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Spotlight - Denis & Sonia Phocas Owners

image Sonia and Denis Phocas lived through historical times in Southern Africa and made their home in Austin where they own Alpha Granite & Tile.

AUSTIN - Sonia and Denis Phocas were both born in Southern Africa and grew up witnessing firsthand the struggle between the apartheid regime of South Africa and those who resisted it.

    Both came from Greek families that had immigrated to the area, and although Sonia’s mother knew Denis’ father, the couple did not meet until they were young adults.
    As a young married couple with a small child, the tensions and uncertainty ruling the region where they lived became too much in the end and the family immigrated to the U.S. in 2002. Two years ago, in 2015, Sonia wore red and Denis wore blue as they made a commitment to their adopted home and became citizens.
    As part of the immigration process, the couple needed to own a business that employs citizens. After a failed flower exporting business, the couple started Alpha Granite & Tile, which now employs 50 people.

Tell me about your early years.
    Sonia: I grew up in the big city of Johannesburg. My dad owned a Toyota dealership. At one time, it was one of the largest family-owned dealerships there.
    Denis: I grew up on a farm in rural Southern Africa in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia. I was born in Malawi. I have a younger brother and sister.
    I was a real farm boy when I was a kid. I was always on the tractors and in the fields. I followed my dad around all day.
    I just loved being in the barns and the crops and the workshop, tinkering away with the tractors and implements and going hunting with my little BB gun.
    Sonia: Growing up in Johannesburg, I was very connected to the Greek community. It was all about that - Greek school, Greek church, Greek social life – you can only marry a Greek, you can’t go to university very far from home… It was very protective.

How did your parents end up in South Africa?
    Denis: My father, Nick, and his brothers bought the farm in 1962. The settler of the land was a British man, who bought it in the 30s.
    The farm was 5,500 acres and it was a tobacco ranch, with cattle, as well as corn. Over the years, we also started growing paprika.
    Sonia: And watermelons! It was quite well known for its watermelons.
    My dad, Theo, moved to Johannesburg when he was 6, right after WWII. My mother’s family had come out in the 30s. My mother, Elizabeth was born in Rhodesia – that is how she knew Denis’ dad.   

Where did you go to school?
    Denis: During elementary school, we were weekly boarders. My mom, Sophia, didn’t know how to drive and it was too far to commute on a daily basis anyway. Usually we came home on the weekends. Sometimes we stayed at school on the weekends because we wanted to be with our friends.
    It was very segregated back in the 60s – actually, it was segregated from the 50s through the 70s. We had white schools and we had African schools and that’s the way it was until the 1980s.
    Sonia: I also grew up during Apartheid times – it was very segregated. I went to a girls’ only, white school through high school.
    Denis: I went to high school in Malawi.

Had your family moved, Denis?
    Denis: Yes, my father moved the family after a neighbor’s 16-year-old daughter was shot and killed by what you would call guerillas.
    It was a time of great political unrest, especially in the rural areas. The African National Congress was formed and they set up their own army. They would train in North Korea and come back and train the young kids to come into the countryside and fight the Rhodesians. This war went all the way until 1979.
    It affected all the farmers, all were armed. We called it “Dad’s Army!” My father had to go for training, they were reserve soldiers.
    The Rhodesians felt that the Africans were not ready to govern the country, they needed more training and more time, but the U.S. and U.K. did not agree and said: you have to hand over power. As citizens, we were caught in the middle. A lot of people died.
    Right before the war ended, my dad decided to take our family out of the country. He thought we were going to die for nothing.
    He didn’t really agree with the way things were at the time, but his livelihood was there. His philosophy was always, whoever is in power I will listen as long as they let me stay here and be a farmer.
    We moved to Malawi and my dad went to work for an international
company.

Did you go to college?
    Denis: I attended the University of South Africa (Unisa), Witwatersrand where I studied electrical engineering, but I didn’t like it so I went to a technical school. I started working for a telecommunications company and then I started a small side-line company, mainly repairing credit card machines.
    Sonia: I graduated from the University of South Africa (Unisa) with a degree in psychology and communications, then received an honors in education, so I could become a high school teacher. I wanted a degree that was worth something because by then I was already married. I knew I was going to become a farmer’s wife so I asked myself, what was going to be valuable?

Wait, what? Let’s back up! When and how did you two meet and get married?
    Sonia: We met in 1987 when Denis was doing his credit card machines internship for the technical school. We happened to meet at a nightclub and then we met again when I went to another nightclub where he was a barman.
    We figured out we were both Greek and that was super exciting because we knew our families would be a lot more open to a relationship.
    He immediately became part of my family. We dated for three years and got married in June 1990 in Johannesburg at the Greek Orthodox Church. It was a complete “My Big Fat Greek Wedding!”

And Sonia, you went from big city girl to farmer’s wife?
    Sonia: It was exactly like someone moving from New York City to Lubbock!
    Denis: My father had been forced to go back to farming because there is a law that if you leave the country and stay gone for more than 7 years, you have to put your property into a government bond with a 4% interest rate. In a country with a 10-12% inflation rate, that wasn’t going to work.
    He wasn’t keen on starting farming all over again, so he asked if I wanted to come help him.
    Sonia: We made the most of living in Zimbabwe. We were very involved on the local level and with volunteering.
    We had 150 families that lived on the farm and worked for us, so Denis had a managerial role and I kept the books. It left us with free time. I was in many civic organizations and Denis got involved with telecommunications.
    Denis: In a third-world country, especially in the rural areas, our telephone was a party line with 10 families on it. We really wanted a rotary phone and we got one, but it was a total mess.
    Through volunteer work and funding from farmers, we worked with the national telecom company and they got funding for overland wires, so you could have your own direct line. It took about one-and-a-half years to get it all done. For cell phone service, we had to work with the national cell company and the farmers had to pay for the mast and the building.
    All of our farmers were able to use cell phones, but it cost me – I had to spend a lot of time off the ranch.

Why did you leave?
    Sonia: In 1999, President Robert Mugabe said he was going to take all the commercial farms to give to the “landless masses.” Denis and the other farmers got together to try and work something out. Denis speaks Shona (the widely used native language) fluently. We offered to give ½ of our land voluntarily. We could see the farms were going to be taken away with no compensation.
    Denis: What transpired was unfortunate. I spent months negotiating but it was a wild goose chase. It was getting bad, so we were planning to leave.
    Sonia: We had our daughter by then, Nicole. She was 2 years old. Our options were to go back to Johannesburg, but we were thinking about moving to Australia.
    Denis: I said, you know what? I’m still young enough to try a new opportunity.
    We moved to the U.S. in July 2002. In Aug 2002, 90% of the farmers were evicted.

How did you decide to come to Austin?
    Sonia: We had some friends who lived in Lakeway. They said come visit us before you move to Australia so we came and spent 7 weeks. That was in April 2001. I had been to the U.S. once before for a holiday a long time ago but it was Denis’ first visit.
    Denis: We flew into Fort Worth, seeing all the houses, everything all perfect – it was like a movie set. The airport - everything so clean, big, organized, a monster. The airport I was used to can only take 3 planes a day.
    All the policemen and people were dressed so immaculately, so formal.
    Then we toured the capital and I told Sonia, take a picture of me with this policeman – he was a big black guy, 7 feet tall and he had muscles, he was huge!
    Sonia: For us, it was like in the movies. When we first arrived in Austin, Denis and our friend went for a drive and 45 minutes later they came back and Denis says, “we’re not going to Australia, we’re moving here.”
Why was that?
    Denis: We drove through the hills.
    Sonia: It looks very similar to our farm, beautiful rolling hills. It wasn’t foreign to us, even the cattle are the same breeds.
    Denis: I feel like I’m at home here.

Tell me a little about Alpha Granite.
    Denis: It started in a friend’s backyard and grew exponentially. We moved three times before we found this spot. We made it through the recession, which happened right after we bought this location. We didn’t let anyone go – we cut pay and hours, but the majority of our employees stayed with us.
    All fabrication is done here at our Howard Land location using state of the art CNC machinery.  All of our employees are full-time: we don’t use subcontractors.
    We mainly do residential, but on the commercial side some of our projects have included many of the Kerbey Lane locations, West Hotel, Hotel Van Zandt, the box seats at UT Stadium and all the new restrooms at the airport.

Tell me about your family.
    Sonia: Our daughter, Nicole is 19 and a freshman at the University of
Miami. Our son, Theo, is 14, and his passion is soccer.

What do you do to relax?
    Sonia: I take flamenco lessons! When I was young, my mother became friends with a group of women who were flamenco dancers and I took it up.
    Denis: I swim in the mornings and I’m a big fan of Formula One. When we retire, we’d like to take a year off and follow Formula One around the world.
    Sonia: We are also very active in our church, Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church.
    Alpha Granite & Tile is a fabricator and installer of marble, stone, tile, glass and more. –cw


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