Up close and personal

Store Name:
DBF Tools & Construction Supplies

Owners:
Doug Flynn and Fred Hall

Retail Group:
Construction Supply Specialists

DBF Tools and Construction Supplies is not your typical hardware store, looking to satisfy a near 50-50 balance of trade and retail customers. Rather, its eyes are purely on the trade sector. Its warehouse store in an industrial park in Hopper’s Crossing (VIC) is used mainly as a base for representatives to meet with clients directly, rather than awaiting walk-in traffic.

Fred Hall joined DBF in 1996 along with business partner Doug Flynn, who founded the business in his garage in October 1994. It moved quickly to Werribee in Melbourne’s west, and changed location twice more before finding its current premises in 2004.

Making it happen

Today it offers a full range of construction equipment from power tools and repairs to hi-tech industrial fastening systems. DBF also provides high-quality ladders and safety equipment, sawing blades, abrasives, hand tools, and machinery. “The focus is also on fasteners, and consumable items including cutting disks, nuts, bolts, and concrete products,” Hall says. “It’s everything in the building game but steel, mesh, timber, and (actual) concrete.”

It’s certainly not the only construction tools specialist servicing the local industry, but Hall says DBF offers outstanding business-to-business customer service. One regular situation is the Friday afternoon call where a contractor urgently requires specific tools or consumables, sometimes even an entire overhaul of the on-site safety equipment, so that work can continue over the weekend. With up to nine delivery vehicles constantly on the move, and current building sites taking priority over all other work, Hall says the business stakes its reputation on making the impossible happen. “Sometimes it kills me,” he laughs. “But that’s one of the things that sets us apart from the rest.”

Group strength

DBF Tools is a founding member of the Construction Supply Specialists (CSS) buying group. Launched in 2002 with a heavy focus on the local Melbourne market, this group now features 42 member businesses (and 55 branches) with an even spread across the country, including some members in “strategic” rural areas. Hall says the group has helped to give DBF a stronger negotiating position with its both its current and potential future suppliers. “It means we can act like a corporate,” he says. “There are ramifications for suppliers who don’t offer a good deal.”

Hall says CSS also offers constant support, beyond regular sales conferences with other members and suppliers around the country. The buying group also assists its businesses with marketing and promotional expertise, something often lacking in independent operators, as well as through a twice-yearly product catalogue. CSS will also directly supply sales leads, and provides a network where members can exchange market information.

Along with its foundation membership, DBF Tools is also one of the largest and strongest businesses within the CSS group. “We’re certainly one of the key members of the group,” Hall, who also acts as a board member of CSS, says. He notes that one reason for its strength is that it works hard to ensure only like-minded businesses sign up. “We haven’t just picked up blokes who want to be part of a buying group,” he says from his standpoint as a CSS board member.

In particular, members should be individually-owned shop fronts with at least one sales representative “on the road”. They also should have a common passion for customer service and aim to be a one-stop-shop for all construction clients. “We’re looking for guys that mirror the ethos and service culture that we’re getting the job done,” Hall says.

Large projects
For DBF Tools, “getting the job done” involves working on some of the biggest infrastructure projects in Victoria. In recent years, these have included the recently-completed restructuring of the West Gate Bridge, a two-year, $600 million project spearheaded by the John Holland Group. Hall says a long-term project such as that involves a great deal of on-site consultation and continuous, hands-on management and logistics. “We are talking daily with engineers about precise specifications of their needs,” he points out. The job also involved plenty of the Friday afternoon emergency phone calls previously mentioned, he adds.

Most work is done on site, through face-to-face meetings with key stakeholders in each of the projects. Hall says DBF does have a limited online facility, but does not expect to significantly change the personal nature of its business model. “It (online trading) is not a primary function of what we do,” he explains, while acknowledging that some competitors are making more use of cyberspace, forcing DBF and others to compete on price and service with out-of-state operations.

Other major projects that DBF has been a part of have included the new AAMI Stadium in Melbourne’s Olympic Park precinct, the redevelopment of the Melbourne Cricket Club, and the Eureka Tower to the south of the Central Business District. “We were on that job from the first dig until the last lightening pole went in,” Hall says of the 279-metre skyscraper, previously the world’s tallest residential building (now ninth highest).

Today’s challenges

That all meant there were several great years in DBF’s recent history, but the current market is a different story. The Victorian state government, like most others around the country, has significantly pulled back from financing new large-scale infrastructure projects such as roads, stadiums, and public developments. Commercial developers are also holding back while they await more encouraging indicators on the national and world economies.

Hall acknowledges that the business’s income has fallen from the highs of previous years. “The last three months have been tough,” he says. “But that’s been no different from anyone else.” There are, however, some positive numbers to dilute the current sluggishness of the market. Firstly, the numbers have fallen, but only from what were some very high peaks in the most recent construction boom in Victoria. Averaged out over a much longer time frame, the numbers certainly look more favourable. “We’re trading at where we were four years ago (just before the spike began),” he says.

What’s even more positive is that the forward estimates of upcoming projects represent a return to healthy business for all those connected with the construction sector. Hall says there are several projects scheduled to come online in six to 18 months, meaning the current slide in available work has already turned a corner and is likely to be only a temporary phenomenon.

Story by Paul Howell

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