Next time you’re at Newstead cafe and roastery Blue Sky Coffee, know you’re in safe hands. When co-owner Dr Paul Licina isn’t roasting coffee on the premises, the respected spinal surgeon is working at his own practice, Spine Plus, based out of Brisbane Private Hospital. If that’s unexpected, then where the doctor’s career began is even more of a twist.
“My first job was as a keyboard musician in a band,” Dr Licina says. “I’m a Serb, so I learnt to play the accordion and then keyboard because they’re used in Serbian music. Then I started making money out of it by playing at various ethnic functions.”
While studying medicine at university, Dr Licina supported himself by driving a taxi on Thursday and Friday nights, and playing with his band around Brisbane on Saturdays. Eventually he branched out, playing with a German band on the side. The prospect of a career in music beckoned. “The idea of making music for a living started appealing to me,” he says. “But there’s better longevity in studying medicine than being a musician.”
Eventually the pressures of full-time study took him away from the keyboards. He qualified as an orthopaedic surgeon in Queensland, then took on further spinal training under world-renowned spinal surgeon John Webb in Nottingham, England. Returning home, he established Spine Plus and helped create Brisbane’s AO Spine Centre of Excellence. More recently he co-founded the Brisbane Private Hospital Spine Research Group.
Despite his commitment to medicine, Dr Licina has always been interested in being more than a surgeon. “I always had lots of interests in life that would give me something else to think about,” he says. “ I don’t know whether that’s a diversion from the stress of medicine, or just to become a fuller person.”
One of those interests is gadgets. During his early medical days, Dr Licina and a group of friends bought a machine to make the slides used in giving lectures. “We started making slides for all the doctors in the hospital and making a bit of money out of that,” he says. “We quickly paid off the machine.”
It was a similar entrepreneurial urge that led to Blue Sky Coffee. One of his patients was a coffee roaster. As a serious coffee drinker, Dr Licina paid a visit to his patient’s business to see how it operated. He dragged along his best mate, fellow gadget collector and surgeon Bill Donnelly, and they ended up ordering a coffee roaster just for fun.
“It was a big roaster, bigger than we’d expected,” Dr Licina says. “Every time you roasted you made five kilos. So we started giving it away and then selling it. Then we thought, ‘Maybe we could make a go of this.’”
Over their years of coffee drinking, they’d made a lot of coffee-loving connections and friends, who they soon started persuading to buy their coffee. “First it was the little Italian restaurant around the corner,” Dr Licina says. “Then the local deli, then one of Brisbane’s best restaurants decided to put it in. It was momentum we weren’t planning on, but all of a sudden we got some traction.”
For a full-time surgeon to also be running a successful and growing coffee empire, time-management skills are essential. That’s a skill Dr Licina retains from the very start of his career, back when he was juggling taxi driving, study and being in a band. “You see it in life, the busier people are, the more they achieve and the more time they seem to have,” he says. “If you’re comfortable with throwing a lot in and working to tight deadlines, you can make it work.”
Something else that has stayed with him across his career has been an ability to talk to people from all walks of life. Whether he’s selling coffee or dealing with patients, being able to engage with people is paramount. “In medicine it’s really important,” he says. “We all know the term ‘bedside manner’. Some of us are good at it and some of us aren’t. When you’re driving a taxi you need to be able to be friendly and engage with all sorts of people in different ways. Doing that in different parts of my life really has helped me.”
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