Retail Focus: DeMar has come Far

In the late 1880s, a holding yard for second-hand timber and building materials salvaged from demolitions, commenced trading in Melbourne’s inner-city suburb, Clifton Hill. More than 100 years later, a timber business is still there. Pauline Hoogen reports…

Store: DeMar Timber and Hardware
Owners: The Webster family
Group: HBT

Caption: DeMar Timber in Clifton Hill (Vic)

The site of DeMar Timber has been a timber yard for more than 120 years. The Clifton Hill holding yard changed hands twice over the years before being taken over by Frank DeMartini in the 1970s. The business, which remained essentially a destination for second-hand timber, became De Mar Timber & Demolition. Today, the Webster family owns the business, with Alan and Myriam Webster buying the business in 1984 from Mr DeMartini. At the time, Alan and Myriam had four small children and they wanted to spend more time together as a family. Alan had been running his father’s hotel, which demanded long periods of time away from Myriam and the kids, and many long nights. Alan was a customer of DeMar’s and when he learned that the ‘old man’ was looking to sell the business, he and Myriam jumped at the chance. “He was such a lovely, kind man who gave us lots of help and support when we bought the business. We had such respect for him and that’s why we decided to keep the name DeMar Timber & Demolition,” Myriam explained.

Keeping up
The business is really an icon of the area and whilst their original goal of spending more time with the family was realised 22 years ago, buying the business has proven to be a wise choice with three of their four children currently working in the store. Nicole is the office manager, Elizabeth is sales manager and Paul runs the yard. Their youngest daughter, Danielle, is living and working in London. Myriam is justifiably proud of her family and business but is quick to point out that whilst it is a family business, it is run very professionally. “We are very big on training and just recently one of our staff members received a Trainee of the Year Award in Certificate 3 of Merchandising through Apprenticeships of Victoria, with the training being undertaken by the Timber Merchants Association,” said Myriam. “We also plough money back into the business investing in new computer systems, new racking, new shelving, or whatever the business needs to keep us at the forefront.” Whilst still involved in the business, Alan is semi-retired, which has given him the time to look after their other investments, whilst indulging his other passion of riding bikes, or more specifically trikes. Alan and Myriam are both members of the National Three Wheelers Association and have travelled extensively around Australia. Myriam is still involved in the business on a daily basis but accompanies Alan on trips when she can get away.

Caption: Alan and Myriam with Alan’s beloved trike

When the Websters took over the business, the store was predominantly selling second- hand timber and building materials and whilst timber represents 75% of turnover, the business gradually moved to new timber as second-hand timber became more expensive. In addition to new timber and builder’s hardware, the store seasonally sells firewood to the local community. Of the store’s customer base, Myriam estimates that 70% are trade customers with the remaining 30% home renovators and the DIY market. Clifton Hill, and the surrounding suburbs, have a high concentration of older, Victorian-style homes that are snapped up when they come on the market and lovingly restored to their former glory.

In what is generally a male dominated industry, it is nice to see some women at the helm. Myriam and Liz agree. “There are plenty of women out there who are rolling up their sleeves and taking on the men in the DIY category. We had a woman in the store recently, who was new to the area and she was so pleased when she finally found our store as she had been in other stores where the salesmen had looked at her as if she was stupid. She was grateful to be shown a little more respect when she entered our store,” Myriam said.

Service matters
Customer service is something the DeMar Timber & Hardware team pride themselves on. “We had a customer, who was new to the area, come into the store on a Saturday a couple of weeks ago, and by the Tuesday morning a letter arrived praising the outstanding service she had received from one of our staff members,” said Myriam. “Apart from sharing the praise with the team and the staff member concerned, we keep them on file and use them when training new staff members. Our motto is ‘if you don’t see it, just ask’. We had a tradie in recently who wanted 1.8m of Jarrah to build a mantelpiece. He asked us to get it for him and we did. It’s that sort of service our customers know they will receive.”

Caption: Myriam Webster (rear) with daughter, Liz, and the team

DeMar Timber & Hardware is a member of Hardware & Building Traders (HBT). DeMar was amongst the first Victorian stores to join. Myriam Webster currently sits on the Executive Committee of HBT and is enthusiastic in her praise of the group. “No one presumes to know more about our business than we do and no one will try to interfere but if you need advice, you can pick up the phone and ring any number of your colleagues and get the help you need. It’s about being in business for yourself but not by yourself. We have made some tremendous friendships through HBT.”

The store employs a staff of 12 and trades Monday to Saturday from 7am to 5pm to suit tradesmen’s hours. As the customer base is predominantly trade, the family took the bold decision to cease Sunday trading a few years ago, giving them more precious family time and making their loyal staff happier as well. Staff turnover is low. Last year, one of their employees left them after 11 years to start his own maintenance business, but Myriam says they see almost as much of him now as a customer!

Competition no threat
Surrounded by a Home Hardware store, a Mitre10 store and a Bunnings Warehouse a couple of suburbs away, how does DeMar survive the competition? According to Myriam, the competition keeps them on their toes. They regularly price check the competition and out of 50 lines, they might find one cheaper than they retail it. At DeMar, the focus is on relationship building – they have a solid database of customers and they undertake regular customer surveys to make sure they are delivering the best possible service. They have Ladies Nights and host breakfasts if they are introducing new products. In the warmer months, they have sausage sizzles every Friday between 12 and 2pm, so the guys know that is a regular activity.

Caption: Inside the store

If the competition they face doesn’t faze them, the Victorian Labour Government does. When the land the business sits on came on to the market some years ago, the Webster family bought it to provide increased security for the business. Now Land Tax looks like being the biggest threat to the business. Four years ago, their Land Tax was $4,000 and this year it is $30,000. Next year they face a 50% increase again. So with a 350% increase over four years, it is much closer to putting them out of business than the competition is. Myriam is not taking it lying down. She has joined a lobby group trying to abolish land tax, or at least review the index to try and get it to a more realistic figure. “The land is taxed on its potential value and because of our proximity to the CBD, it makes our land more valuable. It means we have to cut some corners. Every year we used to employ a junior and train them into the business. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to do that any more,” Myriam explained.

The Webster family isn’t planning to ride off into the sunset just yet. They have built a fantastic business which they love, and they want to be working it for many years to come. In true grit style, they are determined to fight to keep their business prosperous against any odds.