Our member Ross Clayton had this article published in the March 2014 edition of the Courier mail. See below for the paraphrased content.
Ross Clayton’s dream job as a traveling buyer has grown into a successful furniture franchise that survived the GFC when most rivals went bust, as MIKE BRUCE discovers.
Many business successes are built on luck, on chance moments, accidents even. For Vast Interior founder Ross Clayton, one of his greatest triumphs came in a lost-in-culture exchange with his major Indian supplier five years ago.
“I told him that we wanted to get into manufacturing with recycled timber”, Clayton recalls. “He called back and said he’d found some wonderful old Burmese teak… for $1000 a metre. I told him he had completely got the wrong kind of timber, and so I said ‘no, go and look for s—t timber’.”
The supplier called back within weeks, excitedly announcing that he’d bought an entire disused fishing boat which was on its way to Delhi, in pieces packed in five semi-trailers.
“When I asked him why he’d bought a fishing boat, he told me he’d thought I told him to go and look for ‘ship’ timber.
The misunderstanding started Vast’s fascination with turning abandoned ships and demolished buildings into furniture and a whole new market. Since then, the chain has bought more than 300 such boats, many salvaged from the bottoms of waterways and refashioned into furniture with a look that’s become synonymous with Vast.
It’s a profitable and growing niche for the retailer, with recycled or “up cycled” furniture going from 100 per cent of chain’s production in 2008 to 35 per cent in 2013. Vast last year produced more than 5000 recycled tables alone and sees potential for more growth in the area.
The anecdote is rather symptomatic of the Vast business journey, which has never been a minutely managed or heavily planned affair. Clayton, 44, started in furniture retail at just 20, opening a second-hand furniture store in Coffs Harbour on the north coast of NSW.
Realising that dealing with wholesalers was easier than scouring garage sales each weekend; he opened an independent furniture store in 1989 selling Australian-made, but “bland stuff… all melamine and pine”. Furniture was in the blood, but Clayton saw that the offering in Australia was mostly “pack ‘n’ stack” and wholly uninspiring.
In 1997 I took a break, did some travelling and saw some of the great furniture available in Indonesia, India, Vietnam and China. I saw that the industry was stuck in a rut and I wanted something a bit more exotic. I’d always loved travel and the honest truth is that the best job I could have would be travelling to these countries being a furniture buyer”.
Clayton effectively built a business around his ideal job. Starting Vast with a clean slate, he founded his first store in Coffs in 1999. One of his customers started a Tam worth store a year later, that franchisee’s best man founded one in Canberra in 2001, while the caterer at the same wedding started a Frankston store the same year. The man who mowed the lawns at the Coffs store opened on the Sunshine Coast, while his bank manager started on the Gold Coast. Within 10 years, Clayton had built a network of 40 stores here and in New Zealand, finding franchisees largely in his own customer base and word of mouth.
“I’ve probably run two franchise ads in the history of Vast,” Clayton says. “In fact we got to 25 stores before we even had franchise agreements in place. It was all pretty much done on a beer coaster and handshake”. In 2005 he relocated from Coffs to Brisbane, where it is now based.
Vast wasn’t immune to the global financial crisis, which claimed five of its 40 franchises and smashed turnover by 15 per cent. But as Clayton points out, his direct-import retail model which ships product directly from factory to shops rather than via a central distribution centre, allowed margins healthy enough for Vast to stay in profit. Dozens of other retainers weren’t so lucky.
We had about 30 competitors nationwide before the GFC, and that has come down to about three.
Today, Vast has sales of more than $30 million a year and plans to grow its 35-store network.
But the best illustration of Clayton’s direct-import retail model is mirrored in the growth of his major Indian supplier.
“When we started, this guy had six staff, we were taking 90 per cent of his production and one container every three months – 15 years later we’re still taking 90 per cent of his production, but he now has 600 staff and he’s sending us 20 containers a month.
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