IHG’s Awards of Excellence recognise the hardworking families and teams whose innovation and commitment are at the forefront of timber and hardware retail in Australia.

Singer Anthony Callea opened his set at the start of the Independent Hardware Group’s 2019 Awards of Excellence dinner with the Beatles’ ‘Help’ – one thing you’re guaranteed to get at any of the stores represented. It set the scene for a night of camaraderie and excitement as the IHG family celebrated this year’s winners.

Some 1000 attendees sat down together at the Gold Coast Convention and Entertainment Centre, while Catriona Rowntree and Scott Cam once again took the reins for the evening’s proceedings.

Cam took a moment early on to thank Mark Laidlaw, who is retiring as CEO, for his 10 years of service to IHG – Laidlaw in turn reminded everyone that John Farnham’s version of ‘Help’ had been an early Mitre 10 advertising opportunity!

But the stars of the evening were of course the winners…

Suppliers of the year

This award recognises companies that not only excel in their role as suppliers delivering commercial outcomes, but who align themselves with the group’s attitudes and values of independence. The winner for each category is chosen by member survey.

The Logistics Supplier of the Year is Victorian Freight Specialists (VFS), who broadened their distribution network to include Southern NSW last year and were of enormous assistance during the summer’s fire crisis, making sure supply continued as seamlessly as possible.

“We only sell service, and sometimes that’s not easy to recognise,” said John Rowe, chairman of the VFS board. He expressed his delight that IHG had recognised what can be an intangible quality, something he knew his hardworking team would share.

“There’s another group it’s important to talk about,” he added, listing regions VFS supplied across Victoria and Southern NSW and speaking about their resilience in the face of a devastating fire season. “I’m going to make sure that we do share this award with them and offer them all the support that we can.”

The DIY Supplier of the Year is Dulux, recognised for both their own products and their support for IHG’s Accent label, delivering both R&D and branding expertise.

Dorothy Gruois, Dulux general manager, said, “There is no greater recognition for us than that which is given by our customers.”

She added, “We’re not perfect, we don’t always get everything right, but one thing we do is strive for continuous improvement, to be that little bit better each and every day.”

Trade Supplier of the Year, CSR Bradford, has a strong commitment to IHG initiatives from local and state meetings to trade nights and Click n Collect. Darren Burgess, sales manager at CSR Queensland, thanked the IHG members and staff this company works with, emphasising that “all successful supply arrangements take two parties.”

Hall of fame

The most prestigious award in the IHG pantheon goes to those members who have worked tirelessly for the group. This year, it goes to two store owners who, as Scott Cam put it, “Wrote the manual on how to engage locally to provide their community with the Best Store in Town.”

Norm Hastings and Frank Benton from Diamond Valley Mitre 10 took to the stage with their families. In a video profile, Norm recounted the store opening on 2 June, 1979 – “The first Saturday morning we took $250 and we thought it was Christmas!”

Other anecdotes included the recent passing of longtime “legend” staff member Roy Haynes, whose coffin was painted Mitre 10 blue and taken to the cemetery on one of the business’s trucks. “It’s more than just business, it’s family,” Paige Hastings explained.

Paige talked about the history of the company, started by her dad Norm and his risk-taking wife, Carol, despite the fact they knew nothing about hardware. They worked incredibly hard to improve the business and create a loving home for their family.

Brother Brock took up the tale, thanking both his dad and Frank for “setting the standards we would like to follow.” He spoke of Frank’s 27 years with the company: “We call him The Don, and he is our expert in merchandising, organisation and planning. He is our king of retail and can squeeze success out of any space.”

Norm was humbled by the praise, saying, “The store is in good hands for the future and I hope they have another 40 years like we’ve had. You create a culture just because you want to make things work, but it’s all about the people you work with and the people in the community, and I love both of them, so it was easy and I enjoyed it.”

Frank spoke of their decision to relocate and rebuild in the ’90s: “There was no Sapphire at the time, no store development team, but we had the heart, the soul and the faith – and we needed them because we had to mortgage everything!”

He praised the team and the relationships they have all built, speaking of the amazing support of his wife Sylvia, and his confidence that as he and Norm wind down, the future is strong.

Individual awards

Given for exceptional service and advice, the Paul Murphy Mighty Helpful Service Award went to Bob Arnold, from Crameri’s Mitre 10 in Maryborough, who was lauded for his enormous attention to detail, and enormous ability to remember customers and their projects as well as products.

Bob was unable to attend due to family caring responsibilities, so owner Bernie Crameri accepted the award on his behalf cheerfully describing how customers will be lined up waiting for Bob and politely refuse his offers to help them instead.

The Blue Blood Award recognises support office staff who epitomise IHG’s culture and core values. The winner is Vince Tebb, business development manager Qld, and Mark Laidlaw, IHG CEO, praised Vince’s considerable, positive and calming contribution during the integration of the Home and Thrifty Link stores into the group. Vince confessed he never expected to be nominated, but praised the IHG executive team as well as the stores for bringing the whole group together. He also thanked his Queensland team, particularly Oliver Krumins and Julie Maxwell – “the glue who holds us together.” He finished with: “I’d like to thank the most important people to me: my customers out there.”

This year’s CEO Recognition Award went to Paul Brown of Margaret River Mitre 10. Laidlaw said it would be the last time he was able to select the recipient (Annette Welsh will be stepping up as CEO at the end of April) and talked about its history as an award that tended to go to people who helped the Group as a whole with their work on the National Advisory Council (NAC)– “In most cases they are very successful self-made people and they all have opinions – it’s a tough gig!”

He spoke of the respect Paul has earned on the NAC, and the cheers that greeted the name showed there is a lot of affection as well. Paul confessed he was a bit emotional on receiving the award – “The guys at the NAC know how much I can cry!” He thanked Lloyd and Anne Shepherdson for their support in his work outside the business, especially with the NAC, and his wife, Sharon: “without her support I couldn’t do this!”

Best Store awards

The second awards section of the night opened with the Village of the Year, won by Western Warriors, WA. This award recognises the regional stores that work together best to drive sales and develop innovative programs.

Hayley Radalj, state sales manager WA, led the thank you speech, pointing out that the group covers the entirety of WA and yet pulls together as one. Paul Brown added, “At the end of the day, we are independents and we are so passionate about WA. We’ve done it tough for so many years but we’ve held on.”

Store of the Year Convenience Format is Lennox Head Thrifty Link, Qld. Despite being surrounded by competition, this store saw 18% growth thanks to locally targeted campaigns. Owner Jim Wright couldn’t be there, so David Voulgaris, Mitre 10’s business development manager, accepted the award on his behalf, saying, “Jim distils what convenience is all about… [the store] is almost a 7-Eleven of hardware.”

Mitre 10 Store of the Year Small Format went to Strathalbyn Mitre 10, SA. Principal Brad Fuss focused on the joys of working in a vibrant regional centre, saying, “Six years ago I’d never heard of Strathalbyn. I didn’t know how to get there, couldn’t find the store, and when I got there, couldn’t get out. As it turns out those that live there can’t work out how to leave, either, and that’s a beautiful thing for local retailers.”

HTH Store of the Year under 1000m2 is Waroona Home Timber & Hardware, WA, where a hardware and timber offer is partnered with an Elders rural business. Mike Walmsley, who co-owns the store with his wife Donna and Mark and Barbara Hiller, accepted the award, saying, “Mark and Barb have done such a good job, they’ve run out of customers: now they just have friends.”

Mitre 10 Store of the Year Medium Format was won by Wills & Co Mitre 10, Waikerie SA, who have been building their trade customer base over recent years. Mike Wills spoke, but gave credit to his family – “My wife Sharee is a bit of a terrier; when she takes on a project, she won’t stop until it’s done.” He added: “I can hear Josh saying that nothing really good happened at Wills & Co until he came along

Garden Centre of the Year went to Diamond Valley Mitre 10, Vic, where the greenery wraps invitingly around the store. Paige Hastings paid tribute to their staff – “They treat the business as if it’s their own” – and also her brother Brock, as well as her father Norm and Frank Benton who started and developed the business. “They’ve been able to hand it on to us, and hopefully we don’t destroy it!” she joked, in a prayer familiar to every second-generation family business member in the room.

2019 Trade Centre of the Year is Johnson Bros Mitre 10, Mona Vale NSW. This award, like the Garden Centre title, includes all the Mitre 10, Home Timber & Hardware, Thrifty Link and True Value stores in one set, so it’s a mighty achievement.

The Johnson family has built its success around a close relationship with local tradies, coupled with a high-performance store featuring everything from a two-lane driver-through to screens at checkout that can show deliveries on Truck Tracker.

Director Michael Johnson was genuinely surprised, saying “This is a bit of a shock! We didn’t think we were going to get this award!” He went on to say, “It’s absolutely brilliant the way our staff get behind us. There’s not many hardware stores or trade sections you’ll see where there are guys pushing a vacuum cleaner around a concrete floor, but that’s where we are and that’s where we want our business. We are spotless, we are customer-focused and we pride ourselves on our service.”

Robert Johnson was speaking for many of the families in the room when he added, “I just want to acknowledge my brothers: my job is made so much easier by the passion and enthusiasm these guys bring to the business. They come to work and actually enjoy themselves!”

This year’s HTH Store of the Year Over 1000m2 is Permewans Home Timber & Hardware, Vic, where the team has racked up continuous growth over the last eight years. Owners Paul and Denise Bast combine a range of rural products and power tools with outdoor, kitchens and even goldfish!

“Our store opened in one of the best places in Australia in 1902, so it’s got a long history with the town,” said Paul.

However, it hasn’t all been easy. He added, “We’re actually now a Mitre 10 store. The existing Mitre 10 store in our town was sold to Bunnings, so we set about having a bit of a fight and, believe it or not, we’re actually winning!” A statement that got one of the loudest cheers of the night.

Paul thanked IHG for getting behind their store transformation, which took place over just three months. Where they had at first been worried the new Bunnings would see them dial back inventory, “we actually achieved substantial growth and never dropped in one department.” He put that success down to the passion of his team, and reminded suppliers that no big box store could ever match that attitude.

The final winner of the night was the Mitre 10 Store of the Year Large Format, won by Benalla Mitre 10, Vic. Gary Woodruff grew the business in a tough year thanks to a serious trade focus

He used his speech to first of all acknowledge the enormous quality of his fellow nominees, then thank his team and family, particularly his dad, John, and wife, Judy. Finally, he acknowledged the debt the stores owe to the IHG team, saying, “There’s a fair possibility that none of us would have been here without the incredible turn-around of Mitre 10 by Mark Laidlaw and the executive team. Ten years ago, Mitre 10 was on its knees… Then came the fight against Bunnings, Woolworths and Masters, but with Mitre 10 and True Value being joined by the HTH and Thrifty Link members, we really became the Independent sector.”

Image: The Hastings and Benton families: Frank at right, beside Carol and Norm, and Paige and Brock in the centre. Photo by David Solm Photography, courtesy IHG.