The Petries Group of eight Mitre 10 stores are trade stalwarts across a wide swathe of NSW.

Technically, you could drive to all the Petries Mitre 10 stores in a day. Not by yourself, of course – all the Driver Reviver coffee you could drink wouldn’t keep you going for the over-21-hour stretch required to circumnavigate the business’ eight stores from New South Wales’ Gunnedah, to Coffs Harbour to Young.

Happily, the Petrie and Fergus families who own the chain, have a series of capable local managers who ensure the need doesn’t arise.

Malcolm and Carmel Petrie started the business with one store in Mudgee. Mal had been working as general manager at the then Loneragan’s Mitre 10 when the opportunity arose to buy the hardware side of the business in 1986. He and his wife Carmel enthusiastically took on the venture, with help from the younger generation – Mal had a truck licence and would drive deliveries around the region on Saturdays and sometimes even Sundays, with son Phil, son-in-law Mike Fergus or grandson Steve tagging along to help.

It was a traditional family business, even the year they stocked trampolines that parents asked to be delivered on Christmas Eve after the children were in bed: “You were delivering trampolines until just before Midnight Mass,” Carmel reminisced to Mal and Phil.

Under their stewardship, the store grew from 10 employees to 18 within three years. An emphasis on product knowledge and personalised service was key to their success, rather than just focusing on price. “You’ve got to be competitive, but people come to you because you look after them,” said Mal.

Over the course of the next two decades the family developed and expanded the business across key regions of NSW. In 2003 they purchased O’Learys Mitre 10 in Bathurst, followed by GBS Mitre 10 in Orange in 2008, the year Mal and Carmel retired. The next generation took over: Mike, having been in the business when it started in 1986 and Phil in 1988, were joined by their wives (the “two Annettes”) – Annette Fergus (nee Petrie) and Annette Petrie (Phil’s wife) – very confusing, as the business growth continued. Mike and Phil worked across all business areas and with the addition of the Bathurst and Orange stores, timber and building materials became a major focus for the team. They expanded into Gunnedah in 2010, Young in 2011, Taree in 2012, Port Macquarie in 2013 and Coffs Harbour in 2015. In 2017 Petrie’s acquired the Campbell & Jones Timber business in Taree and have since amalgamated the two stores onto the one site.

Staff first

Listening to Phil Petrie and Mike Fergus, it’s easy to see how the company has managed such a large expansion. They not only have immense enthusiasm for their brand and products, but they have a real care factor for their 230+ staff.

“Our recruitment policy is to try and find people who are a good cultural fit for us first and foremost,” says Phil. “We encourage our managers to interview based on not just skills but on the culture fit as well.”

In Mudgee, Orange and Gunnedah, the large mining community makes recruitment a challenge. “The salaries and wages people are earning in those areas shut a lot of local businesses out from competing in that space,” says Phil.

What Petries can offer instead is security and a career path with opportunities for advancement and to move around the network. “We’ve got a demonstrated history of bringing our people through the business,” says Mike. “A number of our store managers across the network are people that started in retail roles here, or as truck drivers, or working in the Trade Centre many years ago.”

And they’re serious about being a family business. As Phil says, “The other thing we do is really focus on family and work-life balance. We encourage our staff to be involved in their communities and involved in their kids’ lives. When the kids have got an athletics carnival on, we want them to be able to go and see it.”

Staff training is another priority. A clever combination of TABMA programs, supplier training, IHG network programs and external trainers are used to keep staff knowledge and company processes up to date and encourage both personal and business-wide productivity growth.

Local differences

As a regionally based business, the Petries Group operates across the North Coast and Central West of NSW. “There is a large element of tailoring to suit the market,” says Mike. “Our stores vary in the make-up of their business quite dramatically, some are pretty much 100 per cent trade outlets, others are very much retail orientated. It’s a real mixed bag and each store differs in its product range, its sales and, consequently, its staff’s knowledge.”

Phil describes the way they balance core stock and store-specific purchasing as mimicking the IHG model, which focuses on key programs, services and products offered across the network while allowing for store individuality. “In our case, there’s probably 50-60% of ranges that will be consistent across all Petries stores, and then we’re flexible with the remaining 40% to meet the local economic conditions. For example, Gunnedah has always sold fishing licenses and always stocked fishing gear. It is the only business in our network that does.”

Different physical and economic conditions around the regions also direct the planning for each store. In larger centres, such as Taree and Port Macquarie, Petries focuses entirely on trade customers, rather than compete in a crowded retail market. Some products are specific to certain areas: fibre cement cladding is much more common on the North Coast, brass and other heritage door furniture and accessories are most in demand for the historic homes of Bathurst.

“It’s a pretty big commitment from a stock point of view,” says Phil. “The other challenge then becomes how do you attract and retain people with the right knowledge? Our staff have got to be continually learning and our supply partners have to be feeding us the right know-how when we’re on the phone to them.

“There’s too much information out there for our staff to be kept up to date with all products and categories, so we rely very heavily on our supplier network.”

Special orders are an important part of the Petries offer, with around 35,000 active lines in the computer system and about 120,000 on file. “It’s a very, very large product range that we support, even though we can’t physically stock that balance of product,” says Mike.

And the large geographical spread of the Petries Group helps to manage some of the risk of operating in regional centres. “The North Coast for us has been very strong,” says Phil, “while towns like Gunnedah and Young are feeling the impact of the drought. In terms of microeconomic conditions, Orange has been a solid performer for us, but it’s experiencing a land choke at the present time. We know land is coming, but right now there’s a bit of a downtime. Each of the towns goes through those various stages.”

By encompassing such a wide region, temporary problems in one area are balanced out by booms in others. Spreading the risk allows Petries to keep stores in, for example, drought-stricken towns going even if they aren’t making much money for a few years, knowing that once the rains return they will be needed by the community and pay back the lean times.

Building on success

Across the group, huge volumes of timber sales to tradies form a major part of the business. “We have a full range,” says Phil. “Radiata pine in untreated, H2 and H3, large ranges of Design Pine and then dressed timbers as well. Up on the North Coast, we’re seeing a lot of hardwood being used as structural as well as flooring and decking timber.

“We’re starting to see more and more engineered timbers now, too. Where it was once just a special-order product, we’re now starting to stock the engineered product in standard sizes. We’ve seen it become more prominent in some of those structural areas that would have gone to steel in the past.”

Petries also makes a point of educating trade customers on the product range, and it’s an effort that has paid off. “We’re seeing a shift back to premium product in timber as well,” says Phil. “Previously, H3 was about all we could sell for exterior applications, now we’ve seen that market shift to the Design Pine product. People understand the difference in the quality and they’re happy to pay the price for it. That’s been progressing into some of the other engineered products as well.”

Deliveries are managed through each store, with up to five trucks, depending on the size of the business, and specialised delivery coordinators in the larger stores. “We utilise a system that IHG has developed called Truck Tracker. In conjunction with our point of sale providers it offers a fully integrated Delivery Management System, that gives us an electronic delivery board” says Phil. “With Truck Tracker in place we can let the customers know where we’re at with everything – from order through to delivery of stock.”

In Port Macquarie, the delivery system has been separated out into a Distribution Centre based in a 3000m2 shed and running five trucks. The centre now manages about 50% of sales in the town. “There’s no customer access to the Distribution Centre, it’s just purely a stock-in, stock-out operation,” says Mike.

Phil adds, “It’s freed up our retail site for pickup and allowed us to become much more efficient in terms of picking and packing for deliveries and hence more responsive, so we can get more deliveries done in one day than we could ever get off the one site.”

That ability to be responsive and flexible is central to Petries’ success in helping its trade customer base to manage their workflows. “Our tradesmen have their circumstances changing every day,” says Phil. “They don’t get an inspection done, one of their subcontractors isn’t available… and then they need to rethink their deliveries. So, while we are structured, we also need to maintain that flexibility. That’s why we carry utes and trucks that give us that capacity and allow us to respond quickly to those changes in needs.”

Changing with the times

Growing from one family-run Mitre 10 store to a network that stretches across much of NSW has been a significant journey for the business. Along the way, Petries has formed strong alliances within the industry and both Phil and Mike have played active roles in the collective growth in the Independent Hardware Group through a time of enormous change.

“Those changes are still coming on thick and fast,” says Phil. “But they’re all beneficial and the beauty of the IHG team is they’re very interactive and collaborative. Ever since Metcash bought into the Mitre 10 business, they’ve always asked lots of questions of the stores and very rarely would they roll something out unless they’ve had a very strong consultative process with members. With the backing and strength of IHG it really does help Independents provide a strong alternative to the corporates in the marketplace.”

“IHG has brought a lot of innovation to our business,” says Mike, “and over the years we’ve been lucky enough to have a bit of input into moving those opportunities forward. Truck Tracker was an innovation that came out of IHG and it’s proving very successful. We’ve also got a very strong relationship with our key suppliers and we look for innovation opportunities from them as well.

“In terms of what we move forward with, there is a risk of having too many opportunities and not doing any of them well enough, so we are quite selective.”

Initiatives are trialled within single locations and then rolled out as appropriate. In some cases, they won’t be suitable for the whole network, but can be replicated in all the larger – or smaller – stores.

But this level of caution doesn’t mean conservatism. As Phil says, “We have a lot going on at the moment. We’re redeveloping our Orange business, adding about 1400m2 for a trade drive-through and new despatch/delivery method. That will encompass a refit of our store to make it more trade-orientated. We’ll add a selection centre showroom onto that.

“At Taree, we’re also adding another development in May/June next year, so we’ve got a pretty good standard in terms of putting investment back in our business. I think that’s what the key to our success is, that a year doesn’t go by when we don’t reinvest back into our business. If you leave it too long, you can’t play catch-up when you fall too far behind.”

After a decade of retirement, Mal and Carmel still enjoy hearing about how the business is faring from the younger Petries and Ferguses.

“My parents are very proud,” says Phil. “Dad still shakes his head and says ‘where are you up to now? I don’t know how you’ve done it!’”

Image: In recognition of more than 30 years’ service to the hardware industry, Mal Petrie was inducted into the Ian Nisbet (Mitre 10) Hall of Fame in 2015, a moment celebrated by the whole family.