After one hundred years of success, G. Gay & Co are still learning and growing to meet the needs of their booming Ballarat customer base.

When a person turns 100, they get a message from the Queen. It seems a little unfair that a company’s centenary passes without one, but the team at G. Gay & Co are too busy to miss a royal telegram.

David and Ross Gay, who currently head up Ballarat-based G. Gay & Co’s three Mitre 10 stores, are the fourth generation of their family at the company helm. Great-grandfather Godfrey (Goff) Gay moved from mining engineer to demolition and selling second-hand building supplies in 1918. As the new products he had added to his stock grew in popularity, they gradually became the whole of the business, which expanded steadily through the 1920s and ’30s.

The Depression and WWII were difficult periods, with some families needing to wait two years to obtain all the products needed to build a new home, but the business did well enough for Goff’s son Edwin to take over in the early 1930s. In the post-war years, he drove a boom in building around the area and was joined in 1956 by his son, Jim, who took over as manager in 1963.

Jim’s sons David and Ross grew up joining their dad in the store or on the delivery truck every school holiday. “We’d go out to the sawmill and help load timber, we’d stack things in the store, or run down the street to do a little errand,” David remembers. “Growing up in the family business is like being a dairy farmer: it’s in your blood. And we loved it. We’d look forward to going in the truck with Dad and filling our day.”

Jim insisted the boys gain experience outside the family business, which saw David study accountancy and work for Deloitte for five years, and Ross qualify in applied science, specialising in farm management before working for a major pump supplier. The experience served them well. As David says, in addition to learning about issues that are relevant to their current customers, “Just seeing how other bosses and companies work is important for running a successful family business.”

Suiting the region

Ballarat is a thriving regional centre, which brings its own challenges and opportunities.

“The majority of our business is repeat work with tradies who are building in the domestic market,” says David, “both on new homes and renovations. We’re lucky that Ballarat’s so close to Melbourne, so we attract a bit of commercial business as well, whether that’s at the hospital or the university or schools, or other businesses setting up bases here.”

The company’s three Mitre 10 stores stock a huge range of product to meet the diverse needs of their clients. The Wendouree store has been the main hub of the business for 41 years and is their largest site for trade and timber in terms of turnover and store size. The 1.6ha Sebastopol store, which relocated to its current site in 2014, has 5000m2 of undercover showroom and sheds, including a timber yard and 800m2 nursery, while the Ballarat (Gillies Street) store is currently undergoing a full refurbishment of its retail and trade sites.

“We’re just responsive to what our customers’ needs are, and that’s all part of the business,” says David. “Our customers are wanting to try new things and modern materials and techniques, so whether it’s engineered timber product, power tools or other innovations, we shape our business to our customers’ needs.”

Uniting independents

As part of the company’s evolution, G. Gay & Co were foundation Home Timber & Hardware (HTH) members in 1993, before converting to Mitre 10 in 2014. Metcash, owner of the Mitre 10 brand, then united Mitre 10 with HTH under the Independent Hardware Group (IHG) umbrella in 2016.

“From our point of view there’s been real positives being involved with a national group,” says David. “Both from a customer point of view and from the buying power you gain.

“While the models are a little bit different, like Ford and Holden, HTH, M10 and now IHG have been very similar. Their goals have been the same: to make strong independent stores viable in their marketplace against their big corporate competition.”

David and Ross speak highly of the increased buying power that comes with being part of a larger group, but IHG has also used G. Gay & Co’s experience and expertise to trial and refine new ideas, notably the Sapphire transformation program. Their Sebastopol store was the guinea pig for the concept.

The Sapphire transformation mixes new store layouts, including shelving and a clean, consistent presentation, with logistical and operational improvements, including a reassessment of stock lines and processes, customer service and internal culture. As David says, “It’s a chance to have a fresh look at your business. Over time, things can get a little tired and the Sapphire process is a chance to step back and analyse all your sales by department, see what’s selling well and what’s not.

“IHG comes in with a model that’s standardised across all the stores so they look similar. They bring in specialised shelving, a paint centre and a power tool centre and set your store up at very high presentation standards, so that when the customer walks in they see a fully stocked store with good pricing, signage and lighting – and the products they want.”

The Sebastopol store was the first to undergo the transformation and has become a bit of a star in the process, with other IHG members coming to inspect the results and a sizable increase in customers.

“There’s been a real change in our product mix,” says David. “We’ve still got the same number of tradies coming, but because of the improved street frontage and the size of the store, we’re getting a lot of repeat business from the retail customers as well. It’s a less confronting place for people who aren’t used to hardware stores now. They can find their way around more easily, like in a Kmart or Woolworths.”

The company is so pleased with the results that the Gillies Street store is now also undergoing a Sapphire transformation, which is due for completion in the next month or so. “It’s basically setting the bar for the standard we want all our stores to be at,” says David, “which is the best store in town.”

Along with the physical changes to the store and stock, processes are also updated. David says, “It’s a complete package, not just come in, make it look nice, add some stock you don’t already sell and then walk away. It’s having the reordering and data tracking procedures in place to keep it all happening from then on.

“The knowledge and analytical expertise of IHG has been invaluable in saying ‘these are all the high-selling and high-performing lines that you should stock and these are the brands that sell really well.’ Their combined experience over years of selling product and understanding the intricacies of an independent business means you can leverage off that resource to improve your store for the long term.”

For David and Ross, the changes in store branding were a natural part of the company’s evolution. “We’ve been around for 100 years and we’ve got a good name in town,” says David.

“But it doesn’t hurt to be a Mitre 10 as well, to show you’re part of a bigger buying group and you’re going to be seriously competitive on price and range. The point of difference is backing it up with quality service. IHG puts you on a level playing field with the big corporates, but when it all boils down to it, you’re still a local store employing local people involved in the community.”

The power of people

Across the company’s three stores they employ 115-120 people – the number fluctuates with casuals. About 90 of the staff are full-time workers and the rest are part-timers and casuals that manage the changing needs of a 7-day business.

“We have many employees who’ve been with us for decades,” says David.

“Our longest-serving is 36 years. He started as a storeman at 16 straight out of school and is still with us today as timber manager.”

The variety of roles across the company’s three stores means that there are plenty of fresh challenges for employees to take up as they progress through their careers. Rotations through the hardware shop, the paint section, the timber yard or garden centre can add to staff skills, and they are also encouraged to build special interests.

“There are opportunities to move about within the business, which is an attraction to the younger ones,” David says. “Maybe that’s why they stick with us. We offer them secure employment and good working conditions.”

Rostering is a fine art: holidays and long-service leave need to be taken into account, and also the mix of younger and older staff. “Whether it’s a Sunday afternoon at two or Tuesday at 8 am, if someone’s got a paint query or problem, we’ve got someone there with specialist knowledge who can help them out,” David says.

Old and new

Like Ballarat itself, G. Gay & Co is a mix of the contemporary and traditional. Many of their builder customers are taking advantage of long-span LVL and other new-to-market products, while others are working on restorations of 19th-century homes.

“We do a lot of special orders for old architraves and things like that,” says David, “because Ballarat’s an old gold mining area and we’ve got lots of lovely old heritage homes, especially in the central town area.”

To help the restorers – and builders with special requirements – G. Gay & Co work with their schedule to source special orders and deliver them on time to keep the job flowing quickly and smoothly.

In-store, the product range is subject to regular reviews and updates. As David says, “A lot of our ideas about new product come from tradies’ feedback. If there are particular products being specified, or they’ve got particular needs – the region’s wet and cold conditions require better insulation, for example – more often than not it’s from customer requirements.

“If our data analysis shows that we’re forever ordering in special products our builders are specifying, we’ll look at putting them into stock.”

The company also has an excellent relationship with its suppliers and is regularly approached with offers of new  products.

“We have to investigate,” David says. “It’s no good just putting in another supplier’s brand of the same thing you’ve already got in another brand, unless it’s a superior product. If it’s hardware or paint related, we’ll talk about it with the managers as to whether they think it’s a viable product. Some are seasonal or specialised – around summertime there’s bushfire protective paint, for example, and in an area such as ours we consider putting it in at that time of year.

“Although we have a lot of space, it’s still finite, so we regularly cull products if the sales have dropped off. We can still special order them in if needed.”

Indeed, G. Gay & Co are famous locally for not only the size of their standard range, but their ability to track down specialty items for local customers. It’s not something that David boasts about, to the Gay family that’s just what good service means.

The art of promotion

One topic where David does allow himself a little pride is talking about the company’s events. Through a rotating mixture of demonstrations, breakfasts and event nights, they serve to strengthen bonds among G. Gay & Co, their customers, the community and their suppliers, providing opportunities that range from tradies testing new equipment to DIY newbies being safely guided through the first steps of project creation and tool use.

“They work very well,” David says. “We mix them up a bit, not to do the same old thing all the time because it goes a bit stale. We’ve recently brought back our Ladies’ Nights with a more hands-on format. We do Builders’ Nights where we have a sit-down meal for major customers and invite suppliers to speak to them about new products and new innovations.”

One recent event was a Trade Expo. “We went offsite,” says David. “Most of our events are held in our ‘drive thru’, but winter in Ballarat isn’t the best time to be outside, so we went to a nice heated venue and had 30-odd suppliers involved.

“They each had a stall and we invited about 250 customers, who received a showbag and got to talk to the various suppliers. We had hot food and drinks to keep them happy and a prize draw of a builder’s trailer filled up with tools. We got really good numbers and great feedback from the suppliers and the builders, who were really interested and asking questions – exactly what you want.”

More regular events include builders’ breakfasts in the mornings where a supplier will cook egg and bacon rolls between 7.30 and 10 am and either explain a new product line and hand out promotional materials or give a hands-on demonstration of a new tool. Recent examples have included James Hardie and Makita.

Local gardening experts are also featured in the nursery sections giving talks on regional conditions and seasonal jobs as well as what’s good for planting when.

“It’s all a bit of networking where you can engage customers and give them something a bit different that they’re not expecting. We try to do something a little bit different and improve on it each year,” David says.

This matter-of-fact commitment to the customer is at the heart of G. Gay & Co’s continued success. They’ve won Mitre 10 state Large Format Store of the Year (Vic) twice, in 2015 and 2017 and won the national title in 2015.

But it’s the fact that a fifth generation of the family is now working there part time, with David’s daughters Maddie and Emily and Ross’s daughters Catherine and Rachael having joined the team, that they speak of most proudly. Their second century of success has already started.