Julia Harmel

Eventful entrepreneur

Julia and her husband, Mark
JULIA&~1.jpg

Diminutive Julia Harmel is a force to be reckoned with, despite her small stature, this gutsy woman has a steely determination to be a successful entrepreneur.

Rising from obscurity Julia has made it from a one-woman operation begging a business account and loan from Standard Bank, to leading events organiser and socialite.

With eight years of hard work as a budding entrepreneur, rather than working in the safety of an eight to five office job with a pension, Julia is astounded by the limelight shining on her and her business, Global Focus (GF) Events and Catering.

Looking younger than her 39-years, Julia is still trying to take in the recognition after appearing on Top Billing in July and the news that GF is a finalist in the 2013 BBQ Awards for the best established SMME Award.

“Wow, this is too much,” laughs Julia as BBQ caught up with her during her frenetic work schedule. “The exposure has been fantastic and I feel very honoured to be nominated in the BBQ awards, but I honestly don’t care about the limelight or fame. I do what I do because I love it and I love being around people and I don’t see it as hard work, or anything unusual.”

Word spread quickly through the social grapevine after she and her business partner husband, Canadian-born Mark bought a property that consisted of three conjoined Victorian houses, renovated them and amalgamated GF under one roof with the newly appointed up market, down tempo 220 Princes Lounge in trendy Hatfield Street, in May 2013.

Set in the design quarter of Gardens the updated social coffee lounge, exclusive private lounge and board room are in constant demand for product launches and business and social events. The hi-tech kitchen serves both in-house and outside catering.

Khayalitsha raised, Julia has been an achiever since childhood. Educated at LuhlazaHigh School, she passed matric with two distinctions, won a scholarship toHarvardBusinessSchool, two bursaries to study at universities in South Africa and a job offer from Sanlam.

“My parents were divorced and my mother was going through a crisis, so my brother and I decided to go and live in Port Elizabeth near our father, I decided to take the job at Sanlam so that we had a roof over our heads and I could look after my brother.”

However two years as an admin clerk at Sanlam and a chance conversation with a work colleague saw Julia packing her bags and travelling overseas.

“One day I was talking to an admin clerk that had been doing the same work for 25 years who saw this work as job security, but I thought if I stay one day longer that will be me, so I resigned.”

As she was curious, Julia decided to travel to Eastern Europe on a working holiday with an Austrian boyfriend and ‘see the world.’

“It was something this guy said about my not knowing what to do with my life that drove me home to Cape Town. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but whatever it was it was going to be something big, so I enrolled at UCT to do a bachelor degree in social science, before doing a postgraduate degree in travel and tourism.”

In 2002 Julia headed forJohannesburg, working in tourism and wine distribution. Again she realised that if she sat comfortably working for someone else she would not realise her life dreams.

“I knew I wanted to be a business person – I work through my dreams and visions as I go along. I knew I would own my own business, but didn’t know what business it would be.”

Stepping into uncharted territory Julia tried marketing wine into the African continent. “I ended up flat broke and had to go home to a single bed in Khayalitsha - that taught me to respect money after the good life and a nice flat in Mouille Point,” she says ruefully.

It was at her lowest that Julia got a call that changed the direction of her life and her future success.

“One of my former clients phoned and asked me to arrange an event and the rest is history. The audacity – you couldn’t do it today with all the FICA regulations, but I went into Standard Bank and stayed there until they helped me!”

That was in 2005, and to start with her office was a seat near the public telephones in St George’s Mall before she graduated to a table in an internet café in Green Point.

“It was hilarious, I would up jump to answer the phone and pretend I was in a busy office until a vagrant overhead me and shouted down the phone that I was standing at a pay phone in a shopping mall.”

It was difficult establishing the fledgling business and Julia was often starving. “I was so hungry that a German man, who has since become a good friend, felt sorry for me staring with envy at his sandwiches that he gave his food to me and from then on ordered two plates of sandwiches and drinks every day, one for him and one for me.” She was buoyed by his reassurance that the dark days wouldn’t last forever.

She worked tirelessly on her own for two years before marrying Mark after an internet courtship, started while he was teaching inEgypt.

“I’m a yin to her yang,” quips Mark. In fact these seemingly opposite people perfectly complement each other, Mark with his obvious pride in his wife’s endeavours, remains quietly in the background managing business operations, while Julia, with her bubbling personality spearheads new ideas and projects.

However the newly weds faced a new crisis when the global meltdown hit and they found the events trade drying up.

Being a survivor, Julia went into overdrive and after some thought announced to Mark that they would start a catering business from the kitchen of their flat. “I said there were two things people always need, food and funerals. I wasn’t into funerals so I decided that although we only knew about events we would learn everything about making and selling food.”

For a year she and Mark cooked up a storm in their tiny kitchen, not only learning how to cook, but also the ins and outs of purchasing, calculating quantities and stock taking.

It paid off and the business grew from strength to strength. In 2010 the Harmels moved from their flat to a designer catering kitchen in the city, hired a professional chef and before long added a coffee shop as the business model grew.

When the events industry picked up it meant that GF was operating two arms of the business from two venues…and that is when Julia decided to go into commercial property and buy the Victorian building inHatfield Street.

With her flair for innovation,  Julia has steered the company into all facets of conferencing and has a growing list of corporate clients. “Now we have got this far I am so excited.  It is only just dawning on me that this is recognition for eight years of hard work.”

The Harmels are still getting used to being property owners and it has made a definite difference to their focus on quality and service. “Having a product (permanent venue) has made a huge difference as we have to be comfortable and structure our own product, whereas before that we would just provide a service, as there were other service providers involved.”

Julia is conscious of the responsibility she has to her two young children and staff and wants to ensure that GF is still operating in 10 year’s time. She also believes in social responsibility and ‘paying it forward’ and mentors interns from UCT in the kitchen and during events. Some interns have since joined GF permanently and are carving careers as part of the team. Julia believes in teaching by example and her unquenchable enthusiasm has led her team to be equally motivated.

Julia is a hard taskmaster, pushing herself expecting her staff to go the distance with her.  “We work hard, but we also play hard. My friends are the people I work with. My life is my work and the people I spend most time with.”

Due to her television exposure Julia has had many people contacting her saying that she has inspired and motivated them. She has been stirred to start fundraising for a youth centre in Durban and plans to pop in for a visit after the project manager, Sim Cele said had thought about giving up youth work until she saw the programme.

“It is worth any amount of exposure if I can do something in my capacity to make a difference and change even one person’s life,” explains Julia.

With that, she dances off to show us her latest project, decorating a two-bedroom guest suite attached to the property, all the while considering her fairy tale rise to success.

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