THE MAN FROM EDESSA
George Aivatoglou migrated to Australia as a young carpenter from Greece in 1962, and he has spent more than half a century as an integral part of Mt Buller’s development.
GEORGE Aivatoglou has been a part of the Mt Buller community for more than 55 years and although now nearing 80 is still involved in business and skiing.
Although the greater percentage of George’s life has been on Mt Buller, he is slowly coming to recongise the importance of ‘handing over the reins’ to the next generation - son Rob, his wife Andrea and their children George jnr and Peg.
As a young carpenter and recent migrant from Greece in 1962, George helped to build the first ski hire on Mt Buller and has been an integral part of the mountain’s development ever since.
Two years ago the Mt Buller community acknowledged George’s committment and presented him with a plaque, in recognition of his work over the previous 53 years.
According to family and friends, Mt Buller was the natural fit for the man from Edessa, Greece, in the mountains of that northern Meditteranean country. But skiing was never part of life where George grew up. Before training as a carpenter, steady work was difficult to come by in the poverty stricken Greece of the 1950s.
George’s father found an advertisement in a Greek paper looking for tradesmen.
His father suggested he go to Australia rather than Germany.
His father had met many Australians during the war (WWII) and said they were good people.
So 24-year- old George thought it would be a good idea to come to Australia - stay for a couple of years, make some money and return home.
George himself tells the story of what happened once he landed on the docks in Melbourne:
“When the ship arrived in Melbourne, I was to go to Bonegilla (near Albury) to work.
“But there was no one to help me and I didn’t know how to get there from Melbourne.
“Everyone else who had been on the ship had been greeted by friends and relatives and went off with them.”
With no English, George spent four days around the port seeking shelter in the public toilets until someone asked him who he was.
“I said ‘Greek’ and the man sent for an interpreter, and the brother of a fellow passenger took me to his home in South Melbourne,” George recalls. >>
That man’s brother, Vangelos Stoyanou, fed him and gave him a place to stay in return for some renovation work.
“The next day, he gave me threepence (equivalent to five cents now) to get a newspaper and look for employment.
“When he returned that evening from work, he found me a job for a carpenter on Mt Buller.”
The job was to help build Auski Ski Hire - the first true ski hire on Buller.
“They rang up the builder and introduced me and I came up here to work on that building,” George recalls.
“In those days we had to travel through the Black Spur to get up to Buller, which was a long trek and I thought I was going to the end of the earth!
“I remember being in the back of a truck and when it started to rain all I could do was crawl into some bags of insulation to try and keep dry.
“When we got to Mt Buller I was itching all over - the insulation was fibre glass, the truck driver was amazed.”
“But I got on very good here, and the work was good and I stayed. “I helped out all over the mountain with maintenance and washing dishes, making coffees or pancakes, I did all sorts of jobs and I slept where I could.
“I was so happy to be working and getting paid and the people were really great.
“I always had plenty of work in Greece but never got paid.
“I came to Australia to work, not to get the dole or the pension, and I’m still working,” George said.
“I came with my little suit case and box of tools.
[George recently doanted his tool box and bench to the Men’s Shed at a new Greek nursing home.]
“I didn’t know anyone here and I just worked hard.”
“I came to Australia to work, not to get the dole or the pension, and I’m still working.” - George Aivatoglou
That was the beginning of the remainder of George’s life in Australia. “I worked that summer on the first ski hire that went up. “My boss, Tony Aslungul, asked me to stay on in the winter to work at the ski shop we had just built.”
In the summers George worked as a carpenter and repaired skis.
In winter he worked the ski hire, all the while improving his English.
“I soon got a reputation on the mountain for being able to do anything and when someone could not get a tradie or help they would say “call George the Greek - he can do it”. “Everything is difficult if you don’t know the language. “All I did was read and try to learn English, and I worked day and night. “But I got to know a lot of people.” After meeting his wife Margaret at Auski in Melbourne, George married his sweetheart, of Australian, Scottish and Irish descent, in 1967.
Describing her husband as a hard worker Margaret said “He hasn’t stopped since he was 11.”
[Margaret has worked alongside George for almost 49 years - as well as managing a nursing home for 27 years which George built in Parkdale, Melbourne at the request of his mother.]
In 1968, George had his first taste of managing a ski hire business on the mountain - Molony’s, owned by Geoff Henke.
“Mr Henke promised that he would sell me the shop when he retired,” George recalls. “We shook hands on it and that was our contract.” As the skiing industry grew, George came to own three ski shops, GSH, Horse Hill and Summit Road on Mt Buller and one at the Merrijig Motor Inn which he also built.
In 1992 Summit Road Ski Hire had just been renovated when it was burnt to the ground just before the Queen’s Birthday weekend and the opening of the ski season.
It is the care and attention of the Aivatoglou business that sets it apart from others.
It’s been a family affair, with both children Lia and Robert involved over the years, but Rob has now taken it over.
In 2016 George said it was time to semi retire and handed over the business to Rob - although George is never far from >>
the frontline - always there to talk to his customers and to keep an eye on what is happening.
The family succession plan came to fruition with Robert taking over management of George’s Ski Hire along with Andrea and his two children. George and Peg, who now have their own apartment on Buller and spend all of winter there - the kids going to school as well.
“We have elevated George to the position of Ambassador, the highest office within our business,” said Rob. “I love to make people feel welcome,” says George. “I’ve met a lot of lovely people here, including my wife Margaret, and we are now three generations here.
“I have three grandchildren all of whom are keen skiers, George 14, Peg 13 and Zoe 5. “I don’t ski very often here though. “We work seven days a week during the winter season and do all the work necessary for the business. “Winter is the time to look after the customers. “We have so many repeat customers and I always make time to catch up with them.
One of George’s regular customers asked him one day what he did with broken snowboards - George said if he couldn’t repair them then he threw them out.
The customer then asked him for a broken board and returned several weeks later with that same board painted with a portrait of George on it.
“It shows what high esteem some of my customers hold me in,” he humbly said.
That board still has pride of place in the shop for all to see.
George is often approached by young people who have been told by their grandparents to check if George Aivatoglou is still there.
“I think Buller will get bigger and better too as the next generation of kids become the new customers of Buller,” George predicts.
“And lots of people are coming skiing for the first time from places like China, India, Pakistan, even Afghanistan.
“We are seeing more and more foreign customers here - some for skiing but many just for the snow experience.
“Like I said, I came straight from the boat to help build Auski Ski Hire and stayed on.
“In 1963 I served Prince Charles when he came skiing with Timbertop.
“I remember telling the prince that his father came from near where I lived in Greece and he infomred me that his father was ‘English’ - but I said no.
“In 1968 I went to work as a manager with Molony’s Ski Hire, eventually taking it over and am still here.
“We employ mainly local people and we want them to concentrate on good service and keeping the customers happy. “It’s all about service. “We are our own boss so we can make decisions quickly and we can be flexible with our guests.”
Usually in Summer the Aivatoglou families go to Europe and Canada.
“We love to travel on the trains, it’s very beautiful,” George said.
For the past two summers George and his family have also skiid in Japan and China - fast becoming a favourite with Australians who love to ski all year round.
1. NOW GONE / George’s first ski hire situated in the Australian Alpine Institute building on Summit Road before it burnt down. 2. PROGRESSING / Molony’s building when it first housed George’s Ski Hire - changed when George took over. 3. NOT JUST SKIS...
CHANGING TIMES / George Aivatoglou has seen many changes over his 55 years on mt Buller - many of which have brought the ski resort into modern times.
HIGH ESTEEM / ( Top) Created by a much loved customer this old snowbaord was turned into a masterpiece portrait of George Aivatoglou and now has pride of place in the ski hire shop on Mt Buller. THAT’S ME / ( Bottom) George Aivatoglou is proud to be...