The Hardware and Building Trader (HBT) National Conference kicked off with a bang as suppliers and members began the three-day event with an extravagant ‘Back to the Future’ themed awards lunch held at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre on May 3.
After three years of consistent challenges including the 2019 bushfires, COVID lockdowns, devastating floods throughout Queensland and New South Wales, as well as highly challenging supply chain issues, the AHJ team believed this was one of the most vibrant atmospheres experienced at a large, hardware conference for some time.
The exciting atmosphere, combined with the positive outlook from both members, suppliers, and the HBT team saw the event to be more like a well-overdue family gathering.
HBT Chief Executive Officer Greg Benstead kicked off the event by surprising over 900 lunch guests with a grand, on-stage entrance at the awards lunch as he popped out of the DeLorean time machine posing as ‘Doc’ from the famous ‘Back to the Future’ movie.
Guests enjoyed the surprise as Mr Benstead welcomed everyone back to the conference after three long years of delays. As it turns out the overdue conference was perfect timing for HBT, with the group also celebrating its 25th anniversary as a thriving, independent hardware group.
“Our first stores started out in November 1997 when a group of 13 members got together at a pub in Canberra and decided they could run their businesses more efficiently by buying together. Today we are still very much the same group, just a lot bigger, growing by 170 stores in the last two years alone. HBT’s volume also grew to $600 million in the last 12 months as well, which is fantastic.”
“HBT’s primary focus is about supporting independents and independence – this is fundamental, while also ensuring members have the right products at the right prices so they can compete in their market. This is a critical component. It is not about the growth of the group, it is about the growth of members in the group and this is what we work towards every day,” Mr Benstead said.
Reflection on the past three years
When presenting his opening address, Mr Benstead said he was pleased to announce that over 210 HBT stores were present at the Queensland event.
“We had so many more stores who wanted to attend but, unfortunately, staffing issues prevented them from coming. We also have 152 suppliers attending our trade fair which is a big one. In attendance, we have 485 members, 440 reps totaling 925 people at this year’s event.”
Mr Benstead noted that a lot had happened since delegates were gathered in the same room, but the pandemic was not all doom and gloom with HBT’s sales reflecting some of the best growth ever achieved by the group.
“HBT’s sales grew 28 per cent in the first year of the pandemic, followed by a 16 per cent growth in the 20/21 financial year, with an overall growth of 51 per cent in sales between 2019 and 2021,” Mr Benstead announced.
HBT’s rebates were also much higher throughout this period which has been great for HBT members as well, he said.
“While our sales are impressive, I believe things might be a little bit different for our corporate friends because the pressure continues for them to give shareholder value to grow their bottom line. Ultimately, they are concerned about their shareholders, not their customers. There are only a few places they can source this money from which often includes their members, or from suppliers.”
Mr Benstead went on to applaud all suppliers who continued to support HBT in-store and also by attending conferences.
“We know the only way HBT can achieve brand rights is if suppliers are making money and they can then reinvest back into their brand with new product development. The merchandising support from our suppliers also allows HBT to compete in the marketplace. If they are doing well, they can help us to do well also.”
Mr Benstead explained that the ‘Back to the Future’ theme was implemented as a reflection on the past three years while also looking to the future which has its own set of opportunities and challenges.
“During the pandemic, hardware independents were so lucky to have the ability to stay open while people painted and renovated and we also had to learn how to serve them. We now understand that the pandemic has also fundamentally changed consumer behaviour with more people purchasing online than ever before,” he said.
“The way we serve customers has changed dramatically in recent years. One of the great things about independents is that we had the ability to be more nimble than the big guys and source what we needed from different suppliers. This also meant more people shopped with independents and hopefully they will stay. HBT’s mission is to give independents and suppliers the tools and support they need to survive and thrive because small business really is the backbone of local communities.”
Mr Benstead also pointed out the importance of members knowing the customer far better than their competitors, while also creating something unique and memorable with that interaction.
“If customers are receiving the same service from you they can get up the road, why would they bother coming back to you? You need to deliver an experience, not just a sale, by putting your own slant on things and letting them know that they can ring you up and you can get that urgent delivery to them when they call. Do what you can to make sure you are memorable in your community.”
“This could mean that you need to step outside your store, walk across the road and ask yourself why would you shop at this store. The basics of price, range and available stock are exactly that – the basics. Service, experience and exceeding expectations are essential – that is how you grow,” Mr Benstead said.
Action packed conference
While the three-year gap in-between conferences was a disappointment to HBT members, Mr Benstead said the delay in time only added to the air of excitement that was evident at every session held throughout the conference.
“As we gather at today’s business lunch, we will not only present the 2022 member and supplier awards, but we also have guest speaker Allan Pease or ‘Mr Body Language’ here who will teach practical techniques on how to communicate for results. Tonight’s welcome function at Sea World will include a dolphin show, dinner and side-show games for all. Tomorrow, HBT has numerous break-out business sessions which will give members an opportunity to talk individually about the categories that interest them, as well as HR, marketing and social media topics.”
“The final day will kick off with the trade show and finish at the Gold Coast’s famous Outback Spectacular show, where members will have the opportunity to win $15,000, $10,000 or $5,000 cash prizes. Members go in the draw by using the ticket they received at the trade fair or by making a purchase at the trade fair,” Mr Benstead said.
Every supplier that AHJ engaged with throughout the trade show event were enthusiastic and extremely pleased with the results from the show, saying the trade event was well planned out and the response from members was exceptional throughout the day.
HBT’s brand evolves
New branding for the HBT logo was also announced during the awards lunch, with HBT’s brand changing from ‘HBT – Hardware and Building Traders’ to ‘HBT – National Buying Group’.
The change was made to ensure the brand was more attuned to HBT’s identity as a national buying group, Mr Benstead explained to guests.
“HBT is no longer a group of hardware and building traders. We also have many rural and plumbing stores that may have felt that the branding did not mean much to their business. Having the brand stipulate HBT as a national buying group makes more sense. It also means members can use this brand at their store so the local consumer is aware the store is part of a buying group that allows them to have a great range and be competitive in their marketplace,” he said.
Throughout the year, HBT’s executive steering groups continued to plan for the future by investigating both local and global markets, with Mr Benstead saying that each steering group is now category specific to include those that specialise in certain areas of the industry so HBT can easily keep track of what is and is not working.
“HBT’s buying team has also expanded so we can gain better management of all categories. This became evident 18 months ago when we realised we were not talking to a significant number of suppliers. HBT now has the resources that does justice to the supplier category review meetings while also building relationships which is absolutely critical. We needed to find suppliers that worked well with HBT and wanted to work with independents as well,” he said.
HBT’s job moving forward is to ensure its members have all the tools they need for their business and are aware they have many options, particularly when it comes to stocking stores. But to do this information is key, Mr Benstead said, which is why HBT recently purchased a company that will bring all of the group’s IT in-house.
“Information is key when working with members and we need to make sure we stay ahead of this which is why we are in the middle of purchasing an IT company. The IT that we have been using for the past 15 years comes from the same company we are buying. Now HBT can put the resources in to continually develop this space and deliver as many online services to our members as possible. We want to control our own destiny and moving IT in-house is the best answer to this. HBT has also made substantial changes to the member’s portal so when members log onto the portal, they will only see the categories that are valid to them, instead of unnecessary categories,” he said.
In summary, HBT’s key plans for the next 12 months include improving the data and the integration of supply so there are no delays in invoices, launching the revamped member portal and maintaining its low-cost model, which Mr Benstead says is the key reason why the group continues to grow in such a competitive environment.
“HBT’s low-cost model is key to our business and this is also why so many independents want to know how we can do the whole rebate and sales collection process for them. It is worthwhile because it adds more volume to the group and we can get a better deal out of it for everyone.”
Looking to the future Mr Benstead said that while supply, pricing and staffing challenges remain, it was important to stick with what HBT does best by, “delivering great service, buying smarter by using deals, maintaining stock levels to maintain sales, maintaining current ranges and knowing what your competitors are doing.”
“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is in progress and working together is success – this is what Henry Ford said and this is our model. This is what HBT is all about. We have an extraordinary two years, so take the next few days to celebrate a return to normal and celebrate your businesses’ success throughout this time. Let’s make some plans to grow your business and get back to the business of looking forward to the future,” he said.
As the conference wrapped up, it became very clear to all who were involved that HBT was not allowing its fears to decide its future, but truly investing in their members’ businesses and those of their loyal suppliers as well.
HBT Member of the Year Awards 2022
Member of the Year – NSW: GRT Building Supplies
Based in Port Stephens, GRT Building Supplies has been a HBT member since 2017.
Member of the Year – VIC: PJ’s H Hardware & Timber
As a HBT member since 2001, PJ’s H Hardware & Timber is a great supporter of the group. Manager James Prime was unable to attend the conference after his father – and original owner of the store, Geoff Prime passed away.
Member of the Year – TAS: Wynyard H Hardware
Wynyard H Hardware owners, Wayne and Lesley have worked hard within the group and speak with the executive on a regular basis to offer their ideas. They supply to the builder, handyman and rural and are well-respected within their local community.
Member of the Year – SA: SA Building Supplies
Joining in 2017, SA Building Supplies is a specialist in trade stores and supplies to the roofing, carpentry and building industries, while also specialising in alloys. Store owner, Clint and the team have embraced the group and are now reaping the rewards.
Member of the Year – WA: Rudd Industrial & Farm Supplies
Providing products to the mining, transport, engineering and manufacturing sectors in both the building and agri-business, Rudd Industrial and Farm Suppliers continues to grow by using the power of the group to buy well, without decreasing the bottom line.
Member of the Year – QLD: A Wood Shed – Darra
HBT Supplier of the Year Awards 2022
2022 Supplier of the Year – Timber: Hume Doors & Timber
2022 Supplier of the Year – Industrial: PFERD Australia Pty Ltd.
2022 Supplier of the Year – Hardware & Building: Haymes Paint
2022 Supplier of the Year Rural & Garden: JAK Max
2022 Overall Supplier of the Year Under $10 million: CW Brands
2022 Overall Supplier of the Year Over $10 million: ITI Australia