Helen Ross

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She’s known as one half of a successful business and community benefactors combo, an international tour organiser and an adored mum. But who would have guessed that for more than half her life, Helen Ross had a lost love.

Helen Ross and I are sipping a light soup, enjoying views up the wave-swept coastline on a gloriously sunny day. Elsewhere, others are lunching, too. The biggest clientele of all are probably at the town’s three McDonald’s outlets – where Ross and her husband John grew their business empire beginning in 1987. Their venture into the first Maccas’ franchise between Coffs Harbour and Hexham thrust John, an executive with the Mars confectionery group, onto the shop floor in outer western Sydney to be moulded as a fast food owner-operator. The couple had already been closely scrutinised for their suitability as franchisees, had kids, and had to support themselves for a year while John made the daily two-hour round trip from home. Once ordained, there were more hurdles. Unlike today, with hundreds of WIWO stores around Australia, the premises had to be built, and staff trained, from scratch. “It was a big financial commitment,” Ross recalls.

In the subsequent two decades, however, the pair expanded their business interests and are now demonstrably comfortably established. Helly and Rossi – as they affectionately call each other – built their dream home on a headland: spacious but not ostentatious, perfect NE aspect and panoramic ocean outlook, superb B&O sound system, Hollywood-style pool and jacuzzi are just some of the trappings of success. Less obvious are their “jetsetting” lifestyle, and their philanthropy.

Yet it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Ross admits there were times after they established the first store, at Settlement City, when they wondered what on earth they’d done: “It was a tough time,” she reflects. “We went backwards for a few years: interest rates around 18%, we’d put everything we had into it, at one stage we sold assets, we couldn’t see our way out. But we kept plugging away.” As the maxim goes, the harder they worked, the luckier they got. They allocated more than normal numbers of staff, to serve customers promptly. Discovering fish fillets were popular among older patrons with tender mouths and gums, they instituted “McMeals on Wheels” for nursing homes. Soon they were winning achievement awards against Maccas peers across the globe. (Three years later, in 1990, they opened in Taree, in 1995 at the Pacific Highway “donut”, and in 2000 at the Clarence & Horton corner in the CBD). Meanwhile, building on their experience of earlier charitable fund-raising efforts, the new proprietors found several local families were utilising Ronald McDonald House at Camperdown Children’s Hospital. They formed a committee that succeeded in raising $20,000 for the facility. Their own most recent, outstanding, community contribution has been pledging a 10-year sponsorship of the Glasshouse Studio – at a price not publicly quantified (but sponsorship of a single Glasshouse seat alone costs in the thousands.) Now dubbed The Ross Family Studio, the space will be used for eisteddfods, speech and drama, dance work, exhibitions, warm-ups and more.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the endowment is the humility of the couple who made it. Helen Ross is as nice and natural as they come. She hasn’t forgotten her ordinary upbringing in Sydney’s west, the tough times – or the “carpe diem” moment the pair parlayed into good fortune. At Honolulu Airport returning from a McDonald’s conference one day, the Rosses spotted a Qantas plane named “City of Orange”. John was chamber of commerce president and Helen had worked 12 years with Qantas; they agitated for a plane named for Port Macquarie. When it was, in 1992, they organised a celebratory weekend away. For $230, guests stayed at the Sydney Hilton, witnessed the plane’s naming at the Mascot hangar and took a joy flight along the NSW coast, low-flying figure-8s over Port Macquarie. Dignitaries took part, Ronald McDonald House and the Koala Society benefited. “We got off the aircraft and said: Never again! But the guests said: Fantastic! Where are we going next?” It was a “Sea to the Centre” charter to Alice Springs the following year – and an enterprise started by chance grew to include overseas trips to exotic destinations like the Seychelles and the Antarctic, evolving into what were known as Captain’s Choice Tours. The pair sold their interest in Captain’s Choice in 2000 and now J & H Tours specialises in escorting small groups around regions like Provence, Tuscany, the Basque country. “We stay in provincial villages and travel out each day,” Ross explains. Life doesn’t seem to have stood still since the couple sold McDonald’s last year: inter alia, they have an interest in Cassegrain Wines and its development. Yet I find the most fascinating thing about Helen Ross is a Casablanca-class love story she tells me: her own.

Teenagers meet. It’s her debut; he partners her; love at first sight. They date, but life leads them down different paths; they lose touch; each marries another. One day, when each has lived at least as many years again as when they last met, he passes through Sydney International airport, where she’s a ground hostess looking after VIPs. He writes a letter revealing his enduring feelings for her, but she reads it only when his plane has left for the other side of the world. Fast-forward through subsequent years … eventually they get together and marry – after, effectively, a 23-year courtship! She inherits an instant family of three boys, 14, 12 and 6 and then they have a daughter. Years later, on her 60th birthday, her devoted husband presents her with an entire illustrated book: the book of her life, telling this story and more, a book he’s secretly written, gathered childhood photos for, and had lovingly bound, to present to her as a surprise.

Footnote: The kids also have the travel bug. The two eldest, Peter and Mark, are Qantas pilots; third son Mat was a flight attendant before joining the family tour company and Cassegrain Events. Daughter Cath, not long back from India, flew out recently to spend some time in New York.

Interview by Susie Boswell
Out To Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach.

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