Canberra loves ‘new’. If you’re a restaurant and you breathe a word about your ‘soft opening’ on social media, you best batten down the hatches, because you’re assured of having every foodie in town at your door that very night.
It’s our obsession with all things new and shiny that makes a business that’s clocked up 40 years in the same city all the more remarkable—especially when it’s not one of the big guys—but that’s the milestone that Southern Innovations in Fyshwick is about to reach.
You may know it as the supplier of quality plumbing, bathroom and kitchen products, but I love a back story and this is a great yarn. It all began when Fred Beutler—a salesman from Sydney cum Narromine farmer—moved to Canberra following the death of his wife to give his youngest son the quality education his mother had always wanted for him, and to be closer to his eldest, a journalist.
Having a background in sales, he looked around for a business opportunity and in the 1970s bought Southern Plumbing Supplies from a Canberra plumber, William Edmund Cleary. Its raison d’être was “to wholesale and retail all types of plumbing supplies,” and still is today.
The business grew slowly, and by 1989 the business had grown to a turnover of approximately $4 million per annum. Enter Warwick Beutler, the aforementioned journalist son of Fred, as Managing Director.
A Fyshwick plumbing supplies store was a far cry from Warwick’s usual stomping grounds. As a political reporter he was there during the Whitlam years, including the Whitlam government’s dismissal in 1975; as ABC foreign correspondent to Indonesia, he covered part of the Suharto years and the aftermath of Indonesia’s takeover in East Timor; he was Executive Producer of ABC radio’s current affairs program The World Today and its North American Bureau Chief. So why turn his back on the excitement of the media?
“Dad was going on 70 and had had enough so that’s why I took the baton and ran with it,” says Warwick.
“I remember coming back from the US at the beginning of 1990 and I had two options: go into the ABC into a management role, and that filled me with absolute dread; or I could go back to my old job in the press gallery at Parliament House.
“I did that for a while, but I remember walking into the very first Question Time that year…and I thought ‘I don’t want to be here any longer.’”
The rest, as they say, is history. Warwick covered the 1990 election and then waded into the plumbing supplies business, boots and all. He’d never run a business before, but wasn’t daunted by the steep learning curve.
“It was difficult knowing all the products, but I don’t think even today I could name them all – we sell something like 70 000 product lines—but that didn’t worry me that much. I think that if you’re an organised person and you’re reasonably capable and hardworking and you know what your goals are then you just go after them and just do it.”
And he did. The company grew and grew; first to other areas of Canberra and then into regional New South Wales. By the time of the opening of the Lyell Street headquarters in 2004, the company was turning over more than $28 million.
“It couldn’t stay the same because it wouldn’t have survived,” says Warwick of the business’ continued evolution.
“In this industry you need to get bigger and broaden out into other areas, so that’s what we did. We saw opportunities in the market and went for them.”
The latest innovation is the introduction of SieMatic kitchens—full imported from Germany—to the Fyshwick showroom.
“We’re always looking for new avenues and new things that would make us stand out from the crowd. In this business you need to be a bit different—you can’t be the same as all the others—and these kitchens have the precision, the perfection and the functionality for which German manufacturing is famous.
“Not to mention the finishes, the drawer compartments, the phone charging ports, the colours, the textures, the thin bench tops, the composite stone bench tops and much more.”
Today the company employs about 100 staff across the ACT, New South Wales and Victoria in sales, logistics, marketing, design, plumbing and more; and it’s the people that Warwick credits with Southern Innovations’ longstanding success.
“It’s about good dedicated well trained staff who know how to deliver good customer service. It really is getting to know the customer and just listening to him or her, finding out what they want and doing your utmost to deliver that for them.”
Ask Warwick what he’s most proud of and he says it’s Southern Innovations’ ability to “stand up against the big guys and still compete with them.”
“It’s tough,” he says. “It’s extremely tough, and they’re forever trying to knock us off. But we’ve got staff who’ve built the business, they’ve been the backbone of it, and the fact is that we survive because I think we add value and look after our customers and know what we’re talking about, and the big companies can’t always do that.”
And what would his dad say if he could see the business now, some 40 years after he bought it?
“I think he’d be proud of it. He’d probably also say that we work too hard which is true, and that we’re quite mad. But I can’t deny that.”
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