David Ghah used to run a big toy factory in Iran until Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionary government seized it in the early 1980s.
Today, his sons Hess and Tony run another toy factory of sorts, Southport-based Next Level Racing, which last month won the 2021 Premier of Queensland’s Exporter of the Year award.
The company makes racing and flight simulators, originally for the home gaming market, but these days its list of clients and partners include Ford, the Royal Air Force and NASA.
What could it possibly be doing with NASA? Training people to drive on Mars? I speculate during a recent interview with Hess, CEO and founder of the business. (Brother Tony is a director.)
Hess won’t say. He can’t. The company’s signed a non-disclosure agreement.
But still, how exactly did a small, family-owned company, which started barely a decade ago with the idea of selling things to on-line boy-racers, end up supplying markets around the world and beyond?
Hess starts the story in Iran. His family are Baha’is, a persecuted minority faith in that country.
Not only did the family lose its factory after the revolution of 1979 but also Hess’s mother lost her job and the children lost their right to an education.
“Pretty much all my dad had left was a collection of handmade Persian rugs, which the government didn’t know about,” Hess says.
“He sold them to start a new life in Australia.”
The Ghahs arrived in Adelaide in 1986 where both parents found work at the Holden plant.
“So, my dad went from owning the factory and running the factory to working on the assembly line,” Hess says.
But not for long. The family moved into car dealerships and got interested in motor sports.
“We definitely had a passion for cars and wanted to get into racing,” Hess says.
“But with the costs and the time involved in owning a race team, we looked at simulation instead, as an avenue that was cheaper and less time-consuming.”
Hess decided to chase the idea full-time, abandoning his commerce-law studies to set up his own company, to his parents’ utter dismay.
“I was a uni dropout and my parents were absolutely devastated, particularly my dad,” Hess says.
“And fair enough. His response was he brought us to Australia for a new life and the right to an education and here I was throwing it all away.”
That was back in 2009. Newly minted Next Level Racing began selling all the bits and pieces needed to make on-line racing as realistic as possible – from steering wheels and gear shifts to foot pedals, motion sensors, seats and even full cockpits of equipment.
“I think it’s almost fair to say that we created and grew the market, which wasn’t as big as it is now,” Hess says.
“I guess we were one of the real pioneers that drove the industry.”
The company spent its early days establishing its brand in Australia before looking overseas, which Hess says was initially “very challenging”.
“It took two or three years of meetings with partners who we now do business with just to give us a chance,” he says.
“You could imagine, they weren’t used to having Australian suppliers for gaming or technology products.”
But the company persevered to the point that “we’ve been able to establish our brand as a global leader and do business in a lot of countries”.
Next Level Racing became the first Australian company to sign a licence/partnership deal with Sony for gaming hardware to design and manufacture Next Level Racing PlayStation edition cockpits.
It has recently signed with Boeing for special Boeing edition cockpits, which Hess says is the first time Boeing has associated its brand with gaming hardware.
It also has a partnership with Ford to be its supplier for the company’s E-sport activities. There’s also a global licence for Next Level Racing Ford edition cockpits.
And what does Ghah senior think about all this?
All has been forgiven it seems.
“Dad’s in the office every day,” Hess says.
“It’s great to have him there for advice and as a sounding board.
“So, we’re very blessed that we had the opportunity to come to Australia and we ended up here.”
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