With the announcement of his retirement later this year, TimberTrader News catches up with Stephen Fray for some insight on his years at the helm.

Over the past 30 years there have been many who have had a significant impact on the frame and truss industry. But there is one man who has been a true driving force for change and innovation – Stephen Fray, Group President MiTek International.

Originally a Sydney boy, Fray had an extensive education. Beginning with a four-year course to obtain a building diploma, he moved onto a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of New
South Wales, followed by a Master’s Degree in Marketing and finally a Company Director Diploma in Corporate Governance. In the midst of this he found time to complete his two-year military service during the Vietnam War years as an Infantry Platoon Commander with the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Army Regiment.

Fray began his career at MiTek in February 1989 following eight years with Monier Limited. At Monier he began as the Australian Marketing Manager. (Who can forget those “top cat in roofing” advertisements back in the mid-1980s?) In 1984 he and his family moved to New Zealand where he accepted the position of General Manager Monier NZ and by 1986 he was on his way back to Australia as General Manager of the Monier Victorian and Tasmanian operations, including
the Wunderlich business.

In the meantime, much was happening in the US. Paul Cornelson had emerged as a prominent figure in the connector plate industry, merging several of the leading manufacturers into one entity and renaming that entity MiTek Inc. As part of his vision, he recognised the need to streamline operations around the world. Looking to Australia and the South East Asian markets he went head-hunting for a leader that would take the business in this region into the next century. In Australia he found his man: Stephen Fray.

By the time Fray reached MiTek he was more than ready for a challenge, and in assuming the role of Managing Director he found that the challenge was right there, waiting for him.

In 1989 the company he undertook to control was called Gang-Nail Australia Ltd. It was, at that time, the market leader as it is still to this day, but the company structure was completely different.

A history lesson

The history of MiTek is complex. Originally formed by a consortium of Australian timber merchants in 1963, it began trading as Automated Building Components Aust. Pty Ltd, becoming
the first company in Australia to provide (Gang-Nail) timber connectors and engineering design services to roof truss fabricators under license.

1970, Automated Building Components Aust. Pty Ltd. was acquired by Automated Building Components Inc (USA). In the same year, the Australian company purchased a 75 percent interest in Timber Engineering Company Pty Ltd (TECO), which manufactured numerous timber connectors for supply to the building products industry. Later, in 1979, British-based Redland, PLC, acquired ABC Inc in Australia and changed its name to Gang-Nail Australia Ltd in 1987. The Gang-Nail organisation in Australia continued to have a strong brand presence through most of the 1980s and 1990s.

In the meantime, the US was undergoing consolidation with the emerging entity, taking the name MiTek Inc. However, the brand name Gang-Nail remained strong and it was a number of years before the MiTek brand became dominant. In Australia, that change came about in the year 2000.

Of course, as it is with any good story, there was more to come.

”The ultimate accolade for MiTek was its acquisition in 2001 by Warren Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway,” says Fray. “There could be no better endorsement of a company’s strength and future prospects than to be considered as a candidate for the Berkshire Hathaway group.”

For Fray, the first few years in the Australian market were tumultuous in many ways. Structural changes, organisational changes – even a review of what MiTek was offering as a business and the products they delivered – all went under the microscope.

From a national perspective, the company appeared disjointed, so one of the first steps Fray initiated was to introduce a Profit Centre approach to MiTek’s operations, with state managers appointed to take responsibility for their own markets.

“An obvious aspect of our core business is customer service, and handing responsibility over to state managers and establishing a dedicated team of fabricator support managers (FSM) in each region was pivotal to this process” Fray explains.

At a product level there was at worst confusion, at best discrimination between the brands the company was offering to the market. The competing brands of Gang-Nail and Lumberlok were well entrenched in the market, yet it made little sense for one company to have two brands performing the same task – one had to go and Gang-Nail became synonymous with the market leading brand in the region.

Looking to the future

While MiTek is the foremost supplier of connector plates, the company is also a software developer, and this would become paramount as the company grew and prospered. In the end, Melbourne remained the sole manufacturing facility and head office for the Australian operations.

Another area of immediate concern was the product range offering – it had to be rationalised. There were product segments overlapping, and other products that were either not profitable or not consistent with the levels of quality MiTek espoused. These had to go, along with many of the retail hardware products of the business.

The logistical implications of a country as expansive as Australia – in terms of delivery of products – can be daunting. In the early days there was no accurate method of tracking product placement or ensuring stock was consistently available.

“It was a case of either fix the retail builder’s hardware side of the business,  or go back to what we knew best,”  Fray says. “The decision to focus on the prefabrication business was made
with our fabricators in mind. Structural engineered building products were seen as the future and with the distribution of these products coming primarily through MiTek’s licensed fabricators it gave them another source of revenue, all while promoting an early version of the ‘whole-house’ concept that’s in place today.”

Fray’s impact on the business started to deliver positive results, virtually from day one. “Within a few years, we had made a clear shift, focusing the bulk of our efforts on our truss fabricators, with an emphasis on connector plates, accessories and, more importantly, our outstanding software” he says.

Backed by a new emphasis on customer support and service, MiTek now had the foundations in place for strong growth.

In Fray’s time at MiTek, the industry has undergone significant change.

“The advances in prefabrication and associated technology have been dramatic and the ability to adopt and take advantage of change is what makes businesses sustainable,” he says. “Technology has had a huge impact on the way we do things today and I believe we have embraced change quickly, which is why MiTek Australia has not only retained market leadership but is recognised as leading the way.”

In addition, strategic acquisition decisions have also played their part. In particular, the purchase of the Bostitch Truss division in the mid-1990s saw a broadening of the company’s fabricator base and a further strengthening of the company in the Australian market.

A jewel in the crown

Major advances in machinery technology and software development have been a driving force for the company. None more so than MiTek’s substantial commitment to its global software offering SAPPHIRE™.

“The SAPPHIRE Suite is a quantum leap in truss and frame software,”
Fray says. “Very few companies would have the resources or the far-sighted commitment for such a change.

“This software is the future for our industry and I am very proud to have been part of that process. We have very talented people out there who will make sure all our fabricators benefit from this new and exciting product in the years to come.”

As the years passed, Fray’s role within the MiTek group has also expanded. He soon found himself as Group Managing Director Asia Pacific, with responsibilityfor the operations in New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia and the South East Asian region. Both New Zealand and Japan have been key markets and important destinations for Fray, and the addition of South East Asia only added to his already busy international travel commitments.

While keeping close control on the Australian and international operations, Fray’s responsibilities were later enhanced, with the inclusion of MiTek South Africa as part of his global oversight.

More recently, he has spent considerable time working in the US, where he accepted the role of Group President MiTek International, adding the overseeing of MiTek operations in Europe to his portfolio.

However nothing lasts forever and, as he has recently announced, Fray will be retiring at the end of the year.

“It has been my pleasure and honour to be part of the MiTek story both in Australia and overseas,” he says. “And more importantly, my greatest satisfaction has been with the engagement of the people who I have met over the years and the privilege of working with them.

“The future for MiTek and for our fabricators is extremely positive. MiTek is, and will continue to be, a great company and I feel I’m leaving the company in a very strong and sound position.”