How SumoSalad Founder, Luke Baylis Built A $80 M Business | Men's Health Magazine Australia

How SumoSalad Founder, Luke Baylis Built A $80 Million A Year Business

Luke Baylis is lucky to be alive. Twenty years ago, he was snowboarding in the Rocky Mountains when he got lost in sub-zero conditions. The cold was so intense that Baylis passed out in the snow. He lay there unconscious for eight hours as temperatures plummeted below -40 degrees.

Eventually Baylis’ half-frozen body was found just before a snowstorm was about to hit. “Half an hour later and I would have been buried for the whole season,” he says. 

Baylis spent the next six months in a Denver hospital undergoing hyperbaric treatment for the most severe frostbite the doctors had ever seen. Somehow he confounded medical expectations to make a full recovery without losing any of his limbs. 

“That experience changed me profoundly,” he says. “After that, I just wanted to live and get more out of life.” 

It’s fair to say that Baylis has emphatically delivered on that promise. In 2003, he opened the first SumoSalad, a store dedicated to providing fast, healthy food at an accessible price. Since then, he’s expanded the brand to more than 100 stores in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and Brazil.

“It’s turned into a business where we’re serving more than 8 million salads a year and having a huge impact on the way Australians consume healthy food.” In the process, Baylis also managed to transform his personal health.

Spot The Gap 

Baylis’ near-death experience left him with a fierce sense of urgency. “It probably shaped a lot of my extreme behaviour,” he concedes. 

This didn’t always manifest itself in the most positive ways. In his 20s, Baylis moved from Sydney to New York to work for a telco alongside his friend and future business partner, James Miller. “We were working 18-hour days, always drinking, burning out,” he says. “It was very volatile and unhealthy.” 

Predictably, this took a toll on Baylis’ health – during his four years in New York, he stacked on more than 40kg. Indeed, it was the determination to lose his excess timber that truly ignited his interest in healthy food.

“It started off as a personal journey,” Baylis explains. “James and I had this great experience of healthy eating changing our lifestyle and helping us lose weight; we became reinvigorated with life through that.”

Exploring New York’s wealth of healthy food options served to highlight a gap in the market back in Australia. The pair promptly decided to quit their jobs and, despite having no retail experience, committed to a bold plan to launch SumoSalad. The first store opened on Liverpool Street in Sydney’s CBD in 2003.

“It was a huge change,” Baylis says. “We were two overweight blokes in IT putting our entire life savings on the line and launching a salad business that was completely unproven.

“But we were so passionate about it that we just thought: ‘Bugger, we’re going to give it a go’.”

Any big career transition is daunting. Yet Baylis’ advice for anyone considering a switch-up is not to allow fear to hold you back. Self-belief and bloody-minded persistence, he suggests, can make up for shortfalls in experience.

“You’ve got to do what makes you happy, do what makes you fulfilled,” Baylis insists. “When we first started to pitch the concept to investors, they just laughed at us – two big, fat blokes trying to pitch salads. But we ended up proving them all wrong.”

Luke Baylis Sumo Salad Founder

Kristian Taylor-Wood

Find Your Balance

Baylis’ stint in New York revealed the perils of the work hard / play hard lifestyle. “We knew if we were in this for the long game then we needed to find a way to do things in a more sustainable and considered manner.”

Today, with an international retail empire and two young children, Baylis has more on his plate than ever before. Fortunately the contents are now far more nutritious.

Finding this state of balance didn’t happen by chance. Baylis reached it by taking an inventory of his life to figure out what truly mattered to him. “I realised my priorities are my family, my business and my friends, so I make sure I invest all my time into those areas.”

Baylis’ time-management tactics don’t end there. Despite his frantic schedule, he dedicates two hours a day to exercise and learning. Baylis runs for 60 minutes to and from work while listening to audiobooks on an esoteric range of subjects (see right) from philosophy and business to religion.

“It’s about self-growth and trying to become a whole person.” This mindset is a direct extension of Baylis’ approach to diet. Just as he scrutinises the nutritional value of his food, Baylis also polices everything he mentally ingests. Suffice to say you won’t catch him watching cat videos on YouTube. In fact, Baylis doesn’t watch TV or even listen to the radio.

“I’m very conscious of what I put into my mind,” he says. “Unless I can benefit from it then I don’t consume it.”

Baylis’ ultra-disciplined brand of holistic productivity isn’t for everyone. But it does prove that, however busy you are, you can potentially find more room to manoeuvre than you imagine.

Stay Focused

For the entrepreneur, temptation comes in different forms. Three years after opening, SumoSalad was gaining momentum and was named the fastest growing brand on the BRW Hot Franchise list. Rather than consolidate, Bayliss chose to branch out on another venture focused on Middle Eastern fast food. This was not a success.

“That mistake cost me millions of dollars,” he says. It’s a common business conundrum: the more successful you become, the more opportunities land at your feet. What Bayliss learnt is that maintaining your central focus is vital.

“It’s easy to chase the flashing light. But the best lesson I could teach an entrepreneur is to persevere and look for new innovation within your business rather than chase external opportunities. A lot of people go off and do a bit of everything and nothing well.”

Similarly, when it comes to expanding your business, make sure you’re truly ready to kick on. Early on, SumoSalad made an ill-fated push into the UK, before being forced to pull out. In retrospect, Baylis admits he was guilty of over-reaching before having the resources to launch a sustainable attack.

“As young entrepreneurs we wanted to conquer the world, but we didn’t have the troops behind us to do that. Life is all about timing. Pick the moment when you’re ready to fight your battles.”

Create A Legacy

Five years ago, James Miller, the co-founder of SumoSalad, was found dead in his Elizabeth Bay apartment. Reports suggest the cause of death was an accidental overdose. He was 38. Baylis was floored by the news. “He was my best mate. We set the whole business up together. We were inseparable,” he says. “To lose him when the business was going through such a huge transformation was shattering.”

When tragedy strikes, there is no correct way to grieve. There is no quick-fix to alleviate the loss or to deal with the emotional fallout. Yet Baylis ultimately found a positive way to honour his lost mate by channeling the energy from his grief back into the business that the pair built together.

“There’s two ways to deal with something like that,” Baylis says. “You can lie in the corner in the foetal position or you can say: ‘Fuck it, I’m going to make this business amazing so James’ legacy lives on and make him proud of the business we started together.’ I took that second approach.”

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