When Rainbow Thrifty-Link store owner Ron Ismay began working at the store aged just 16, he never would have believed he would still be running the store at the age of 70. After decades of hard work, today Ron has much to celebrate with the store celebrating 100 years of business success this year.
As a teenager, Ron had big dreams of becoming a builder when he left school. But when the 1967 drought hit Victoria’s rural properties and farms, the building industry struggled and Ron decided to help his grandfather, Tom, operate the hardware store instead.
“My grandfather and his father were both builders when they came to Australia at the turn of the century. My grandfather went on to serve in World War I but when he came home, he established the store in 1923. He employed up to 15 men before the drought.”
“My grandmother Vera also worked very hard in the business while looking after the family and myself after my mother passed away in the 1970s. My dad, Dudley, did not really enter the business as a partner, until later in life. When my grandmother decided to retire, and Dad also stepped aside, I bought them both out and took over the business,” Ron said.
The store was originally established by Ron’s grandfather in a much smaller building in Railway Street, Rainbow, with the town located about 400 kilometres northwest of Melbourne.
Ron then relocated the business to a much larger site and store of around 500 square metres in 1985. The new site features a substantial shed at the rear of the store measuring 45 metres long and 30 metres wide, which was also originally used to store over 4000 tonnes of grain.
“We used the shed to store grain for some time, but it has since been transformed into an area we now use for engineering and spray painting. These are two side businesses I have developed over the years in addition to the hardware business. The sandblasting service first started out as a hobby of mine in 1978 but has since grown into a healthy side business. I have also installed a large paint booth in the shed, so I am well set up to paint semi-trailers, tippers and farming machinery,” he said.
An extensive engineering facility has also been implemented at the rear shed which includes a sheet metal guillotine and folder, punching shears and bandsaw, and a variety of engineering equipment. Ron used much of the equipment to make one-tonne ute trays for a car dealer in Horsham. Above the store, Ron also operates a wide format sign business where he develops a lot of signage for surrounding businesses.
“Rainbow only has a population of 600 people, so it is difficult to run a successful hardware store selling just hardware. I have diversified a lot from the original hardware store to survive but I have enjoyed doing it as well. I always wanted to be a builder and I guess I have done this in a lot of other ways through the sandblasting and engineering business. The work is spasmodic so it is hard to find staff that could take over this sort of work for me, but I love doing it,” he said.
When Ron first bought the larger store in 1985, the building was over 80 years old and was in disarray structurally due to a severe white ant infestation that had destroyed much of the building.
“The entire floor needed to be replaced as well as two walls which I have rebuilt over time. I have nearly rebuilt the whole shop and I have recently revamped the store again with new floor coverings and new shop fittings. The place is looking brand new.”
Today the store caters to 80 per cent DIY and 20 per cent trade customers, with local builders primarily undertaking renovation work rather than building new homes in the local area. The majority of the store’s customers are farmers and locals completing their own DIY projects.
“I am well supported by the local farming community within a radius of about 30 kilometres. Rainbow is a dryland, or no irrigation, farming area. Harvests have been above average in the past few years and the local economy is doing well. The town of Rainbow is flourishing, with more people moving into the area in recent years, and house values have risen as a result.”
“Ten years ago, I would not have considered renovating the store because the town was not going anywhere. Now all the house prices are going up and people are moving into the town. And a lot of these people use the store to conduct renovations and the business is viable again,” Ron said.
Although there is no local competition in town, there are several larger towns located within 100-kilometre radius. Even though the competition is located some distance away, Ron admits that he still does lose some business to them. Being remote and 75 kilometres off the major highways is a huge challenge, and freight is a constant battle, he said.
Today Thrifty-Link Rainbow is not only well-known for its outstanding customer service and innovative side-businesses, but Ron is also well-known for his dedication and service to the local community over many years.
“I have always been involved in the local community in some way whether it be the fire brigade or the school. I am one of the shire Councillors, I served as Mayor three times and I used to be heavily involved in the footy club. I believe that people support me because of my dedication and interest in the local community.”
Today the store’s stand-out departments include gardening and paint, but Ron believes there are several other arms of the business that continue to thrive as well.
“I still sell a lot of steel and timber and I have the equipment out the back where I can fold sheet metal and make flashing for sheds. I also weld where I must. The areas I have diversified into have certainly helped the business.”
Future improvements to the store include banner changes as the business transfers from a Thrifty-Link to Home Hardware in the New Year. Ron said the store’s future is all about fine-tuning the business as well as constantly renovating and expanding the store’s popular garden area.
“My son, Thomas, is currently undertaking a plumbing apprenticeship. He could take over if he was so inclined or we could lease out the workshop one day and find a young engineer who might be interested in managing this part of the store. Eventually, I know I will have to step down as I get older as I have a few ailments from all of the physical work I did at the store when I was younger.”
“Back in the day we used to lug 40-kilogram bags of cement, 10 or 12 tonnes at a time and shovelled stone and sand. When customers came in for a cubic yard of stone or sand, we shovelled it by hand. There were no forklifts or front-end loaders, everything was done manually so I am paying for that now. While my mobility may decrease, I am happy to run the business for now and take it day-by-day. My hope is that it will still be standing in another 100-years from now,” Ron concluded.