The company is fundraising to help employees who lost everything.
Before they left work on Monday 28 February, the team at Sly Bros in Woodburn moved everything they could to high ground, well above the level of the record 1954 floods that had swept through the Lismore district. Seven of the 20 acres that make up their property were 600mm above that level, and locals had parked their cars there for safety, too.
“Our local retired SES controller Jim McCormack was being interviewed on radio on Monday morning,” says David Sly, “and he was saying ‘Yep, we’re looking at 1954 flood level, maximum 100 or 200mm above that because the water will spread out.’ Only missed out by two metres.”
The entire site was flooded, damaging or destroying machinery, timber, trucks and work that was in progress or completed.
But when David and Mark Sly talked with FTMA’s Kersten Gentle for the most recent edition of the F&T Time podcast, it wasn’t the devastation of 90 years of business history that most upset them, it was the impact on their staff.
“We’re one of the biggest employers in Woodburn, we’ve got 22 employees and many of them have been with us for more than 25 years. Eight of them lost everything,” says David.
On that Monday night, water went from the deep puddles they’d been wading through during the week of storms to engulfing homes within eight hours, as they shared with Kersten. Previous major floods – and the Lismore region isn’t a stranger to them – had rolled in over several days, giving people time to leave. Not this time.
“We left work at 4.30pm, by midnight water was in the offices,” David says.
The brothers themselves were lucky, they live in nearby Evans Head which was less affected. “But we could see the Facebook messages coming through of people being rescued from roofs,” says David. “I rang one of our employees to ask how he was, the water was coming up to the second floor of his house. He and his son kayaked to our offices to lift our servers out of harm’s way as we realised we hadn’t lifted them high enough. They saved the servers and all that data, and all but one of our computers.”
Very quickly, the focus turned to saving people. “About two that morning, one of our employees was out with about 10 other boats starting the rescue of Woodburn,” David says. “They moved everyone to the highest point, which is the school.”
News of how bad things were came through to Evans Head around 5am, and David, who is a member of the Evans Head Casino Surf Life Saving Club worked with his Club team to get two of the SLC boats and his own boat on the water. They made it through the 12km to Woodburn. There wasn’t much active rescuing left to do, but they ferried everyone from the school that was now an island to safety all through Tuesday, then Thursday and Friday after the raging river made it too unsafe on Wednesday.
Both David and Mark who have lived there all their lives and seen many floods had never seen anything like this. Eight of their employees lost everything: homes, cars, belongings…
On Friday, as the evacuation wound down, they were able to look at their business.
“We’ve lost all our manufacturing equipment, forklifts, trucks, more than likely 1.5 million in stock and finished goods that haven’t been taken to site,” Mark says. “Just a guestimate, because we’ve lost our records from the office of jobs in progress, so we’re kind of hamstrung. We have recovered some timber, but we’ve got no way of transporting it. Before all this it was a struggle to get a ute or a truck or a forklift because of backlogs and it’s only going to get worse.”
And they weren’t alone. All the businesses in Woodburn have been inundated. David marks a grim tally: “From what we’ve heard so far, the petrol station will not be reopening, the supermarket will, some of the coffee shops probably not. The pub is 12 months off re-opening. The newsagency is gone, he’s already pulled out and moved. Out of the 12 or so businesses that were on the main street, we’ll be flat-out getting four.”
The Sly brothers told Kersten about the hoops victims have been put through trying to get assistance. Most people didn’t have flood insurance. “For us, it was $1 million on top of our normal premium,” says David. “I have a friend in town and his home insurance was $36,000 for floods on top of his premium. Most people can’t afford anything like that.”
The Federal Government has offered 13 weeks of support, but “They’re putting them through the wringer to get that payment,” says David.
“We met with a couple of council members yesterday,” Mark says. “One of them spoke of another of the members who is very used to dealing with grants and that sort of thing and he was having a great deal of trouble getting his head around this red tape. The general person who isn’t used to it has no hope of getting through it to receive the payments.”
Accordingly, the brothers have followed Kersten’s advice and set up a gofundme page for donations to their eight most-affected staff. “There’s a lot of gofundmes for people around this area so it’s not going to be local money that comes in, it’s going to have to be money from well away from here,” David says, highlighting the fact that there is currently very little work at all in the affected region.
Sly Bros is one of the leading F&T and timber products suppliers for the Lismore region and one of the few still operating locally. Until they can get back in action, the businesses relying on them can’t recover.
“Our first priority is to get that truss shed up and running,” says David. “Builders can build frames if they really have to, though preferably not, but they can’t build trusses.”
He and Mark estimate they will be able to get back to 20% of truss production in the next couple of months, then maybe 50-60% by the end of June and more by August. They have ordered a truck and hope to have drivers running split shifts and a crane installed in time.
Their machinery suppliers have been there for them. All three have been quick to come in and assess what can be repaired and find ways to replace the rest. “We’re going to be hiring a new Vekta saw; Ed Serrano’s been fantastic for that, he’s said, ‘we’ll just do a lease payment’ and once everything settles down and we know how our funds are, we can reassess.
“Pryda have also done a fantastic job thanks to Sean and Liam, Multinail are here at the moment. It’s been the same with most of the timber companies, they’ve said, ‘Don’t worry about paying your bill for a little bit, we understand what’s going on’ and it just shows how this timber industry is. Everyone just gets in and pitches in when you need help.”
Their biggest concern is keeping staff attached to the company, so they have a business to rebuild. Like many of the businesses in the region, they’ve been asking the Federal Government for a JobKeeper-style program, re-starting the mechanisms that still exist post-Covid to keep employees connected to their work.
FTMA has been pushing hard for this, too, with Board member Arthur Potter lobbying for it at Parliament House as well as other Association members making representations to local politicians.
“If they did the $750 again and we topped up the balances, it would help us out considerably,” Mark says. “And it could happen now, with no one having to go and jump through the hoops and red tape they are expecting.”
David agrees: “It just needs to be simple. You can only bang your head against a brick wall so much. And in an election year, they don’t seem to be listening.”
Both David and Mark worry this is a region-ending event unless there is significant help from government. Insurers were already priced out of the area because of the risk and so many businesses have been damaged or lost that the impacts will be significant and long lasting. Although Premier Dominic Perrottet has listened to local businesses, they remain unclear as to what support and assistance will be coming.
“The Federal and State governments have recognised us as a critical business going forward, but what that means, we don’t know,” says David. “It would be nice to know because that would mean we could plan a lot better than what we’re doing.”
He lists the areas that have been hit hard: “Parts of Lismore, especially South Lismore, Bungawalbin, Coraki, Woodburn, Broadwater, Wardell, some parts of Ballina, Mullumbimby… places that you wouldn’t expect. It is going to be a big hill that people have to climb and without assistance they can slide backwards both financially, but more importantly, mentally.”
Listening to the podcast, it’s easy to hear the tiredness and worry in the brothers’ voices. Kersten asks who has been supporting them.
“We’re not getting a lot of sleep, but we’ve got supportive wives,” Mark says. “Our employees have been very good but they’re under immense pressure, too. Some of them have lost everything, others have no work.”
David adds, “What’s keeping us on an even keel at the moment is there’s so much to do. Once that slows down and we’ve got all our eggs back in their basket, that’s when we’ll probably find that we’re in trouble and that’s when we’ll need to rely on our friends and our family and maybe even seek some professional help. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
To donate to the Sly Bros fundraiser, visit gofundme.com/f/employees-of-sly-bros-who-have-lost-everything to listen to the F&T Time podcast, click here. For more on FTMA Australia, click here.
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