Honky-tonk Hardware…

Based in a store that was built in 1857 and extended with a “modern bit” in 1873, Tonks Bros Hardware in Castlemaine, Vic, is a living reminder of the history of hardware…

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Store: Tonks Bros Hardware, Castlemaine, Vic
Owners: Mills family
Group: Hardware & Building Traders (HBT)

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Most of the buildings in the central part of Castlemaine, 120 kms north-west of Melbourne, were built in the 1800s when the State was enjoying the growth spurts of adolescence.

Gold mining, logging and farming enterprises were all contributing to the State’s wealth and shoring up strong building and construction works – and Tonks Bros Hardware was a cornerstone of this regional activity.

The store premises were built in 1857

Today the 400m2 business is owned by the Mills family, which purchased it from the Tonks clan in 1963. Over the last 40-odd years it has passed from one generation of Mills family members to another, continuing a tradition of stable successions and reliable service to the local community. Running a retail business in Castlemaine is a bit like panning for gold – it takes patience, attention to detail and consistency.

Managing Director Jason Mills has run the business since the mid-1980s, when he took over the reins from his father. He is immensely proud of the prominent 60-metre store frontage in the town’s main street, as well as the storewide adherence to heritage design and early Victorian mores. If there is one “embarrassment” with the store presentation, it’s the bold “1900” sign over the portico commemorating a Federation-era extension – a misplaced leap into the 19th Century.

Jason Mills (left) and his father Doug, lifelong timber man

Staff nowadays continue to offer highly personalised service, just as the storekeepers of yesteryear did. Banks of antique machinery and hardware items line the walls and eaves, and Jason’s ever-growing collection of hardware memorabilia provides an interesting contrast to the contemporary stock.

When customers leave the store they are carrying their goods in paper bags.

Many readers will be scratching their heads at this stage and wondering “What’s the catch?” After all, modern consumers are meant to be hard-nosed bargain hunters who might be happy to browse in a small, old-fashioned, independent outlet…but who buy products in the hangar-sized barn down the road. Not so! Jason says his store has already witnessed the passing of one “Big Brand” competitor, and sales are healthier than ever before. The secret lies in consumers’ respect for the store’s long history, the loyal support of 900 trade account clients, a community desire to maintain a much-loved colonial spirit, and recognition that prices are more than acceptable.

Independent Nature

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i>Old paint cans show the signs of history

“And the other main reason we’re still here is the store independence,” explains Jason. “To begin with we were one of the original Thrifty-Link stores. When we first got into it the focus was on better buying, but that changed to be all about store traffic. Margins were slashed to 15%, even 3%, and they’d tell us to put on specials that weren’t necessarily right for our business. It got to the stage where we were making almost nothing out of it. We left the group in 1996.” Jason says the move was correct for his unique business, but that there are no Golden Rules for all proprietors; each store must be appraised in light of its own needs. As he sums up: “People don’t come to this town to see a city store.”

“You have to remember we’ve always been trade-focused, which is another reason why the marketing strengths of a group weren’t right for us,” he says. “As a matter of fact we hardly do any advertising at all – just the local paper and a mailout newsletter.”

Hardware memorabilia is central to store character

Two years later the store joined the Hardware & Building Traders (HBT) buying group. According to Jason, membership cost $1,000 and the first rebate cheque was $870. “We’d never seen a rebate cheque in our lives – we didn’t even have to change from our regular suppliers,” he says. Today the store deals mainly with HBT suppliers and enjoys quarterly rebates of about $5,000.

Turnover increased by 18% in the first year following the union with HBT, and by another 42% in the second year. “It made the difference between struggling along and bounding along.”

Slow Change
Jason says the store recently benefited from a new 60x40m yard across the road. This facility is used mainly for storage. Targeting the trade market, which accounts for 70% of business, has resulted in a strong Plumbing department, supported by Timber & Builders Hardware. General Items also perform well and Paint is a late bloomer following a switch to Taubmans supplies. Departments like Garden and Power Tools are of less significance.

Customers can take a step back in time

One concession to modernity, Jason says, has been the installation of a new Pacsoft computer system to streamline inventory keeping, price monitoring and ordering.

Other minor changes in the business pipeline include the wrecking of an outbuilding to increase space, and the gutting of a 10x30m area that currently comprises five small rooms! The old sandstone stables with red gum-block flooring, of course, will retain their honoured place on the property.

The main feature of the business to outsiders is its fierce declaration that generic, modern-day marketing and planning principles do not necessarily apply to all stores. There is always room for regional character and idiosyncratic flair.

By John Power