HBT National Conference powers true independents

by | Sep 19, 2023


The HBT national conference was recently held at the newly renovated Cairns Convention Centre and was created specifically for members to not only interact with each other and the HBT team, but also gain a firm understanding of the importance of making crucial changes and improvements to their businesses.

Just like the previous years, this year was no exception with the conference once again portraying the feeling of a family gathering. This family continues to grow each year, with every member striving to assist and support one another by leveraging their individual strengths or sharing knowledge and experiences. 

While this year’s conference was both motivational and educational, it also focused on “what we are all about”, HBT Chief Executive Officer Greg Benstead said. With no overriding theme, this year’s conference was, “about getting together to talk about how we can make business better for you guys – our independents.”

With over 470 members in attendance from over 225 stores, along with 400 suppliers attending from 145 major brands, the conference was held at the Cairns Convention Centre from August 21. The impressive convention centre opened just seven days before the conference, after extensive rennovations, and was said to be one of the largest conferences ever held in Cairns.

After 26 years in the business, the ever-expanding group incredibly now boasts 946 members. In his opening address on the first day of the conference, Mr Benstead said that he believes HBT sets itself apart from other hardware groups because the group has a firm focus on improving business for its members.

“Our group is all about continuing to take your business forward and evolving it. Using the conference to network is a critical component of the event as you learn from each other, while also building a fellowship with other members.”

The event program was notably different from former years after HBT significantly changed the conference to ensure the workshops and various presentations were not only educational, but also gave members plenty of opportunity to interact with the team and with fellow members.

This is also why HBT implemented the personalised conference app which gives members the ability to ask questions online throughout each session and also hold a significant ‘Q & A’ session with the HBT team following Mr Benstead’s initial address.

HBT General Manager for Buying, Jody Vella, along with HBT General Manager of Member Services, Mike Lo Ricco took to the stage to run the interactive session with members and share ideas on good industry practice.

Session topics included the importance of correct ordering processes, implementing rolling stocktakes and preventing internal theft. One member spoke openly on how he stocktakes his store in sections, which led him to discover a dead area in-store that had become the perfect environment for undetected theft.

The HBT team also discussed the importance of knowing how your competitor’s products are priced because, “often you can be offering your products too cheaply which can be unnecessary and detrimental to your business,” Mr Lo Ricco said.

Educational workshops and networking

Following the interactive session between the HBT team and members, Mr Benstead reminded members of the importance of networking, saying that, “HBT started out as a small group talking about how we can make things better for independents. I hope our conference is the same, with a group of store owners getting together to talk about how we can make business better for independents.”

“Gaining further understanding of the industry is another critical component of the conference, which is why we have asked guest speaker and retiling guru Bernie Brooks AM to give us an understanding of the retail forecast ahead and how to navigate continued changes.”

Mr Brooks boasts over 40 years of experience in the retail industry and is an experienced board member and chair of several large companies across the globe, with extensive experience in retail and wholesale operations, buying, IT, supply chains and human resource management. 

‘Buy from the Bush’ founder, Grace Brennan also spoke to members on her inspiring journey of creating a social media avenue for struggling rural communities to sell their wares to city consumers, creating much-needed cash flow while also giving rural business owners a significant lifeline in desperate times. 

A Succession Planning Workshop by Andrea Moody from the Family Business Association was also held to assist members in planning for a healthy retirement.

Several ‘industry insight’ workshops were also conducted throughout the conference, delivering detailed insights into varying categories including the pet and impulse buys category, insulation, general hardware, power tools and timber categories. (See upcoming breakout story on insights into the timber industry).

HBT also implemented a significant change to this year’s trade show for the first time, with service suppliers given the opportunity to run a separate exhibition on the first day of the conference, which was separate to the major tradeshow of industry products. The two trade shows allowed HBT’s service suppliers to showcase products and services in a separate event, because the HBT team believed that service suppliers often become lost amongst product suppliers during the major tradeshow.

The main trade show, held on day three and four of the conference, was also a resounding success. The AHJ team had the pleasure of engaging with numerous members and over 100 suppliers, all who said they were happy with the trade show results, the investment in their stands, and the value they gained from it. HBT members were equally positive about the deals offered by suppliers at the trade show, and the service trade show as well.

Mr Benstead said he believes IT Systems have continued to be a significant focus for members and it was crucial members had ample opportunity to select the right technology for their business.

“Early this year HBT bought the IT company we have been using for 17 years. The advantage of this is we have been able to expedite a lot of IT into the business. We have also ensured there are plenty of advantages being implemented into the portal and members will soon benefit from a lot of the things that have been done.”

It was obvious from the start that the conference was all about connection and interaction, with Mr Benstead pointing out the importance of, “sourcing a helicopter perspective of the business while interacting with their peers.” 

“Everyone works so hard on the business and you are often behind the counters checking staff or ensuring your stock levels are full. But having the opportunity to step back and view your business from the outside is also critical. As a former retail performance consultant in many industries, I would often ask store owners to talk to me about finding a different perspective on their business and think about what they could implement into their business that would make a significant difference.”

“I plead with you to use these few days to think about your business a little bit differently and from an outsider’s perspective. Ask yourself if you have the right range and the right categories. IT is also critical, how do you run a business if you do not have the right information? When it comes to marketing think about how many more people could know about your business who do not know about it now. This can all be achieved through the right marketing. Now more than ever it is important that independents can thrive and we want to give them all the tools that they need to survive,” Mr Benstead said.

Just some of the highlights and significant changes to be implemented throughout the HBT group recently include the opening of HBT’s new office in Rowville, Melbourne, which was specifically designed as a central location for suppliers and the HBT team so they could discuss better deals.

“The team can now meet with suppliers in a professional environment so the supplier has a better understanding of who we are, what we are about, how power comes from all of our members and buying from the back of a deal. The more volume we put through, the better the deal for all members.”

Mr Benstead also pointed out the importance of members meeting with team members, “because our team’s primary objective is to make sure that our members are more profitable once the meeting with the team member concludes. We do whatever we can to improve your business, whether this is through more rebates, where we can improve sales, promotions or marketing opportunities. Remember there is no reason why we cannot have a Zoom meeting and discuss your business and what we can do to help,” he said.

The year that was

While Mr Benstead noted that the last 12 months have been challenging due to rising inflation and interest rates, he said he believes the curve has reduced and increasing costs are expected to slow.

“When it comes to inflation this simply indicates how much we are paying for goods. As retailers we should not mind how much we pay for goods as long as it is not any more than what our competitors are paying. And yes, we have had an increase in interest rates, but if you put this into perspective what we have had over the years, it is not as disastrous as first thought,” Mr Benstead said.

“In saying this interest rate rises do affect building approvals which directly affects us. But also remember that there is an upward trend that occurs alongside a growing population. If you go to the beginning of 1997 when HBT was established and the population was 18.5 million, today our population is at 26 million but the growth rate is 1.3 per cent yearly. We do need more homes simply because of the growing population and the housing shortage which will see things trending the other way and will be good for us I believe.”

Now with 946 members, the HBT group has grown from 910 members in 12 months and boasts 497 suppliers. Incredibly when HBT was established, the goal was to collaborate 100 stores with a primary goal to increase buying power.

“Our massive increase in store numbers is vital because in the end volume does get us a better deal. As well as increasing members, we have also focused our efforts on improving rebates, lifting the average standard rebates from 3.38 per cent to 3.91 per cent in the last 18 months. This is in addition to improvements in LTIs and marketing rebates which all ultimately go on to the bottom line.”

While HBT continues to support its members through better deals, higher rebates and delivering sound business advice to stores, Mr Benstead reminded members that they too can grow their business by enticing new customers to their business and by also finding new categories that they can grow into. 

“This is exactly what Bunnings has done throughout the years. They continue to innovate and expand which is why I challenge you to find categories that you find in your competitors and ask yourselves if you should be doing this as well. Look at where the market is rolling and make sure you are in that segment,” he said.

“It is also essential to remember the distinction between a corporate entity and being an independent store owner. While we appreciate there are a lot of advantages in being part of a corporate group or franchise, there are also a lot of downsides to this because you have to stick to ranges that they suggest and you cannot tailor your business to the local market.”

“As independents, we can do this better than anyone, which is why there are a lot of advantages for us to survive and thrive and make communities stronger. This is all just by being independent and not part of a corporate structure. The opportunity for us is that we support brands that you can only find in independents,” Mr Benstead said.

Looking to the year ahead, the HBT team is set to implement new strategies to utilise the HBT brand better because, “when consumers see you are part of a big group, they know what they are going to get in-store and that our prices will be reasonable.”

“I do not think we, as a group, take advantage of this. We are the largest independent hardware group in Australia which is why I ask that we push our HBT branding more. In doing so we can use our size to conduct strong advertising and sell a product based on it being located at a HBT store. We need to drive the fact that we have all of these stores and once we have a good presence in stores, we can drive our marketing further.”

In addition to organising such highly successful conferences, the HBT team consistently establishes new objectives for these events while also promoting the HBT branding through the stores. It is obvious these objectives are carefully collaborated by tacticians who possess a deep understanding of independent businesses and the industry’s needs.  Despite the market challenges, Mr Benstead advised members to continually do what they do best which includes delivering great service, buying smarter, maintaining stock levels and keeping ranges current, while also helping and retaining customers by creating unique and memorable experiences.

“The basics of delivering the right price, range and in stocks are not enough. Service, experience and exceeding expectations are essential. Keep an eye on your competition while listening to your customers because this gives you the knowledge to keep on growing,” Mr Benstead said.

Member recognition and supplier awards

HBT Member Recognition Awards were presented during a member’s session, instead of the usual formal dinner awards ceremony, with the session beginning with the showcasing of several outstanding stores. Video presentations told the story of how a number of outstanding members had undertaken recent substantial renovations after trading in the same store for many years and the story of new members who had come on board with the HBT group after purchasing new stores.

During the presentations Mr Vella said that every HBT member has their own specialty and every business has something unique to offer. 

“It is not in our business plan to change. What we want to do is continually help members improve and evolve their business, continue to take it forward, help them sell more to their existing customers and new ones. This is an evolution to drive their business forward. If our members can grow and our suppliers can grow then everybody grows and wins. The biggest opportunity for members is to take advantage of what we offer to ultimately improve their profitability,” Mr Vella said.

HBT Member Recognition Awards 2023 were awarded to:

• Pinus Sawmills

• K & K Steel Fasteners

• Central Highlands Tools

• Katanning H Hardware

HBT 20 years of Recognition Awards went to:

• Gracemere Hardware
• Greenmount Timber 7 building Supplies
• Hilberts • K & S Timber & Salvage
• Wynyard H Hardware
• Mountain Timbers H Hardware
• Pinus Sawmills
• Shepperton Building Supplies

HBT 2023 Supplier of the Year Awards were presented to:

• 2023 Supplier of the Year – Timber: Meyer Timber

• 2023 Supplier of the Year – Industrial: Soudal

• 2023 Supplier of the Year – General Hardware & Building: All States Trailer Spares

• 2023 Supplier of the Year – Rural & Garden: Holman Industries

• 2023 Recognition of Engagement with HBT Members: WD-40 Australia