Doncaster Blue Bloods
90 years of experience means something
A close up of the multi zone use where Doncaster Mitre 10 is located
A close up of the multi zone use where Doncaster Mitre 10 is located
 
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As he prepares to hand over to the fourth generation, Ian Cornwell reflects on how far hardware has come over the past 50 years
HNN Sources
It takes about five seconds looking at the planning map for the area surrounding Ian Cornwell's Doncaster Mitre 10 to realise that Ian is a brilliant man.

The online mapping software supplied by the Victorian government shows a sea of red shading, surrounding a small triangle of dark green, with the designation "MZU". MZU stands for "multi-zone use". And the red shading that surrounds it for dozens of kilometres on all sides? That's standard residential zoning.

It is also one of Melbourne's more prestigious suburban areas, with an average dwelling price that has now crept up over $1,300,000. It's just barely in the "golden zone": under half an hour's commute by car to the Melbourne CBD, an hour by public transport, or 75 minutes on a bike. The main wave of building, replacing orchards with big, spreading residences, took place in the 1970s and 1980s, though a second wave of building, at greater density, has been sweeping through since 2010.

And that MZU triangle? That's where Doncaster Mitre 10 is located. If having its own special zoning designation is not enough, the store is also positioned along a major transit route, Anderson's Creek Road, and next door, sharing the same lot, is a heavy building materials business, with big trucks moving in and out carrying loads of sand and other heavy goods throughout the day.

It is a store location and position to truly be envied. There is not only the new building of apartments, but also a steady upgrading of existing homes, some renovation, some tear-down and replace. Added to that, as the population trends upwards, are infrastructure projects for schools, care facilities and council buildings. It would have looked pretty good 20 years ago, when Ian first took over the property in 1997. Today it looks simply terrific.
Origins

As you might expect, this good a situation did not happen all by itself. It really traces its origins all the way back to 1928, and over the three past generations of the Cornwell's history in hardware retail.

It's also a bit more than that family history, of course. The Cornwell family was an early convert to the Mitre 10 cause. Even though there has been some change of circumstances in the group - moving from the original independent group, to the acquisition by Metcash, and now the addition of the Home Timber & Hardware Group (HTH) - retailers of Ian's generation see loyalty to Mitre 10 as an important ingredient to their success. In fact, Ian used an expression that is not heard that often nowadays, calling himself a "blue blood", one of those dedicated to Mitre 10 through and through.

The other strong influence on the business has been the Cornwell family's efforts to assist in broader movements in the hardware industry. Ian's father was involved with the forming of the original Hardware Federation back in the 1950s (and Ian still has copies of the minutes from that group's meetings). Ian himself started to get involved, concentrating on the associations for independent retailers, in the 1990s. Since then he has served in senior positions with Hardware Australia, including as chairman.

This understanding that independents need to present a united front might be the result of a long history in an industry that has gone through some tough times. Cornwell's Paint Shop opened at 460 Sydney Road, Brunswick, in inner Melbourne, Victoria in 1928. Which was, on reflection, not the best year to choose to start a new enterprise. When the Great Depression came to Australia, most businesses were reduced to doing whatever they could just to keep going.
The Brunswick store, it started off as a paint shop. That was back in the late 1920s. The depression hit, and I remember that my Dad would just go around and simply look for stock that he could sell. That's what happens.
That business then evolved from paint and wallpaper into selling pots and pans, potties, anything that they could sell. They continued really to evolve the store, you know, Mum and Dad. Because they were in what is largely an Italian area, they moved into Italian glassware, all that sort of thing.

Ian himself joined the hardware business full-time shortly after he graduated from LaTrobe University with a degree in chemistry in 1979. After a talk with his father, he decided he would give working in the family store a trial for six months or so, then they would assess the situation. They never got around to assessing the situation, and 37 years later Ian is still working at the family business.
The Doncaster store

The first attempt at finding a second location did not work well, with a potential deal for a store along Doncaster Road falling through (it later became a Mercedes Benz dealership). At least, though, Ian's attention had been shifted to the Doncaster area, and the location along Anderson's Creek Road came to his attention. The only problem was that, at that time, the location was being used as a nursery.
There was a full-blown nursery here. They used to operate a nursery on the side, and on the bottom [down the slope of land on the site], the original owners operated a sand and soil company that is still running next-door. As you may know, a nursery can actually operate on residential land.

What happened next is what one assumes often happens when Ian gets involved: what might seem an insurmountable obstacle turns out to be more flexible than imagined.
When we first moved in, we sort of took over the site as though we were a nursery. Then we went to the area council with a zone change request, and the owner did not object, which was really nice, so we were able to get the zoning change to a mixed use zone. I would have to say, that probably the landlord was not exactly entirely aware of what was going on. It was a change from a premium classification down to a lesser one, and not many people would've gone along with that.
But we got away with it. And that change meant that we could then trade as a hardware, because a hardware store technically cannot trade in a residentially zoned area.
So that's why this Mitre 10 store could be established on what was once a residential location.

The site was selected not just because it was situated in the midst of a residential area. Ian was also applying knowledge he had picked up on overseas study trips.
The reason I thought the site would work, was very much due to a conclusion I'd reached when we had gone on trips overseas, and had seen The Home Depot chain in the US. A bit over 20 years ago when I first went there, they were saying that Ace Hardware could survive where there were satellite stores. What they meant was that you had Home Depot stores sort of sitting in the middle, then you had an independent store here, and an independent store there, "orbiting" the Home Depot store. So in our location here we are sort of on a feeder route that runs through to Warrandyte and onto the Bunnings in Nunawading. 
The thing is, basically people stop at different points to save different amounts of money - if that makes any sense. Some people will drive all the way to Bunnings just to save 20 cents, other people will only drive to Bunnings if they can save $100. You pick off different people at different distances depending on their circumstances, and what they're looking for. The position of the store was right to maximise some of that traffic.

Of course, like most savvy, independent retailers in Australia today, he keeps a careful, watchful eye on what Bunnings is up to, and how it is going to affect his future. With good reason: what finally put an end to the long-running Brunswick store was the opening of a smaller format Bunnings, virtually right across the street.

The current location is more protected from competition, again because of the unique zoning situation.
We are lucky enough, because of what's around, that it is difficult for Bunnings to get in, or John Bowen to get in, or any of the rest. So that means not having to compete with too many retail hardware sites, as we are protected from others moving in to the immediate area.

Though, of course, no independent is every entirely in the clear.
Having said that, Bunnings is going to put a store in nearby at Westfield shopping centre. Which will be interesting, you know, they are a competitor wherever they go, but, perhaps naïvely, I don't think it's going to have all that much of an effect.
It did have an effect on the Sydney Rd, Brunswick store, because the businesses were so similar. But our model here at Doncaster of being more trade-oriented, that's something where they would struggle to compete with us. Even with that new site it would be a place where it would be awkward for tradies to get in. With the store integrating apartments, the need for parking for those apartments, and the traffic that gets created, it's likely that Saturday mornings are going to be very interesting, for example.
Succession

One thing that becomes clear in speaking with Ian is that, being a third-generation hardware retailer himself, he really understands some important things about family success in retail. He himself knew that, as much as he respected their legacy, he didn't want to do exactly what his parents had done.
The reason I wanted to expand the old store at Brunswick was that I didn't want to spend all my time just serving behind the counter. Not that there's anything wrong with that, there are lots of people who do that and are happy. But I didn't want to just do that myself.
My role totally changed, once we grew bigger, and the job became managing two stores, and whatever. So you become more about being a people manager, and get more involved in more strategic stuff, and that sort of thing. That's more of what I enjoy, so it is a welcome development.
That is especially so with running two stores, and it's only been since November 2017 that we shut Brunswick down. At the same time the store at Doncaster has just been growing, and growing. We used to say that every $1 we spent at Doncaster would return $10, while every $1 we spent in Brunswick would return something like $1.50. So, Doncaster, this was the store for the grandchildren.

An important key not just to succession, to to keeping going in retail, is being able to get your head around the need to change, Ian says.
Retail really is about shifting. You have to enjoy what you're doing. But you also have to be prepared to change in retail. And I guess every business has to do it. You know milkbars have come and gone and instead we have convenience stores, the taxi industry with Uber is another prime example. Business has to alter because of competitors coming into the market.
The thing is that years ago if I told my father that the eighth-inch drillbit was not going to be the biggest selling item that you had in your hardware store, he would have thought I was crazy. You know there are these things that are called self drilling screws now, you don't really need drill bits? Everything changes in the end. So you can't let yourself get into a deadlock, all those products that you're selling now and that you think you will be selling in five years time, the reality turns out to be totally different.
The move to trade

As it turned out, one of the keys to Ian securing family succession at Doncaster Mitre 10 was making a big change, from being consumer-focussed to being trade-focussed. It was through trade that Ian's son, Matt Cornwell, become involved in the business as a manager.

The Brunswick Street store remained dedicated to consumer retail throughout its history, up until it finally closed in November 2017. While the Doncaster Mitre 10 store started out with a focus on consumer, it moved to trade around 2007.
The business was certainly very retail to start with. We took over the nursery, and we kept running it as a nursery, until we put hardware in. But as time has gone on, we've moved further away from the nursery as you can see. Instead, trade in timber has taken over more of the business, and the mix of the business has totally changed. All that happened just through necessity, I guess.
When we started trade it was really sort of out of the back shed, though we had a good trade manager at the time. He had applied for a job at the Brunswick store. He had been out of industry for a while, and at the time I said, "Not really a place for you at Brunswick, but we're thinking about doing timber at Doncaster, is it too far to drive?" He used to live out near Tullamarine [Airport] on the other side of Melbourne.
He was great. He didn't mind the travel, he just started at 7:00am and drove all the way across.
So he got us up and running, because, you know, trade is not actually my background. There are different types of hardware retailers, you have some who have a hardware background that's mostly pots and pans, others who have a timber background. I was more the pots and pans background, I guess. That was because of growing up with the store at Sydney Road in Brunswick, which which is more of a traditional store. So I needed somebody from the trade side, and this guy was good at that.

Not that things started running smoothly just because the Doncaster store had a good trade business manager.
So in the early days, people would ring up and say "I need a pack of flooring", or this and that, and we would tell them "yeah not a problem," then we'd get off the phone and say, "Okay now how the heck are we going to get that?" That was just how it started, you know, you never say no!

Meanwhile, Matt had started working at the store in 2008, and he began working in the trade area. It was a situation that suited both Matt and Ian.
Timber is also complex, and it is not a forte of mine. So, Matt was lucky enough to learn under this guy, he was a good manager, and a good role model for him. That manager decided to move on, I guess maybe five years ago, at which time Matt would of been around 25 years old, so I asked him "So, do you want to have a crack at managing trade yourself?" And he right away said, "Yep."

This is an abridged and shortened version of this article. To read the full article, please download HI News Volume 4, Number 1 at:
HI News Vol.4 No.1: Doncaster Blue Bloods

(It's free, of course.)
HNN Sources


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