs, put their house on the market and embarked on the massive move from the city to the bush. With their beloved Golden Retrievers, Marley and Parker in tow, they are now firmly ensconced in the country, with plenty of space for the dogs to enjoy, a garden to landscape, a beautiful new home to decorate and even a clutch of chickens to care for.
“I’d never even visited Bathurst when the offer came up,” Kelly says. “I’d been through on our way to Orange, but never really stopped there longer than to buy petrol. But we were ready for change and, although I’m no risk taker, it just felt right. There was a lot of trust involved. I trust Simon’s judgment, Simon and Matt trust each other and we both had to trust our instincts that we’d like living there.”
The plan was that Kelly would spend a couple of months getting their Sydney home ready for sale and looking for a new home in the Bathurst area. However, COVID had other things in mind, so they found themselves selling one house and buying their new home on acreage at The Lagoon, midway between Bathurst and Rockley, then living in the pub for a couple of months until the sales were finalised.
“We managed to sell just before the lockdown stopped house inspections,” Kelly says. “Then we packed as much as we could fit in the car with the dogs and headed for Rockley. It was an anxious time as we couldn’t go back to supervise the move, but all went pretty smoothly and we stored our furniture in a shed at the back of the pub until we could move into our new home.”
While Simon had no previous experience in hospitality, he and Matt are great believers in transferable skills and delivering an authentic experience. “The essence of running a business, whether it’s retail or hospitality or real estate, is people, processes and products,” Simon says. “Put those three together and you get profits. It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling motorbikes or meals, the important thing is customer interaction. The difference between my old job and this one is where a bike dealership might sell 300 units a month, a country pub can expect 300 covers a weekend. The common factor is the customer has to have a great experience to ensure they come back.”
Kelly also jumped at the opportunity to spread her wings, by opening a homewares store called The Olive Robin in an extension of the pub building. She’d previously dipped a toe in the sector in Sydney selling macrame hangings and decorator items at weekend markets. “But if anybody suggested I’d give up my day job to go into retail, I’d have laughed in their face,” she says. “As it turned out, a destination village needs a store, so I approached Matt with the notion.”
The initial plan was to close the pub for a renovation, including the 10 guest rooms upstairs, but that was abandoned shortly after the move when they realised the village was feeling deprived of its pub. Instead they opted for a soft opening with a revamped menu and are gradually working through the expansion program, which includes remodelling the kitchen and cellar as well as the accommodation, building 10 villas behind the pub, opening a bakery and a general store.
“The pub is 150 years old this year,” Simon explains. “So we’re running the old girl pretty hard and obviously she needs a bit of a facelift. At the same time, we’re very mindful of not changing the pub, or the village for that matter, to the extent that it’s unrecognisable. There’s no point buying a country pub and turning it into a clone of what you’d find in Newtown or Northcote.”
Simon points to Millthorpe on the other side of Bathurst, where almost 20 years ago a former Matt Moran alumnus, Tony Worland and his wife, Nicole, opened Tonic restaurant and made the historic village a dining destination, and helped revive the town. “We have big plans for Rockley, but we don’t want to lose the essence of what it is,” he says. “For too long, Bathurst has been a bit of a one-trick pony with all attention focused on motor racing, so this is a chance to give the region broader appeal. Matt is a big drawcard and he’s here for the long haul.”
So far, Simon says they have been fortunate to be able to source staff from the region, either from existing employees or people trained at local hospitality courses in Bathurst and Orange. “That may change as we expand,” he says. “But ideally we keep our regional accent and with it, our local patronage.”
While the Leplaws are not going to pretend the experience has all been smooth sailing, Kelly says she has never for a second regretted the move. “Day three stands out as the toughest,” she says. “One of the puppies got sick and we had to find a vet to take him to. Then we just wanted to take him home, except we had no home to go to, just the pub. There have been other adjustments, including getting used to Simon working nights. After 25 years together, we had never not been together every evening, so that took some getting used to. Fortunately, where we are living, I can see our neighbours’ lights, so I don’t feel as though I’m stuck out in the sticks, and I have the dogs for company. Plus I have the shop to keep me busy and have been lucky to make many new friends.”
Kelly adds that these friendships have been one of the most unexpected bonuses of their tree change. She says Matt very generously introduced them to his local friends and they have been blown away by the generosity of the welcome. “It really has eased the transition,” she says. “Within a week of arriving, we’d been invited to dinner, which in turn introduced us to more people, and we kind of fell into a group of people we clicked with. The other thing is that because people tend to entertain in their own homes, there’s time for conversations about deeper issues than the cost of real estate. There is a genuine sense of community and, to be honest, we’ve been quite blown away by it. Everyone comes together for the town market, which is on the second Sunday of the month, and there’s a garden and art studio ramble in the spring. You hear about country hospitality, but experiencing it is truly a different thing. We just feel so fortunate to have found it.”
Photography by Ken Brass
Visit The Olive Robin for more information here