When I approached Gary about writing this spotlight story on him he suggested that I knew the whole story and to go ahead. But I wanted some more precise information and met with him on his balcony over a few beers.
Gary arrived in Zhongshan in 1995. His initial aim was to start up a trading company but after a year and half of struggling, money running out and a strong desire to stay in China he needed a new plan. So with his good friend Flora Xu he opened up his first school, Capital. Shortly after arriving he met up with, a new mentor in his life, Uncle Dick, now sadly deceased but well remembered, and with his great friend and co-owner of Friends Bar, Sam. Gary spoke about the days when few foreigners were in town and he would sit down at the corner store near his home drinking beer after work, meeting many locals and the Hong Kong crowd.
Not long after opening the school, business started to pick up in the trading company and with extra money in his hand he and Sam decided it was time to open up the first bar in Zhongshan with an international feel. There worst case scenario was that at least they would have a bar at which they could drink for free which they did in 1998.
They decided on the name Friends after an old Chinese poem, “Jiu feng zhi ji qian bei xiao " which roughly translates " when you encounter your best friend after a long absence, a thousand glasses of wine are not enough " hence the name Friends. Gary says “This certainly was one of the best decisions we ever made as it allowed us to meet thousands of great friends over the years and hopefully more to come.”
In 1998 Gary also met his wife Sonya and they now have two beautiful children. He sold his share of Capital to Flora as he didn't have the time anymore to really help. Then in 2002 Gary encouraged Sonya and his mum Vivienne to open another school. He did this to encourage his mum to come over and to try her luck at running her own business. After a grueling run at that they sold the Friends Language School in 2006. His mum is now a full-time teacher at the Majestic Garden Kindergarten while Sonya is the accountant at Friends Bar. In 2007 Gary and a few local friends opened O’Hagans, Zhongshan’s only Irish pub.
As for the company, his Dad and a long time friend, Bob Lockhart, run the US operations. His Dad was still working as purchasing manager for a large multinational in the US and so it was basically a one man show for about 2 years, until his brother Brad came over and helped transform the company into something truly viable. His Dad left his position with the multi national in 2002 and became a full time Gabrian International partner.
Friends Bar and Restaurant has introduced many great social customs into Zhongshan such as Halloween parties, Independence Day barbeques and recently the Rugby World Cup matches. Gary has always had a policy that local bands were to be the focus of his entertainment and many great local musicians have played there. Later moving on to be regulars all over Zhongshan and Guangdong. Gary’s bar staff all feel like family and are treated as such. Many have been with him for over a decade.
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