SABA pioneer who dreamed big

Joe Ghalaini, owner of SABA, was a retail pioneer.





On 10 October 1935 in Beirut, a Dandenong-based pioneer of the retail industry was born.

Youseff Abdul Ghalaini, who was known to everyone as ‘Joe’, was the king of the 1980’s furniture empire known as SABA.

He was one of 10 children to Abdullah Ghalaini – a fabric merchant – and Hegmat Ghalaini – a home maker.

Joe’s father was a strict and cruel man at times. This shaped Joe into being a strong, resilient and incredibly focussed young man driven to survive and succeed at anything he did.

Joe was always entrepreneurial, and from the earliest age, he would buy and sell anything he could to make money.

Although small-statured, Joe had a huge personality. He was naturally skilled at sales and his gift of the gab was second to none.

At the age of 20, with the help of his older sister Samea, Joe fled war-torn Lebanon in search of more opportunities and a better life.

At first he landed in Singapore, then ventured to Australia with only $20 in his pocket, a ‘Big Shot’ attitude and a steadfast dream to be a very successful businessman.

Joe lived in a boarding house in Chapel Street Windsor run by Priest Hada.

Priest Hada welcomed many Arabic immigrants and helped Joe find his first job working as a porter in Myer Melbourne.

Joe wanted to work in sales, but those positions were reserved for ‘Australians’ and not migrants.

Nicknamed ‘The Black Boy’, Joe would go to the sales floor on his lunch breaks, borrow a white coat from one of the sales staff and start selling to customers.

Although Joe was not officially in sales, he won Myer Salesman of the year twice.

After a couple of years, Joe’s brothers Jimmy and Michael also arrived in Australia.

The brothers were very close and would go everywhere together.

While at a dance, Joe met his future wife Elaine Brodie, who was a telephonist at Myer.

Joe and Elaine were happily married for 46 years. They moved to Ferntree Gully when they first married in 1963 and raised three children Marita, Greg and Mandy.

Joe was in his early thirties when he and a business partner began a furniture business called Big Joes & Little Joes located in Dandenong.

They would sell furniture on consignment and stack it high to save floor space.

The business grew so big that Joe then went out on his own with Furniture World sited on Frankston-Dandenong Road.

Joe was a fearless innovator when it came to sales, retail and marketing. He broke the mould of retail in the 1980’s.

Now in his late forties, Joe bought 10 hectares of land on the corner of Frankston Dandenong Road and Greens Road in Dandenong South.

There he built SABA Furniture – Soft And Beautiful Always – named after his beloved wife Elaine.

It was said to be the biggest furniture store in the Southern Hemisphere, drawing visitors from afar.

Furniture as far as the eye could see, and everyone remembers the two cockatoos Dave and Mabel, the SABA robot, the kid with the annoying laugh at the end of the commercial, and SABA Bear.

This building had its own bank, coffee shop and apparently even free admission – another of Joe’s innovative marketing ideas.

He was ahead of his time and an industry leader.

He worked hard and bought the things he loved and also for those he loved.

His home at 88 The Esplanade Brighton was open to everyone, and everyone was made to feel welcome.

He had fast cars, travelled the world, and had a wonderful lifestyle most would envy. The kids drove BMWs, and he bought them nightclubs, clothing brands and shops.

Joe had property from Bellbird Road Mt Eliza (his sanctuary) to Queensland.

He dreamed big, with projects like building the Western Port Marina, Jacksons Restaurant in Surfers Paradise, a water slide park and even a music conservatorium.

When he wanted to start Sunday trading, he did – despite being outlawed in Victoria and no matter how much he paid in fines.

His campaign began under Premier John Cain until Jeff Kennett legislated it into reality.

The recession hit hard in the early 1990s, bringing SABA to an end.

Joe always said: “I would rather have had it and lost it, than never had it at all”.

By the 2000s, Joe and Elaine moved back to Mt Eliza.

When Elaine passed away in 2009, Joe became a recluse and retired from business.

In his final years of life, his daughter Mandy was his live-in carer.

Though struck with dementia, Joe’s big shot personality was still there with his amazing advice and ideas about the world.

He had many health issues, some may say he was a walking time bomb, but it never stopped his insatiable appetite for the wrong foods – 2 – 4 cans of Coke a day and chain-smoking.

About 1am, on Wednesday 17 June, he passed away peacefully at home.


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