Industrial store evolves from heavy-duty mechanical shop 

by | Feb 23, 2024

A heavy-duty mechanical workshop located in the outback town of Merredin in Western Australia, has become the unlikely location of a thriving industrial and hardware store. 

Business: Ross’s Diesel Service
Operators: Ross, Luke and Kane Swarts
Location: Merredin, Western Australia
Buying Group: Construction Supply Specialists (CSS)

For over 30 years, the heavy-duty diesel workshop has repaired and maintained local truck and farming equipment for the Merredin community, located 250 kilometres east of Perth. After many years in the business, workshop founder Ross Swarts invited his two sons, Luke and Kane, to work alongside him in the business after they became qualified mechanics. 

For over 30 years the workshop had just two shelves of nuts and bolts for customers to purchase as spares. But ten years ago the entire business changed for the better when Luke was given the opportunity to grow the retail business not only into a successful store, but a thriving destination for local trades and DIYers.

“I was probably on the tools for eight years when I broke my leg badly playing local football. I did not realise it at the time, but the injury meant I could not walk for 12 months. It all turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” Luke said.

“It was a long recovery so Dad said I could sit at the front of the shop and order parts in for the jobs. At the time we held two shelves of stock and we sold probably $5,000 to $10,000 over the counter per year if that.”

“As I began dealing with customers and suppliers, I asked them if there was anything else that they needed from us. I began ordering more stock and as it grew, I started selling more. I then spoke with the reps when they came in and haggled them for the best price so I could stock more range,” he said.

Luke also began conducting research on what his father had ordered in the past and he began to ring suppliers to source better quality parts as well as better pricing. It was not long before the shop grew substantially and it was decided that this would be Luke’s role on a permanent basis.

“The retail side of the business became so big and so busy that I built the business to an annual turnover of $50,000, then to $150,000. The next minute it was close to one million, with the highest turnover being $4.5 million.”

“I also took on six new staff members to help with the store. The business grew because I made sure I was ordering in products that people wanted to buy. I chased down the right suppliers, organised freight, and stocked the shelves. I also drew from my own experience when shopping in town. The stock just was not available locally and often I would have to order parts in six months in advance just so I knew it was there.”

“Local shops did not hold a lot of stock because they were worried about cash flow. Stock is king. I learned very quickly that if I did not have it, I could not sell it, which is why I always make sure we are so well stocked,” he said.

As the business grew, substantial changes were made in-store. Initially, a small shop area was created when a false wall was installed that took up about a quarter of the workshop. As the store grew the wall was taken down and moved to double the size of the store.

“I had so much stock that I wanted to put on display and I really needed the room. I transformed a 27 metre by nine metre carport into a shed so I could have more stock in there and I filled that up very quickly. After I stole a few more bays of the workshop, I went on to build an entirely new workshop for my dad because I had taken over so much of his space for the shop,” he said.

Stocking big brands

Today the store is very different from its humble beginnings of just two shelves of stock, with local DIYers visiting the store for inspiration and builders using the store to purchase tooling and hardware.

“I now have a lot of builders come in because the local stores do not stock what I have. Tooling is one of the shop’s biggest sellers including hand tools, power tools and drill bits.”

Luke says that bringing the Milwaukee brand on board was also one of his biggest wins particularly when there is not much in town that would make a customer walk in to a shop and say, ‘I really want that!’

“I chased Milwaukee to open an account for me for over two years and never heard back from them. One day I was taken to the V8 supercars by one of my suppliers and on the way back I saw a Milwaukee car drive past. So I followed the Milwaukee rep when he parked in Total Tools and I spoke with him personally. He turned out to be an outstanding rep, and he promised to come and see me.”

The store now holds over 300 SKUs of Milwaukee products.

“He visited a month later and agreed to open an account. It was quite a big outlay to begin with but we had to ensure we had all the right stock. I now have 300 plus SKUs of Milwaukee and my customers often tell me that I have more Milwaukee in my store than the whole of Perth. In the end, I just sell what people want to buy,” he said.

The store not only now stocks a wide range of power tools, but also spare parts, auto-electrical, abrasives, lighting, oils, safety equipment and welding supplies.

Local area

Today Ross’s Diesel Service customer base is very diverse simply because the local community of Merredin is so varied.

“The town is located at the centre of the wheat belt with a population of around 3000 people. Although the store does service the local farming community, it also services a lot of the government entities including Water Corp and Western Powers, as well as transport industries who work in the area as well.” 

“While we do have a lot of farmers, we also have a lot of business owners too who are in building and construction, along with mechanics and engineers who purchase a lot of their tools from us. We have a lot of DIYers coming in because our shop is so diverse, and people just love to come in and browse. A lot of people came in before Christmas to buy gifts as well. I know how important it is to make the sales when people walk into the shop otherwise they will go and order it online,” he said.

Construction Supply Specialists (CSS)

Although Luke was the main driver of the business, CSS held a big part in taking the business to a whole new direction and diversifying the business from trucking parts to all manner of tools.

“CSS are always looking at ways to grow our businesses and benefit us. They make sure they grow the business the way you want to. They never tell you what to do, they are just there as a business partner and they are always there to help.”

“When I was looking for a buying group, I spoke with former CSS Managing Director Jeff Wellard, and I explained that I wanted to grow my shop. I could not believe Jeff travelled all the way out in the desert to see me. We talked about how I wanted to grow the business from nothing.”

“After I joined CSS, the opportunities just came about with people wanting to talk to me and deal with my store, whereas before I found it so difficult to get accounts. When you have CSS behind you people in the industry want to deal with you a lot more,” Luke said.

Store owners Luke with his father Ross who established the workshop over 30 years ago.

Looking to the future Luke said he does love the store and running the business is a far cry from his days as a mechanic.

“There are always challenges when running the business but as long as I listen to what the customers want and make sure I have plenty of stock for them to browse through, I believe the store will continue to grow and serve the local community which is what is most important,” Luke said.