History Starts Now…

History Starts Now…

The historic coastal settlement of Warrnambool, Victoria, is a Mecca for whale watchers, nature lovers and admirers of bluestone homesteads – but the hardware retailing scene is all “here and now”…

Store: Ponting Bros Home Timber & Hardware, Warrnambool, Vic.
Owners: Ponting family
Group: John Danks & Son

Tandra Jewell, Paint Manager

Rural centres, particularly those coastal townships with unique heritage character, often “play up” their historical roots. Visitors are greeted with shop signs like “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe”, “Bob’s Family Barber” and “Captain’s Galley Restaurant”. But people who drop in at Pontings Timber & Hardware in the heart of Warrnambool’s business district will be disappointed if they expect to see antique bow saws, scythes and rusting mower blades in the front window. The power of the business, which has occupied the same site for 80 years, lies not in its history but in its capacity to address modern building and DIY needs. The past plays second fiddle to contemporary ranging policies, staff expertise, competitive pricing and service.

This may be regrettable to those of us who harbour a soft spot for sepia photos and handmade farm implements, but modern commerce has little tolerance for nostalgia. According to Ponting Bros’ General Manager, Mick Miller, the business began in 1923 under the stewardship of Walter and Len Ponting. The store was housed in a small stone building that still exists, though successive extensions have dwarfed it over the years. That original shop is now leased to an interior decoration company.

John Ponting, Timber Manager

Walter’s three sons – Alex, Jim and Walter Jnr – took over the business in the 1940s, and successive generations of family members have held the reins since then. The passing decades have witnessed showroom expansions in the 1950s, the deaths of the founders Len and Walter in the 1960s, and the purchase of adjoining land for timber storage in the 1980s. Today the double-storey building covers about 200m2 and employs 40 people, including 23 full-time staff.

The long history of the business is, ironically, partly responsible for its current modern trappings. With such a prominent place in the township, trade clients have come to treat the business as their own, leading to a situation where 70% of custom is trade-based. Of course, tradespeople have little interest in sentimental marketing techniques or promotional schmaltz.

Savvy & Well Informed

The Paint Place is a major department of the store

The store was last revamped five years ago, says Mick, and is now due for another facelift. “There are plans in the pipeline, with help from Danks, to enhance the store appearance,” he says. “We’re looking at the layout of the racking, and generally trying to get the whole layout right to attract more retail clients.”

The task of attracting more retail customers is also dependent on refining the product selections and making sure staff have the training and knowledge to help customers. The local population, being nearly four hours’ drive from Melbourne, is savvy, self-sufficient and well informed. “The general population is very switched on to what they want to do,” explains Mick. “So the staff have to be on the ball and up-to-date with everything they do. The suppliers help a lot with training nights.”

Modern Building Explosion

The large store occupies a prime corner site

The other reason to keep up-to-date with modern trends is a major residential building explosion in the Warrnambool district. Mick says the business and its two tray trucks service a huge area within a 100km radius of the town centre, and technical developments in the building industry require ongoing training in new materials to service a sophisticated market. “Many of the big national building construction companies like AV Jennings are appearing here now, which means we have to know just about everything about the latest trends.”

Pat Lane, Hardware Manager

In response to market demand, the store joined the Paint Place Group recently and created a specialist paint department in a prominent corner site of the store. This has helped satisfy both trade and consumer expectations while consolidating the other main departments: Timber, Power Tools, Garden and Plumbing.

Additional market penetration is achieved by conducting regular radio promotions and advertising through Danks’ catalogue program. Pontings has also just added another rep to its staff to help build the customer base.

All these measures are necessary to retain a strong presence in the face of competition from two other hardware stores in the township…and the possible arrival of a major ‘big barn’. “But I’m sure we can withstand any onslaught,” says Mick confidently.

Future Past

An interior decoration business leases the original store

The story of the store is one that both depends on, and to some extent denies, its whaling station and pastoral history. The difference between rural and urban stores is diminishing all the time, and today’s rural customers rightly expect the latest products at city prices. As modern building practices reach farther into country areas, there are more and more reasons why country stores should mimic their urban cousins.

On the other hand, a long heritage is a prized asset, and one can only hope that there will always be room for at least one rusty mower blade in a quiet corner of the store for visitors to admire.

By John Power