Beyond the bars, this is what made Keystone great.

Story by Luke Butler
Luke Butler was the Group General Manager of the Keystone Group until 2013 having spent 11 years working for the company.

When news of The Keystone Group going into receivership broke last week, it sent a shockwave through the industry, as evidenced by the outpouring of support on social media.

The response was dominated by sadness and overwhelming empathy for company directors and staff members, with the industry understanding that receivership represented the potential wrapping-up of a major influence on both the Australian hospitality market and many people’s day-to-day lives.

Keystone started back in 2000 with the opening (and raging success) of Cargo Bar & Lounge. Partners John Duncan and Fraser Short were ambitious, using Cargo as a springboard to open Bungalow 8 & The Loft in 2003 followed by Fringe Bar, Gazebo Wine Garden, The Winery, Manly Wine, The Sugarmill and Kit & Kaboodle.

John and Fraser went their separate ways in 2009, resulting in Ant Prior and Paul Schulte joining John as company directors. Keystone continued to thrive, adding the Newtown Hotel, The Rook and Sweethearts Rooftop to its portfolio before purchasing Pacific Restaurant Group in 2013 and expanding the business across Australia.


It took 16 years to grow from a single venue to sixteen properties spread across four states. In that time Keystone won five Group Operator of the Year Awards and two Publican of the Year Awards for John Duncan at the ALIA’s, one Hotel Operator of the Year, one Pub Operator of the Year and one Bar Operator of the Year Award at the Bar Tender Magazine Awards, along with many other awards for various venues and team members.

The irony of discussing the success of a business that is currently in receivership isn’t lost on me however, Keystone’s true success doesn’t lie in the number of venues it owns or the awards they’ve won, it lies in the way they do business and the culture they’ve built.

As a family owned company, Keystone’s culture is characterised by personal interaction with the owners, along with an unwavering commitment to empower staff. Despite not having worked there for over 3 years, to this day I can’t help but use the word ‘we’ when talking about Keystone, simply because I always felt that my opinion impacted the overall direction of the company. That kind of ownership is hard to find.

John, Ant and in his day Fraser, instilled a drive towards doing things the right way. Significant time and money was spent on making the company’s employees better through in-depth management training programs, imparting knowledge that I still draw upon today.

The business is loyal to its staff and as a result, the staff are loyal to the business. Upon finishing up at Keystone in early 2013, I had spent a third of my life working for Dunc and Ant, simply because the culture they created was so inclusive, it had never occurred to me to leave.

Simon Barbato, now a Director, started around Cargo’s inception and worked his way up the ladder to be in integral part of the business and one that staff look to as a measure of success. There are many similar stories of managers, DJ’s, bartenders and suppliers, developing an affinity for the group that has resulted in them staying connected for long periods of time.

The list of hospo legends that have graced the Keystone payroll is long and lauded, featuring industry figureheads Lee Potter Cavanagh, Toby Hilton, Mikey Enright, Jason Williams, Phil Gannon, Andrew Emerson and Ed Loveday to name a few.

Keystone’s reach can never be fully measured. From a consumer perspective, the company has served literally millions of customers and hosted countless lunches, birthdays, parties and events however what really counts are the lasting friendships, marriages and even babies that exist because of Keystone.

Staff, DJ’s, chefs, security guards and suppliers combine to create a web of personal connections that outlast the original reason for interacting. Professional relationships become personal very quickly in the hospitality industry and Keystone truly fostered a culture of inclusivity and comradery amongst everyone involved in ‘doing business’. This approach is not universal and that’s what makes Keystone so special.

Those who have been fortunate enough play a role in the Keystone history will invariably look back on their experience with acute positivity and join me in wishing the team nothing but the best while hoping for an outcome that enables Keystone to remain a part of the Australian hospitality landscape for a long time to come.

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