77-year-old independent joins CSS for the first time

by | Nov 20, 2023

After 77 years of business independence, agricultural supply business Collier & Miller has joined forces with CSS (Construction Supply Specialists) to boost the development of both its in-store and online businesses.

Business: Collier & Miller
General Manager: Chris Miller
Location: Griffith, New South Wales
Buying Group: Construction Supply Specialists (CSS)

Bill Collier and his wife Ruth first established the well-known store in 1946 as W.S & M.R Collier Engineers, after Bill had returned from serving in World War II.

Operating out of a humble tin shed in Griffith, New South Wales, Bill soon realised his dream of running his own business from a small engineering shop offering welding services and machining repairs to locals while also selling grain silos, stock crates and trailers.

It was not long before the business earned a loyal following from the local farming community and in 1957. Bill approached Ron Miller and Ron’s wife Enid to join him as business partners. Collier & Miller was born. 

Collier & Miller General Manager Chris Miller.

“Bill established the original engineering shop straight after the war, with my grandfather Ron Miller joining the small business 10 years later. Ron did not have any engineering experience, but he enjoyed the people side of things so this complemented Bill’s engineering expertise,” current General Manager Chris Miller said.

Soon after the partnership, the local region underwent a significant growth phase as farms were released in the nearby Kooba district, forming the Coleambally Irrigation Area.

After experiencing strong growth the business moved to a new site in 1962 which is where the store remains today. After the move, Collier & Miller began manufacturing farming equipment including prune shakers, land-forming scrapers and equipment for irrigation farmers. In the late 1960s the business significantly expanded its retail business selling hydraulic components, fasteners and industrial paint.

“Our retail business was established after we realised that customers wanted to use the same products we were using in-store. We had a little repair shop so we were using welding products, bearings, bolts, industrial paint, and customers started buying these products from a little window in our workshop. It was very organic growth based on what our customers needed,” Chris said.

“My father, Peter Miller, joined the team in 1980 and took on the role of General Manager in 1987 after working across all areas of the business. I joined the business in 2008 and became General Manager in 2014. Prior to joining Collier & Miller I was a practicing accountant with a local Griffith firm. While being a part of the business was never firmly planned it was never off the cards either. It just naturally happened. My father is still a director of the business and my sister Kate also works in our marketing and communications team,” Chris said.

Unique business

The store is different from traditional hardware stores because it has always had a strong agricultural and engineering focus after it originated as an engineering business servicing the agricultural industry.

“Our customers are either farmers or agriculturally based. They include food and grain processors or come from the wine and poultry industries. We service these businesses with over 40,000 product lines including industrial and fastening products, abrasives, hand tools, power tools and PPE.”

Today the store employs over 180 staff who operate a large engineering workshop and a large retail shop. 

“The business has grown through various innovations including the introduction of our computerised point of sale system in 1988. We have continued to invest and improve our IT over the years and in 2014 we launched our e-commerce site which was a huge investment,” Chris said.

“Our website now hosts almost all of our trade and industrial products which gives us the advantage of enabling us to reach a wider geographic customer base, while also acting as an e-commerce shop and catalogue. The website is great because it allows us to direct customers online to view items. This saves our customers from having to travel into town because the website gives them all the information they need on the product they require.”

“The people who work within the business have also enabled it to grow substantially. We have a long history of employing and training apprentices and trainees and I believe that investing in our people has contributed to our business’ success. Many of our team members have been with us for 10, 20, 30 years – you cannot beat that kind of experience. Being organic and responsive to what our customers are asking for has been instrumental in driving our business,” he said.

Selling quality products is also a high priority, with the business only stocking quality local and international brands it knows its customers seek out regularly. 

“Our customers range from large corporate clients, farmers, and tradespeople to small businesses, families and individuals.  Many of our customers are second and third-generation customers. People know if they come to us they will get the product, or service, that will do the job they need. Delivering a quality product is our priority. This has really enabled us to build trust with customers which naturally supports us to build repeat business and referrals.”

“We are constantly assessing our products and their location in-store and make sure our store is completely customer friendly. During COVID we introduced our Click ‘n’ Collect service and we have continued this to ensure we cater to our customers’ needs. More recently we introduced free local delivery as another strategy to enhance our customer experience. We are passionate about supporting our local community and this initiative fits with our values,” Chris said.

Local competition

Competition in the area is strong with several local businesses offering engineering services and trade products in-store and online, and the online space is also growing at a rapid rate.

“We aim to provide a ‘one stop shop’ for our customers both in the store and on our website. Our tagline is ‘making it easy for you’ and that really is what we focus on delivering. Customers can come into Collier & Miller, or look online and know they can pick up a new drill, some fasteners, work boots, sunscreen … you name it. Our primary selling point is that we do have everything in the one 6,000 square metre warehouse and we always carry the stock that our customers demand,” Chris said.

The store’s current marketing mix includes TV and radio advertising as well as digital marketing strategies, which is something Chris will continue to build on in the future. 

“We know that our customer base is evolving and it is important to reach different demographics via different touchpoints. We have begun to introduce more events in-store this year, including our Trade Expo which we launched in June. This was a refresh of a Sale Expo event we ran for many years prior to COVID. We have also had some good success with brand-specific promotions in-store and will continue to incorporate these into our plans in 2024,” he said.

Joining CSS

While the proudly independent business has been approached by many groups over the years, Chris says his family always believed that joining a group was not for them, until now.

“In recent years there has been a lot more competition particularly online that we have found to be very difficult to compete with. So we started looking at joining a group that could assist us with this challenge. We met with Paul Davy and Glen Waites from CSS and we felt really comfortable with them as soon as we met.”

“CSS are just like us. We had a great feeling with them straight away. We also did a lot of research and asked around the industry about the group and everyone pointed back to CSS being a great group. They also deal with a lot of brands that we deal with so this made it a very easy decision to make as well.”

“CSS has enabled us to have the buying power of the multinationals, while still remaining a local family-owned business. It is also great to have enhanced access to suppliers through events like their trade show and to network with other businesses and suppliers that are part of the group. Because we are so isolated a lot of suppliers do not have reps that come out here, but they are coming to us now which is really good,” Chris said.

Collier & Miller will undertake a substantial refresh in-store next year.

Looking ahead

Big plans are in place for the store next year which include an internal and external cosmetic refresh of the store, as well as several improvements to the website.

Some team members have been with the store for 10, 20 and 30 years.

“Next year’s store refresh will include a repaint of the store, new signage and new display shelving. We will also continue to invest in our website as we explore new ways to make our online shopping experience as user-friendly as possible, particularly with new payment methods such as Apple Pay.”

“Although the e-commerce site does not have all of our product lines, we are working hard to get everything on there at the moment and we have a couple of people working on this full time. The site is useful as a catalogue as well as for selling products that can be picked up in-store or delivered,” Chris said.

The site is particularly important because many customers live some distance from the store on large farming properties. 

“We are excited about 2024 and looking forward to where our new partnership with CSS will take us,” Chris concluded.