Business: Williams Group Australia
Owners: Bruce Williams
Location: Gold Coast & Far North Coast of NSW
Buying Group: Natbuild
When James (Jim) Henry Williams first purchased a seed and produce business way back in April 1935 – upon his arrival to Australia from England – little did he know that his small business would one day grow into the outstanding Williams Group empire it is today.
The Williams Group currently boasts 13 successful businesses, including eight building supply stores, two frame and truss plants, a CRT rural store (Town & Country) and a brick display centre, with the businesses spanning across the timber and hardware, garden, paint, bricks, plumbing and animal supply sectors.
While James spent many years building up his seed and produce business initially, it was in 1953 that the company changed substantially when James’ sons, Harry and Earle, took over the business and brought it to life as JH Williams & Sons Pty Ltd.
In 1970 Earle’s son Bruce joined the group after it had grown to include a hardware store, BP fuel depot at Tweed Heads South, BP Murwillumbah, fresh produce packing house and rural produce divisions. In 1986 the company sold its produce, rural divisions and fuel supply divisions so Harry and Earle could focus more on the core business, which was to supply the building industry, of which over half of the group’s sites are today.
Even though the Williams Group has grown and evolved substantially for nearly eight decades, it has never strayed from the original concept of being a family business working for the community with integrity and honesty.
As General Manager of the group, Lyndon Poirrier says the evolution of the business over time is nothing short of incredible considering how vast and diverse it is today.
“Just the other day our Managing Director, Bruce Williams said that if his father and uncle were alive today to see how far the company has come, they simply would not believe it. The evolution of the business throughout its expansive history is mind blowing. We are basically an agricultural business that morphed into a fuel company that morphed into hardware stores.”
“We still also export a lot of products overseas via our international seed division including agricultural seed and grain that we trade internationally and we export to over 60 countries every year. It is just another part of the business which really is so diverse. We are so very proud of our long history of exporting products around the world including countries such as Réunion, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan, the USA, India, Kenya, France and Malaysia, to name a few,” Lyndon said.
Building supply expertise
Becoming a building supplies dominant business was never part of the big picture, according to Lyndon who said that the group “morphed into hardware quite by accident back in the 1950s and the business has gone from there.”
“We have made some pretty positive acquisitions along the way including the purchase of Southport Timbers about 18 years ago. Incredibly this business was established in 1876, so we really do have some serious history in the business.”
“We also bought Hurford’s Hardware, located in Ballina and Lismore, and Casino Frames and Trusses. More recently we expanded the group again with the opening of Williams Building Supplies in South Grafton. We are always looking to acquire and grow the business,” he said.
Although the group has experienced some substantial wins, it has not always been smooth sailing with the Williams Group having to overcome some major obstacles including a “one in one-hundred-year flood” that totally destroyed the Williams Timber and Truss Plant in Murwillumbah in 2017.
“We completely lost our frame and truss plant when it went under three metres of water. The Williams Timber and Truss Plant is a stand-alone site that has since been rebuilt and thankfully has regained much of the business we lost during the rebuild since then. It was an extremely stressful time for the local area and community. It affected all our stores in Murwillumbah but the resilience of all our staff and the support of the local community has helped us back to the place we are today,” Lyndon said.
The heavily trade focused Williams Group now sits at about 75 per cent trade and 25 per cent DIY, which Lyndon attributes to the growth of building projects within the local area as well as the substantial demand in the construction sector in the last two years.
“It seems that the construction sector is on steroids at present. If we could get all the timber we wanted, God only knows what sort of business we would be doing. I think we may see a lift in timber supply in the first quarter of next year because there are some decent logs going into the mills now. In saying this, we have seen significant upward pricing pressure on timber (and other product segments) due to supply shortages locally and worldwide over the last six months and this will continue through to the first quarter next year.”
“We have also seen an upsurge in our DIY retail during COVID because we sell across the whole of house spectrum from garden hoses, to pool chemicals and plants, to garden tools. The retail component has been strong during this time,” Lyndon said.
Also incorporated throughout all four of the group’s hardware stores are market leading plumbing showrooms showcasing leading brands from around the globe. According to Lyndon, being a part of the Plumbing Plus and Natbuild groups ensures the Williams Group maintains a high level of competitiveness within this sphere.
Stand out Murwillumbah store
With roots dating back to the 1970’s, Williams Building Supplies in Murwillumbah is one of the stand out stores of the group. As a separate site to the Williams Timber and Truss Plant in town, the retail store has continued to thrive within the local community under its 4000 square metres of roofline.
“We have a few large box stores throughout the group including the one at Murwillumbah, one at Ballina and one at Southport and another nine smaller stores. When the floods came through, the building supplies store also went under about a metre of water, including all the way through the bays and the gondolas as well as throughout the timber and hardware racks. So, we had to dismantle the shop and sweep all of the mud out and start again,” Lyndon said.
“The store was quite functional as it was, but, after it was flooded it gave us the opportunity to give it a really good spring clean. We did not have to change much – we moved a couple of counters around and changed the way some of the gondolas or shelving ran, but pretty much we put it back the way it was with a few niceties that we did not have in it before, such as expanded mezzanine space to ensure we could get more product elevated in case of another event.”
“I believe the offer out of our Murwillumbah Building Supply is enhanced by the number of delivery vehicles we have operating from there that enable us to service the local community and surrounding areas on a daily basis, thus ensuring we are meeting the demands of our extremely busy customers. We have a large group of loyal customers who continue to utilise our experienced staff and comprehensive offer and enable us to continue to grow. Being local is a distinct advantage and some client/staff relationships span throughout the decades which is amazing,” he said.
The Williams Group continues to upgrade its sites particularly through the use of visual imaging, like signage, or electronic media including TV screens around the branch that are utilised to assist stores with the marketing and promotion of brands.
“We now have screens located throughout every store which assists in promoting the local trades or anyone who wishes to utilize the screens for advertising. We also recently upgraded the South Grafton store which included the implementation of new hardstand areas and the addition of a storage facility as the branch had outgrown its original 2000 square metre facility,” Lyndon said.
While the improvement is expected to maintain safety standards throughout the site, it will also ensure a smoother daily operational platform to work and grow from according to Lyndon, who said upgrades are essential in ensuring the business continues to improve and evolve.
“We are also really big on introducing new products into the stores and taking these to our clients on a regular basis. Anything new that comes onto the market we try to bolt onto our ‘whole of house’ offer. Training is so important but the speed at which a market changes and moves is key to keeping your business successful. You have got to be nimble and very quick to adapt.”
“This is one of the beauties of our business in that we are able to make decisions very quickly and we do not get bogged down with corporate paperwork. We can make a decision in real time and act upon it whereas some of our competitors might take a longer period to implement changes in-store or even in the field. We have a very flat executive structure from our managing director down, and this factor is a massive plus for our business when a decision is required,” he said.
Local competition and Natbuild
With a footprint in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales and South-East Queensland, the Williams Group is certainly up against its fair share of competition including a big box in almost every town. But this does not seem to faze the team as the group believes building up a good business is all about working closely with the Natbuild group to establish loyalty with its trade customers.
“We remain competitive because we do have the opportunity of buying very well through the Natbuild buying group. We have some fairly large players in the Natbuild stable. Our buying group is very strong and enables us to be very competitive when it comes to pricing. Our nimbleness combined with our number of outlets and delivery fleet allow us to respond to most customer needs more quickly. This is so important in the current market because it is very difficult to appease everyone at the same time. We believe this is what sets us apart from our competitors and what we constantly strive for,” Lyndon said.
As one of the original Natbuild stores, the businesses have a close history, with current Natbuild General Manager Peter Way, being the former General Manager of the Williams Group.
“Natbuild is a great asset to our business in several ways including running promotions alongside the utilisation of staff learning modules. This encourages staff to log on at any time and acquire points and knowledge, and also to go in the running to win things such as gift vouchers or trips. We also have campaigns for our customers, in conjunction with our sales people and our valued suppliers, to grow particular product lines or categories within our business.
Those who grow the most can win prizes such as an interstate or international trip, cars or caravans etc. We are also an original founding member of CRT (Town & Country) so we go back to whenever they started as well, which may have been in the 1960s,” Lyndon said.
The neighbouring areas of the group’s footprint is diverse with the stores surrounded by wealthy residential estates alongside plenty of agriculture, as well as small acreage farmers.
“It is an expensive area here in the Tweed Valley. While there are high end properties in the area, we are also surrounded by cane farms that are gradually being sold off to make way for residential land. The city is definitely moving to the bush around here if you like. While there are a lot of high-end mansions on the Tweed Coast side, we also have the bush on the Tweed Valley side, which is sensational agricultural and horticultural land,” Lyndon said.
For now, Lyndon said the team plans to utilise its 2,022 collective years of industry experience within the company – across its 230 staff – to remain diverse and open minded so they can evolve the Williams Group for another 80 years.
“This really is one of the best companies I have ever worked for because we have such a wonderful family that owns it – a beautiful Australian 100 per cent family-owned business and we all respect that. We have got people here who came straight out of school and they have been here for 45-50 years. We are family owned and we treat everyone like family which is really important,” he said.
Despite the Williams Group’s outstanding success and growth over the years, Lyndon said the business will continue to move forward as it investigates the possibility of acquisitions of building supplies businesses throughout the area.
“I do expect that we may try to move a little further south, past Grafton because it is just too expensive to buy back towards Brisbane. We will look for smaller places for now. There are so many people moving for a sea change – or a tree change – out of the big cities, especially in the last couple of years, the migration has been incredible.”
“There is also is a lot of land being opened up from South West Rocks to the south all the way up to where we are based and beyond. If this is an indication of how many they are expecting to move up here, we could be in for some serious growth in the next five to ten years.”