C&L Tool Centre 50 years in the making

Store name: C&L Tool Centre
Store owners: Vince Zenoni, George Brindell and Geoff Woodward
Buying group: CSS (Construction Supply Specialists)

Established 50 years ago this year, C&L Tool Centre in Brisbane attributes its longevity to continually evolving its business by moving with the times.

Established in 1969, C&L Tool Centre was initially developed by former electrician, Harry Linari, with current store owner, Vince Zenoni, beginning work at the store in 1971, when the store changed its name from C&L Electrical to C&L Power Tools. 

C&L Tool Centre was established beneath a house in Albion, in 1969.

Vince joined the business in 1972 after leaving school, and has been with the store for an incredible 47 years.

“There is never a dull moment in this business, particularly because we are in the service industry. Initially I started at the business doing repairs in-store for about 10 years, before moving into sales,” Vince said.

After working at the store for over 30 years, Vince eventually went on to buy the business from Harry when he retired in 2003. Vince also brought on two partners who had also been working in the store for some time: Geoff Woodward who had worked in customer service within the business for 40 years, and George Brindell, who had already worked in the store for 27 years, before assisting George and Vince in building up the welding and engineering side of the business.

The trio recently celebrated over 16 years of partnership, proudly boasting a combined service history of over 113 years, with all being witness to an abundance of growth and change in the business over time.

Growing and evolving over the years

It is 50 years, this year, since C&L Tool Centre was established beneath a house in Albion. The business was relocated within five years, in 1974, after the home-based store was flooded in the great Brisbane floods.

“This was when we moved into our own shop about three kilometres down the road at Albion, with five staff on board. Sixteen years later, in 1990, we knocked down this 300 square metre building and built our own purpose-built building which was 600 square metres.”

The biggest changes came in 1999, when plans for a new freeway was approved to be built directly where the store was located. The business was forced to relocate again to a 1000 square metre purpose-built store, in Hendra, with 12 staff on board.

It was also during this time that the business had achieved major progressions in its customer offer, having been one of the first businesses in Queensland to transition from power tools to compressors and air tools, which no other retailer offered in the area, according to Vince.

“Initially we were more of a retail/trade store, which is why we decided to also develop the business into welding and engineering. It was then that George set up this side of the business with a focus on industrial tools.”

“It was also around this time that we became a one stop shop with power-tools, hand tools, welding and air tools. Today we carry a full range of stock because we believe that we either do things properly the first time or we don’t do it at all. There are not too many stores in Queensland that have the full range of products in stock, that we have,” Vince said.

However, the expansions and developments to the business were far from over, with the business moving once again to a 2,700 square metre purpose built store in Banyo –  just five years ago.

In the business of serving 

C&L Tool Owners, George, Geoff and Vince share over 113 years of service history combined.

Today C&L Tool Centre has 27 staff on board, with the store now 80 per cent account based and 20 per cent retail.

In saying this, the store still sells to the general public, “so you can class us as a wholesale, retail, trade and industrial store,” Vince said.

When considering how long the business has lasted and how much success it has had over the years, Vince says his secret to business success is remaining diverse.  

“You can’t have all your eggs in one basket. You really need to keep moving with the times. I know many independent hardware retailers who run their business the exact same way they did 20 years ago. In those days, changes to a business usually occurred every five years or so but today, changes need to be implemented yearly because of ongoing competition from the Internet. It is hard work these days.”

C&L Tool Centre is classed as a wholesale, retail, trade and industrial store, all in one.

“Our strength is the fact that we focus on the industrial trade and we have an account base. We are also diverse which means if the retail part of the business slows, then we have other avenues we can channel into and build our business. I think for this reason, we are still growing – even today,” Vince said.

The commercial industrial sector of the business builds from its local mining industry customer base, including road, building and construction projects, work from the utility industry as well as local government, council and educational projects.

“All of our business is backed up by good service. We could not rely primarily on retail here because we are not a cash and carry store. The majority of staff that work here have worked for the company for over five, 10, 20 years. Our staff don’t leave because we treat our staff as family, and they are very valuable to us.”

“We also believe that the knowledge that comes from our staff is very valuable to the business. We do not focus on one thing. For example we have 115,000 mine lines in the shop, so it is important to have the knowledge to back this up,” Vince said.

Industry competition

While there are Bunnings, Total Tools and TradeTools stores in the local area, Vince says these are more cash and carry based stores.

C&L Tools has a specialised offer including a significant online store.

“I believe we have more experience in our staff than these stores, because they have such a wide range of product knowledge and they have all been in the industry for such a long time. We are also more focussed on service and the knowledge behind the products because we believe if you sell the right product for the right job, you never have a problem,” he said.

One aspect of the business Vince believes was crucial in developing the business was the implementation of online shopping.

“We have really jumped on board and embraced the internet, and now we have five people working on our internet sales alone. This has opened a lot more avenues for us including ongoing sales from overseas, with some of our customers now from Russia, Vietnam, New Guinea, Singapore, and Mongolia,” he said.

“We have also completed a lot of work with our search engines to make sure we attract the right customers online. We have had to learn all of this as well as employ particular staff that have IT experience. By doing this we have revolutionised our sales by bringing more people to the store.”

“I have tried to help retailers in the group who have been in the industry for a long time, and most of those who have had to shut their doors are the ones that did not embrace the internet. Some retailers really don’t want to change the way they run their store, but these are often the retailers who risk going out of business,” Vince said.

Trading with CSS

Having only joined with CSS in July 2017, Vince said he has already found CSS to be the most responsive group and the most aligned business for his store.

“It is very hard to duplicate what we do as we are very specialised. Even though we are a single store that does a large turn over with a lot of suppliers, I still found that we needed to come under an umbrella of a group. We call it protection. We are also found by joining a group, we are better channel managed through key account managers.”

The future of the store is reliant on customers seeing the benefit of buying locally and enjoying one on one advice.

“Although we are still classed as an independent, sometimes we can be overlooked by suppliers. Therefore, by joining CSS, we have better channel management. We looked at other groups but CSS has a very good, responsive team with Jeff Wellard and Paul Davy. By joining CSS we felt that we are more protected and have more recognition, rather than trading as an independent,” Vince said.

Unsettled year ahead

Looking ahead to the next five or 10 years, Vince says he feels a little wary of what may pan out, particularly with online retailing becoming so prevalent.

“I believe that consumers are changing the way they choose to shop. You still have those customers who want to visit a store and try out products, but in saying that, it does cost a lot of money to run a store and employ people,” he said.

“On the other hand, people have no hesitation going somewhere else if they find it cheaper. Across the industry, not just ours, I often wonder where the retail industry is going in the future. To me that comes down to people’s choice. They might come to us, get the advice, see the product, then go on Amazon, and purchase the product, where the money goes overseas. More and more stores are closing down because of this,” he said.

Looking into the future, Vince remains hopeful that customers will continue to see the benefits of buying locally and enjoying one-on-one advice so they purchase the correct product initially, as well receiving follow up support when required.