When the many ‘villages’ of the Independent Hardware Group come together for the annual National Expo, the true spirit of family-run independent businesses comes to light.

For three days in February, independent hardware retailers gathered in Adelaide for the annual IHG National Expo, together with 200+ suppliers, experts and influencers at the largest gathering of industry heavyweights in the country.

In a year that has seen retailers around Australia facing everything from record drought to record floods, together with an economic slow-down and housing downturn in many regions, Expo provided practical tools for tackling difficult business issues, as well as opportunities to access supplier specials and network with industry colleagues.

The business arm of the event began on Monday, learning lab sessions for retailers. Store teams were armed with information and strategies for a competitive advantage, designed to help them manage market cycles and capitalise on growth opportunities in a tough retail market – themes that continued throughout Expo.

Delegates had ample opportunities to share information, including executive presentations, keynote speakers and hands-on product demonstrations. Welcome drinks at Adelaide Oval wrapped up the day.

Global insights

Tuesday began with business sessions – a morning of attention-grabbing presentations, all of which offered clear insights into how every attendee could improve their businesses – and lives.

First up was Steve Collinge, managing director of Insight Retail Group, speaking on the future of home improvement and garden retailing based on his extensive experience and in-depth knowledge of the UK market. He acknowledged the differences in the Australian experience and current economic conditions, but reminded the audience that the home improvement and garden market has continued to grow in the UK over the past decade despite a credit crunch, austerity and now the Brexit car crash.

“If you don’t move, you improve,” he said, emphasising that people want a nice place to live, and that our industry has the power to transform people’s lives, even in slow years. The emotional uplift of a small improvement is important for people, he reminded the audience.

Collinge analysed the importance of knowing your market intimately through the lens of the Bunnings UK failed venture. British Homebase was acquired by Australia’s Wesfarmers for nearly £400 million in 2016. It had traditionally focused on interiors, kitchens and what was seen as the ‘mumsy’ end of hardware. Wesfarmers wanted none of that and a Bunnings rebranding program was rolled out, replicating the Australian big box stores. The entire company was sold just over two years later for £1, costing Wesfarmers some £547 million overall.

Collinge emphasised key reasons for the failure that were lessons every business should keep front of mind: local knowledge was ignored, trusted brands were lost, expert staff were let go, and the focus moved to lowest prices, where they couldn’t hope to compete with online shops. Add no real digital service, and the project was doomed from the start.

Collinge pointed out that trade customers need convenience, but also rely on retailers’ expertise for new products and building methods. Retail customers are looking for easy availability at the right price, but also need guidance, and – increasingly for Millennials – rentals and services rather than purchases on big-ticket items. Both want loyalty benefits and easy record keeping.

Investing in independents

Collinge set out a very clear picture of where the strengths for independent hardware retailers lay, and IHG’s executive team then built on that. Mark Laidlaw, CEO of Independent Hardware Group, opened with a tribute to the vast heritage of the Group, including 16 businesses celebrating anniversaries of 100 years or more. Mitre 10 itself is celebrating a big milestone in 2019, it will be 60 years since the brand was founded in June 1959.

John Clennett, from Clennett’s Mitre 10 in Kingston, shared his memories of the men who had founded the Group – including explaining the origins of the Mitre 10 name: part in honour of a mitre joint, part in honour of Melbourne’s famous Mitre Tavern. The first iteration was Mitre 8, recognising the eight founding members, but, as Clennett joked, a marketer said Mitre 10 sounded better, so they quickly found two new members.

Laidlaw went on to highlight investment programs that are driving success for independent members, including its extensive distribution centre network, trade technologies such as Truck Tracker, Tradie+ Pass, Tradies Online, and the Sapphire transformation program.

“Independents as a united force can be very powerful,” Laidlaw said. “We started this journey with the merger of the Mitre 10 and Home Timber & Hardware businesses. The last two years have been about bringing together and integrating the businesses under our four brands and helping all members become the Best Store In Town.”

Scan data and digital analytics are key to the growth strategy for independents, Laidlaw told the audience. They are what allow the group to break from the old supplier-led model to a fully consumer-driven future.

“We have spent too much time and money fighting each other,” Laidlaw said. “It doesn’t matter whether you are Home, Mitre 10, Thrifty or True Value, the thing that unites us is that we are all independents.

“Collectively we are a large force. In our branded network alone, there are 690 locations, in almost every town and region of Australia. There is a great opportunity for all independents to unite and become a genuine alternative to the Big Box for Australian shoppers,” he concluded.

Annette Welsh, IHG general manager merchandise, was the next to take the stage, expanding on the importance of embracing the digital age. She showed concrete examples of how a nimble response to customer needs has increased sales and added new and return customers.

Significantly, she spoke of digital tools and strategies working in concert with traditional values such as customer service, and how both were necessary. “Knowing your customer intimately is crucial to building strategies that grow member sales,” Welsh said. “However, technology continues to change the rules and therefore IHG’s strategies are evolving to meet these changing dynamics.

“Consumer demands have created the ‘I want it now’ generation who expect access to shopping 24 hours a day. They want to receive their orders fast. It should be seamless, anytime, anywhere, on any device. They are not waiting for us to open our front doors,” she added.

The strength of the Group came from IHG’s strong investment in this sector. “There is so much work happening in our digital, data and analytics space, at great pace. This is investment on our members’ behalf to support our consumer-driven strategy,” Welsh said. “Every member and supplier is encouraged to embrace the opportunities in digital so they don’t get left behind.

“We have to continue to be nimble in our digital activity and move fast, because technology and customer expectations are rapidly changing. But we are first to market here and we are developing the right tools, investing through scan data so we can personalise the product offer to the customer and, hopefully, make those consumers as loyal as possible to our brands.”

Welsh listed convenience and personalised service in the form of Click’n’Collect, loyalty programs and the new Buy Now, Pay Later services. Website content telling people why they need a product and how to use it and Smart Home products are ways digital demand is being met. Concluding, she advised stores find a staff member who’s passionate about tech and let them loose, as they’ll be the ones driving innovation.

Challenge and support

Champion athlete Kurt Fearnley was the last to take to the stage. He talked the audience through a wheelchair marathon and the kilometres of pain after he takes his last deep breath for 90 minutes at the start of each race. Preparation and perseverance were vital, but Fearnley reminded the audience that no-one succeeds in a vacuum.

He spoke of the hundreds of people who had helped him, some by their expectations that he could and would excel, some through a literal helping hand. Before he even started at Carcour Public School, the principal fought for him to attend the school with his brothers rather than be relegated to a ‘special’ school.

Fearnley shared two central messages. The first was “Lack of expectation rips the heart out of people.” In addition to a call for more access and diversity of ability in workplaces and Australian life, this also meant setting big goals. “I don’t see how you get to be best in the world without the intention of perfect,” he said, admitting he only felt he achieved it four times.

The second came out of a story of his 11-day crawl along the Kokoda Track. Mac, a barefoot porter, carried Fearnley’s 25kg pack and wheelchair every day. At the end of one hard trek, Mac ran to a nearby village, returning with Twisties and Coke to lift Fearnley’s spirits. Community was a vital part of getting through struggles, he said. “We have the ability to share, and get help.”

Expo wheeling & dealing

Of course, the event was far more than talks and lectures. Over the Expo’s two main days more than 220 trade exhibitors showed their ranges and launched new products, with special Expo pricing driving in excess of $22 million in sales during the event.

Some exhibits went all-out with hands-on displays that invited touching, such as Hardings’ spectacular kitchen and bathroom fittings display, while others rewarded tired attendees with sweets, pens and cheerful banter to see them through to the next offer. Dulux added to an already brilliant display with their trademark dog, who happily received pats.

Trade was brisk in everything from paints and adhesives to connectors and tools, while timber specialists ranging from forestry giant One Forty One to high-quality suppliers Hyne and Dindas did as much work educating attendees on new timber applications as describing their extensive range to trade suppliers.

Amid all the business, there was also fun. Bostik’s multi-level display featured a roof terrace above their showroom and a jet-ski to win, while the beautiful Outdoor Living display was a favourite retreat for a great many people with tired feet. Meyer Timber convened a mock meeting of the FTMA attendees at Expo and the kind team at Hardings gave out handfuls of sweets to anyone flagging. Many jokes were made about the distances trekked through the huge display halls in search of great buys.

The Independence Dinner on Tuesday night was a great reviver, with top local produce and music combining to create an atmosphere that encouraged connections – both new friendships and business.

Celebrating success

The annual awards dinner is always an Expo highlight, and this year’s was even more special than usual with music from the Black Sorrows with Vika and Linda Bull. Joe Camilleri had the audience up and dancing, and Vika had the whole room clapping along.

During the awards, it was the emotional speeches and family pride that struck a chord. Peter Williams, winner of the CEO Recognition Award, summed up the feelings of many on the night: “It’s so humbling to think that what you do for the right reasons can be recognised.”

Ged Johnson from Johnson Bros Mitre 10 was upfront about his emotion: “Bear with me if I tear up, I know it’s not a funeral, but it means so much to us.”

Norm Tilling, accepting the Trade Supplier of the Year award on behalf of Tilling Timber, added a lighter touch, opening by telling the audience, “I’m certainly glad I came!” before thanking the company’s management and also “the hard-working ordermen, foremen, wood machinists, stackers and so forth that get the product out to our customers in a timely, on-tally manner. In our 60 years there have been a hell of a lot of people who have put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into our company.”

Liam Collier accepted the Village of the Year on behalf of the Western Planers, saying, “It would be one thing to receive the recognition in less challenging times… But to rise and be victorious from the dry, parched outback of NSW? Well, that’s something.”

Steven Czeiger, MD of Sunlite Mitre 10, told of meeting his city stores’ manager Ching Ching at the Sydney Seafood Markets, where her amazing service led him to poach her for his team. “Someone with the right attitude, passion and dedication can do anything they want in an environment that cultivates people,” he said. “We are a people business more than a hardware business.”

The biggest round of applause all night went to the announcement of the 2018 Hall of Fame winners, the Vanderkolk family, famous for their Bayswater Mitre 10 trade centre. The whole family was up on stage, including parents Frank and Susanne, with son Mick taking on the talking duties. In a generous speech that was simultaneously one of the funniest and one of the most heart-warming of the night, Mick ran through the history of the company and paid tribute to his family and staff, putting the credit for their success firmly on his parents’ shoulders: “Mum and Dad kept putting money back into the business so we could win some awards,” he said, self-deprecatingly.

“Dad’s not too visible nowadays in the business, but he’s been a driving force. He’s a spiritual figurehead… We still pay him, every week,” he quipped.

More seriously, Mick added, “When Metcash bought into Mitre 10, we thought they were going to need a bit of help. Greengrocers trying to sell hardware? But everything they said, they meant, and they’ve done it consistently.”

Amid the laughs, there were a few happy tears to see the acclaim for a family that has committed so much and helped so many.


Living Supplier of the Year

Husqvarna Group (Néta, Gardena)

Fix Supplier of the Year

Sutton Tools

Trade Supplier of the Year

Tilling Timber


Paul Murphy Mighty Helpful Service

Josh Pain, Margaret River Home Timber & Hardware, WA

Blue Blood Award

Michele Vincent, Sales Support and Marketing Officer, WA.

CEO Recognition Award

Peter Williams, Williams Mitre 10, Tas


The Vanderkolk Family, proprietors of Bayswater Mitre 10, Victoria

See March TTN for the store winners.

Image: The Vanderkolk Family, proprietors of Bayswater Mitre 10, Victoria, were inducted into the Hall of Fame.