The whole of the Northern Territory cheered when Karen Sheldon was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2017. The Territory was proud of the Queen of Hospitality not just because she is one of our own, but also because many people knew the rocky road she had walked to become one of Australia’s most revered businesswomen.
The Karen Sheldon Group is a successful training and catering company, which plays a key role in helping “close the gap” by training hundreds of Indigenous jobseekers. The business employs about 110 staff and has operations in Darwin, Alice Springs, Elliott, Tennant Creek and Elcho Island. Not bad for a woman who admits that it took her many years to learn how to run a business properly.
Karen was the eldest of five children born into a working class family in the Melbourne suburb of Mentone 70 years ago, and growing up in country Victoria. Her mechanic father Ben was killed when the bucket of a backend loader was accidentally released and hit him on the head. “It was a terrible shock, a tragic accident.”
Her mother Audrey was a gifted poet and stenographer who suffered mental illness from mid- life. Karen and her sister Mary cared for her mum in Darwin for the final three and a half years of her life. “She lived until she was 94. In some ways, we were quite grateful when Alzheimer’s took over from the mental illness – that was when Mum even forgot that she smoked. “It’s sad to say, but I often hated her because of what she put us kids through during our childhood but I also loved her because she was our mother. “Because of mum’s mental illness, I played a big part in bringing up my siblings.”
Karen’s primary school years were miserable. She was an “unkempt” little girl – because of the chaos at home – and other children and even teachers bullied her unthinkingly. “I was a real loner. I used to hide in the school toilets during breaks because I had no friends. The teachers used to come and hunt me out”. “I remember thinking that there was nowhere to hide, standing alone in the playground, wishing the ground would swallow me up. It was the same at sports days when I was always the last picked for teams, and at social events where I was your classic wallflower. I had such low self-esteem. I believed that every person in the world had more right to be here than me. Perhaps that’s what has driven me to always trying to justify myself.”
Karen was traumatised by the bullying and says she never fully gained self-confidence until her mid-fifties, despite her enormous success in business and making a difference to the lives of so many Indigenous people. “I didn’t get over it until I began doing a lot of self-analysis, a lot of introspective work.”
Karen’s first job after leaving school at the end of year 11 was in an office. Two years later, she was flipping burgers in a Winton roadhouse while she and a friend saved for a cruise to Japan. That plan fell through, so they did the next best thing – and caught a Pioneer bus to Alice Springs.
In a quirky way, the Alice felt like home because there had always been a faded copy of an Albert Namatjira painting of Mt Gillen in the family living room – a souvenir from her Mum’s early days as a Land Girl in Alice Springs during the war.
Karen couldn’t have saved much for her holiday because she soon ran out of money and got a job traying up Ansett airline meals in the Alice. It was a decision that would change her life forever. A woman walked into the kitchen one day and said: “I hear you’re a cook” – and gave her a one-way bus ticket to Barrow Creek. Karen was to be the roadhouse cook.
“I thought Barrow Creek would be a nice town like Alice Springs. I couldn’t believe it when I got off the bus and there were just a few lights shining in the dusk. “A woman burst out of the only building in sight and shouted, ‘Are you the new cook? Well, get in the kitchen and help me feed these people. She was the cook I was replacing and she spent the next few days grumping at me for my lack of knowledge until she left me to it!”
Karen knew little about cooking but had her trusty Margaret Fulton cookbook to get by. “I used that book frontwards, backwards and sideways. I even wrote to the author to say she had left the butter out of one of her recipes – and she changed it in the next edition. “At first I would have left Barrow Creek as quickly as I came, but as I had no money for a bus ticket, I had to stay, and by the time I could leave, I didn’t want to, and spent probably the best five years of my life, self-learning a wonderful trade, and meeting many amazing new friends!”
“I had never met an Aboriginal person, but was befriended by the local Kaytetye people, particularly the women, who taught me so much about their way of life and their country.” “We had not studied Australian history at school and learning about First Australians came as quite shock. I was dismayed at the living conditions, but in total admiration of my new friends and workmates resourcefulness and resilience. We shared much knowledge and many joyful times as they took me hunting and gathering bush tucker and shared their stories. In turn, I taught them how to drive and helped them get their licence, and we prepared fresh meat and vegetable stews every day for the whole camp.”
In a lovely twist of fate, one of the ladies’ nephew became a most successful employee in Karen’s Future Stars Indigenous Employment program in Darwin many years later.
Karen and the half-owner of the Barrow Creek Roadhouse, Clarrie Sheldon, moved to Tennant Creek and set up a diesel mechanical workshop in 1976.
They were married at Devil’s Marbles, the atmospheric jumble of giant rocks beside the Stuart Highway, now know by their Aboriginal name of Karla Kalu.
Then Chief Minister Paul Everingham sent a congratulatory telegram, joking: “This marriage started on the rocks. I hope it doesn’t end that way.”
Karen says: “Well, it did, of course.” The couple split after seven years but remained friends until Clarrie’s death.
Their daughter, Erin also a chef, runs the Company’s Speaker’s Corner cafe in Parliament House.
Karen loved Tennant Creek and built the Dolly Pot Inn restaurant with her brother, Richard Dodd.
They added squash courts, a sauna and spa.
“It was amazingly successful in those early years, despite our lack of business acumen – like building a sauna in Tennant Creek!”
“I had a vision of having a great life in Tennant. I had made all my pottery tableware for the restaurant, and I thought I would continue to make pottery, and have a little craft shop at the Dolly Pot, play squash and do the odd bit of cooking.
“Well, I never touched my potter’s wheel again, was the last person in town to play squash and spent about 26 hours a day in the kitchen!
“But I was living my dream, experimenting with new food ideas all the time, with lots of appreciative happy customers – we even grew our own lemongrass and served Thai and Vietnamese dishes in Tennant long before these cuisines became trendy. We were lucky to get noticed internationally and the restaurant won it share of awards over the years.
I went on to complete my formal cooking qualifications but although I had the passion to serve the best food possible, I didn’t have the training skills to bring my staff on the journey with me. I just shouted a lot!”
I was so lucky that my sister Mary had given up her librarian job to run the front of house in those early days, and her unfailingly brilliant customer service was the buffer between our kitchen chaos and our diners!
Karen then made a life-changing decision by going on a NT Government five-day “Train a Trainer” course that was offered in Tennant Creek.
“It was fantastic. Light bulbs flashed in my brain all week! I went back to work with a new respect for my staff and a determination to look at skills transfer in a new way.”
The Dolly Pot trained more than 65 apprentice chefs in Tennant with the kitchen becoming a constant training kitchen and most apprentices completing their whole trade training in Tennant Creek with block release in Alice Springs, before venturing off to practice their skills around the world.
Despite being a self-confessed workaholic, she found time for a 12-year relationship with local printer Tony Fillmore. Their daughter Jess is now the marketing manager for the Karen Sheldon Group.
Karen moved to Darwin in 1994 to open a branch of the Dolly Pot in Fannie Bay.
The restaurant was a great success. She sold it after four years and moved into airline and general catering at TIO Stadium, home of AFLNT in the Territory, and years later the company won the hospitality catering contract at Parliament House.
She and Richard also sold the Dolly Pot in Tennant – it had cost them more than $600,000 to build it and they sold it 15 years later for $180,000.
“I’m pleased to say that my business skills are improving these days, with plenty of experience in the school of hard knocks!
“With a business career spanning more than 40 years in the Territory, one of my key pieces of advice to any new entrepreneur is to employ a professional accountant from the beginning so you get the brutal truth regularly without your own emotional involvement. I started by doing the books at 2 am after a very busy day, and they were always behind!”
“Like all small business owners, I’ve had plenty of ups and downs. But in business, when the going gets tough the tough get going. We just knuckle down and get on with it until things get better!”
“At one time I remember being scared to answer the phone in case it was the bank manager. Each time we won a Gold Plate I used to joke that perhaps I could melt it down and give it to the bank manager!”
Any thoughts of retiring?
I plan to continue using the gifts of knowledge and experience that the Territory has given me to increasingly foster opportunities for prosperity parity for all Territorians, particularly the First Australians who made me so welcome to their country.”