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Hard lessons learned, and a fresh perspective to boot

After watching his parents nearly lose their business in the recession Australia ‘had to have’ in the early 90s, Brett Birkill learned the keys to running a business.

He established workwear brand Prime Mover Workwear in 2004, and recently created Rikkaus, a new online IT store.

Dynamic Business talked to Birkill about his life in business.

What made you decide to start your own company rather than work in the family business?

I had a burning desire to do something more and develop something for myself, and a brand and an identity. It was just through sheer want to strive to do something for myself. There was nothing wrong, I could have certainly just kept pretty safe and stayed with the status quo, and I’m sure everything would be fine now, but that really didn’t excite me. There was also a huge emergence in China and I could see at that time that the marketplace for high visibility clothing in Europe and different parts of the world was growing dramatically and I had a burning desire to continue growing relationships and production out of Asia.

Are there any things you think you could have done differently at the start?

Nothing – and it’s not nothing because I think everything was perfect, it’s nothing because the journey brings up so many things, but when you look at the results in areas where you’ve made a slight error, it’s that learning experience that gives you the strength to go to the next level.

I think it’s really important when new businesses begin to not be afraid to look into the dark tunnel – obviously you need a direction, but it’s impossible to know what’s coming. I don’t think I’d change that, because it was all those lessons and little mistakes along the way that made the business and myself better.

What are the main challenges you’ve faced along the way?

The business we’re in is wholesale, and we distribute through a large distribution chain now. Definitely the key challenge in the first instance was to really develop a strong supply chain, because we always wanted to make sure that when we went out and sold product that we had the ability to deliver, and without a strong supply chain, businesses are kidding themselves if they have a glossy brochure and promise the world.

With the business model, the other big challenge was finance. I was always very active in ensuring that money was available to take the business to the next level, and still to this day that’s a key part of it. The business we’re in now finances the whole chain. It’s being able to manage the financing coupled with growth. If you weren’t growing it would be a lot easier, but every time if you need to produce more to keep up with demand then there’s consistent pressures on ensuring you can afford the business model.

How did the growth come about?

We got those fundamentals correct and got the supply chain right, then we were able to be super confident in selling exactly what we had to sell. Ultimately the performance of the business has been able to deliver just exactly what we say we will, and obviously it’s a day to day proposition, you’ve got to keep pushing day to day, but just having all of those fundamentals right is key. Again, it’s those really boring, basic things – you’ve got your supply set and can afford your orders.

You’ve got a focus on innovation – why is that?

While we’re all about consistency and want to ensure that we’re day in and day out the same business that people can rely on, we also recognise that there’s key benefits in continuing to grow development in fabrics and products. A lot of it has to with what happened with the mining boom. There’s been a lot of further policing in relation to standards, hence a lot of the developments in our flame-retardant fabrics, which are specific to businesses like Rio Tinto and these sorts of huge companies that demand that product now. While we’re in that mass day-to-day work and safety wear, there’s also a large chunk off to the side being demanded by big business, and we certainly didn’t want to be excluded from that.

Why did you decide to open Rikkaus?

IT is a completely different business model, and the reason why we looked at that is because we wanted to start with a business model that was the exact reverse of Prime Mover Workwear. This online is about selling to the public. We also have a B2B arm that’s about developing relationships with businesses that have specific requirements for IT. I did it because I felt the need to experience the flip side and saw that there was a lot of emerging online businesses and a lot of businesses that clearly had a payment structure that was money up front. I guess retail full stop is like that, so I wanted to develop a business like that.

Tips for aspiring SMB owners?

  • You need to ensure that there’s a plan in place and even if it’s only a basic budget, you need to have a plan and a budget and make sure that it’s profitable. The end result needs to be that you’re making money, and if you’re not making money, then I wouldn’t proceed. Often plans and expectations in the first six months end up worse than what you think, so if the paper doesn’t say you’re going to make money then find something that’s going to generate a profit before you begin.
  • You need to have a super passion for what you’re doing and that needs to be kept aside from actually undertaking the task of that business. You might be a passionate chef cooking pies, and while you need to be passionate about pies, you don’t want to be bogged down at actually making the pies. But you still need a great passion for and understanding of the product you’ve got to have the confidence to go out and sell it.
  • When you’re pushing in the first instances, your passion needs to have a sense of urgency. You need to relate something back to that to give the consumer, especially at first where you’re new and there’s no real reason to buy, you need to bring that urgency.
  • Offer great service – that’s key but people gloss over it.
  • Ensure that you back yourself. I remember when I started, so many people said our product was too expensive or too cheap or too big, there was every excuse under the sun given for why they wouldn’t purchase. Ultimately we knew that was wrong because we had that whole supply chain set up and knew it was right and was good and was well priced, so we had to cast aside all the negative responses and believe in what we were doing. Ultimately all those people with the excuses ended up buying from us anyway.

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Gina Baldassarre

Gina Baldassarre

Gina is a journalist at Dynamic Business. She enjoys learning to ice skate and collecting sappy inspirational quotes.

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