Centwest Engineering & Steel Supplies owners, Ian and Margaret Harris, have successfully operated their store in Longreach, Queensland – 1200 kilometres north west of Brisbane – for over 30 years and continue to grow and evolve their business to service the needs of local customers.
After 30 years, the business continues to implement changes to the store to cater to local trade, with the most recent development being a new steel processing centre, designed specifically to cater to the people of Western Queensland.
While construction of the 490 square metre building is still in progress, when completed the new facility will house processing machinery, including a large capacity band saw, CNC plasma cutting facilities, and a specialist CNC folder which will provide entirely new folding capabilities to the Longreach area.
The pair know the area better than most, having lived all their lives in Longreach. Ian initially kick-started his career working within his family’s earthmoving business as an apprentice in 1969. Ian worked there for 18 years until the family business was dissolved. Centwest was born very soon after when Ian and Margaret purchased the engineering and mechanical services side of the business, establishing Centwest Engineering & Steel Supplies on July 1, 1987.
At the time the business was established, the primary customer base was the agricultural grazing industry, with the majority of the income being workshop oriented. The store then gradually evolved via its steel product varieties, along with its small range of welding supplies, abrasives, fasteners and limited hand tool selection, according to Ian.
“A decade after establishing the business, I also saw a need for a reliable, industrial tool and bulk steel outlet in Western Queensland and I began working on this dream. In late 2003 I knew I had outgrown my pop-up retail shop, which was housed in a small section of my steel fabrication workshop. This was when we built a concept store that included a retail shop-front selling a range of industrial tools, hardware and accessories, as well as steel supplies. This was all built while also maintaining the steel processing and fabrication arm on the original premises,” Ian said.
“The concept store came to a reality on April 1, 2005, when Centwest opened its purpose built, 1700 square metre showroom and steel warehouse across the road from the existing workshop, which today is still used as the engineering and fabrication centre. The change was precipitated by both a vision and as a response to accidental growth from what started out to be ad-hoc sales of basic welding supplies and steel,” he said.
The store front and show room has now grown to 395 square metres, while the warehouse encompasses another 1320 square metres. The new steel processing centre, currently under construction, also has a 490 square metre floor area.
“Our customers often compliment us on the showroom layout and range of products. Visitors are surprised to find such a shop outside of the coastal region and regularly tell us that our store is better than they have in their own city region,” Ian said.
“Currently steel products are our biggest selling category item, but the combined sales of the industrial tools and equipment, plus hand tools and accessories is greater than the steel sales. It is difficult to pick the biggest selling item but the transition, by most people, from corded to cordless has made the cordless tool category very popular,” he said.
It seems there is plenty of work for the trades in the local area, with demographics of Longreach including builders and fabricators, transport operations, local government, and itinerant contractors undertaking contract work on major private and government projects, as well as home DIY’s. With a customer base of 10 per cent local government, 45 per cent trade and industrial, 25 per cent DIY, Ian said, the agricultural sheep and cattle industry make up the remaining 20 per cent of business.
“The country is too dry to sustain plant-based agriculture. We have been in drought for around nine years now and the region has suffered significantly over this period. Despite the drought, there has been a large investment by graziers in fencing to control feral animal populations and this has been a boost to the economy,” Ian said.
“We also usually experience a tourist season during autumn and winter as travellers seek shelter from the southern state’s winter in sunny Queensland. The tourist trade does encourage some walk-in business for caravan and trailer supplies but it is negligible in a direct sense, with our benefit from this customer base gained through the circulation of dollars through the local economy. This can include the expansion of tourist attractions and facility upgrades to improve the experiences offered to the traveller. Supply of materials and services to these projects is where we get our tourist dollar,” he said.
Tradesmart Industrial Group
A second major change for the business came about around the same time Ian’s retail expansion dream was coming to fruition, when he was approached by Tradesmart Industrial Group founder, Ron Hunt in 2004.
Ron explained to Ian that he was establishing a new buying group and invited Ian to become a member. At the time Ron still had a long way to go in securing enough members and suppliers to kick-start the group, Ian said.
“At the same time, because national suppliers were not interested in dealing with a small-time business in the middle of nowhere, I was hoping to join a group to gain access to suppliers and expand my buying capacity as well as the products that I sold. Ron’s approach was a blessing, and I jumped at the chance to join the group. In 2004 Centwest became one of the inaugural members of the newly founded Tradesmart Industrial Group. Without Tradesmart, Centwest would probably still be having knockbacks from suppliers, but today, suppliers are contacting me and asking if Centwest would sell their products,” Ian said.
“How things have changed and it is all thanks to the vision of the now retired Ron Hunt and his fledgling Tradesmart Group. The group opened up a whole new world for our business and I would encourage any other person wishing to get into a buying group to contact Tradesmart.”
“Although Tradesmart is not as big as other groups, it does sit at the top favourites list in the supplier group rankings. Being a smaller group also means that members easily get to know each other. We are a fairly laid-back bunch, but we are passionate about our own business and care about other members. Group management personally knows all members and has a keen interest in every member’s business and welfare. Tradesmart management is also there to help build the member’s businesses. Tradesmart is more than a small buying group to the members, it really is a big family buying group which is what makes it stand out from other groups,” Ian said.
Big plans ahead
It was also in 2004 that Ian and Margaret welcomed family members into the business to help continually build up the store, with daughter Jodie and husband Travis giving up their stock marketing and air force careers, respectively, to return to Longreach with their young family and commence work at Centwest. Ian believes that Jodie and Travis remain the brains and backbone of the business to this day.
“These factors, together with a strong customer service ethic and an ongoing advertising media presence, have, despite continuing drought in the region, ensured an influential and steady growth in the business. This is also why, by the close of 2020, Centwest and the people of Western Queensland will have the brand-new steel processing centre.”
With Ian’s current philosophy being, ‘build it and they will come’, he hopes the new centre, along with its innovative equipment and the additional services, will be embraced by all in the region.
Stand out qualities
For now, the combination of high quality customer service and comprehensive product range ensures that the store continues to grow and evolve, according to Ian, who said he is very proud of the extensive product and industry knowledge his staff continue to offer customers.
“Of our six staff, our newest member has had seven years with the company, while our longest serving member, Rob Setter, has incredibly been with me for 41 years. In January 2021, Robert and I clock up a combination of 92 years of working in the same job at the same premises. This all leads to a wealth of experience and knowledge that is regularly called upon by our appreciative clients.”
“We pride ourselves in supplying only quality products, combined with customer service that remains friendly, personal and professional. We also have the widest and largest range of industrial tools and steel supplies in Western Queensland and our advertising reiterates this by saying, ‘From Roma to the Isa you will not find bigger. From Emerald to the Alice you will not find better’. A large proportion of our business is also about sourcing orders for speciality stock. This can be a demanding but satisfying customer service role, which requires a deep supplier base and often some resourcefulness to source ‘freight friendly’ product lines,” Ian said.
Another priority for Ian is ensuring his product range continues to serve the industrial niche market.
“Whilst there is always some overlap between general hardware and industrial supplies – and our local competitors in this space – our focus remains largely on quality trade, industrial tools, steel related accessories, as well as complementary products. This allows us to offer a surprisingly broad range of speciality products not normally found in a general hardware store. Whilst there are similar businesses to ours in the region, we like to think ‘we excel within our own niche market’,” he said.
As part of an ongoing service to its customers and suppliers, every two years Centwest also conducts a two-day industrial tool tradeshow which is well received by all.
“Our tradeshow was due to go ahead in May this year but was obviously cancelled due to COVID. That aside, COVID actually impacted our business in positive ways as well. Due to travel restrictions and a slowing down of society, we also experienced an up-tick in demand as trades were still operational (essential services) and we were able to supply a wide range of products to household consumers for projects that they undertook over this period when they found themselves with more time at home,” he said.
In regards to online facilities, although the store does not have on-line shopping, Ian plans to implement an online purchasing space as the next development focus, so the store can access a much broader market, including remote customers.
“We have also recently upgraded our stock and accounting software as a step towards facilitating this additional retail functionality, but developing an efficient platform to suit our broad product base is a huge investment for a small business, and presents major logistical and financial considerations.” he said.
Marketing into the future
For now, Centwest intends to grow into the future by continuing to market the business to its local customers and beyond.
“Due to our customer base largely being trades, we know they respond well to radio advertising, using targeted communication of specific messages, including the development of our new steel processing area. We also invest in regional television advertising in more brand marketing rather than targeted messages. Our customers are also targeted with quarterly catalogues and sales specials via the Tradesmart group, which allows us to communicate our range of available products in addition to being a source of direct sales marketing,” he said.
“Our Facebook presence continues and one of our 2021 goals is to manage the online advertising space with more regularity and to engage customers with more ‘call to action’ advertising – encouraging retail sales via social media – all to be done while remaining healthy, happy and safe throughout 2020 and beyond,” Ian said.