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It’s All Bull – Barry Bull

The music industry has been transformed by technology several times over in the past 20 years.

Active ImageCamille Howard talks to Barry Bull, a self-styled music entrepreneur who turned every change into a plus in the form of new strands in a career that goes on thriving when most people his age are retiring

Music is in Barry Bull’s veins. He even calls himself The Music Man, a phrase long since adopted by journalists, and at 63 he’s still developing new goals and sharing the secrets of his success via books and public-speaking.

Bull’s music career began in retail before scoring a job in the marketing department of CBS Music (now Sony/BMG), in Queensland, and he rapidly ascended to director of marketing for CBS Australia. While many would be thrilled with the opportunity to mix with celebrities of the rock world, it soon wore thin for Bull, who decided the time away from his family wasn’t worth it. “As exciting and glamorous as this may seem, I was never home and I had a wife and young family.” So, returning to Brisbane, he gave it all up to run his own business: the acquired Toombul Music store.

For Bull, the move meant being able to balance work and family values. “To be successful in business, you’ve got to have that balance in place and I wasn’t doing that very well.” Sick of returning home from the many overseas trips to find a porch light on but everyone already asleep, Bull pulled the plug on one career and launched the next.

Buying the business, Bull explains, was envisioned as a “stop off” while he thought about the next path to take in his career. He never imagined it would be the start of an empire famous across the nation.

“Retail was very exciting in the early 80s, and it just clicked for me,” he explains. “I had this vision: I didn’t want to be the biggest, I wanted to be the best. I didn’t have the money to grow any more stores, so I decided to grow one to be a destination store.”

To do that, Bull knew he needed a point of difference, and this came in the form of attracting recording artists to perform at the shopping centre where his store was located. “I had worked with celebrities while at the record company, and was familiar with working with superstar artists.”

Organising big names to attend—including (pictured) Atomic Kitten, The Wiggles, Shannon Noll—took some time. He also had to convince the landlord, Westfield, to not only allow the performers to come but to market them when he signed them up. “It was a win-win for everybody: the artists came and promoted their new album, the other retailers leveraged off the additional potential customers that came, as did Westfield, and customers had an irreplaceable experience of meeting celebrities they wouldn’t normally get the chance to meet. And it was great for us because we created an enormous point of difference.”

Innovation Challenges

Active ImageThe music industry, especially music retail, changes as new technology is brought into the market. In Bull’s time he has seen LPs make way for cassette tapes, which were both replaced by CDs, and more recently, DVDs. Each time there’s a change, Bull is forced to be more innovative in the way he grows and diversifies the business, particularly with leveraging. He leverages the existing overheads—rent, stock, staff—as he expands the offerings in his store, including adding musical instruments, consumer electronics, clothing merchandise and home cinema products.

Diversifying was key to growth. He was paying fairly high rent so he asked for more space to get more product in. “I realised our core product business, which was selling music, had a shortening life, and so we changed.”

Every substantial business model will be challenged by technology in some way, Bull suggests, so all businesses adapt with the times or risk being left behind. “The technology that was threatening us, which was the internet, was also the technology that was giving us opportunities.” While technology, particularly internet downloading, eroded the core component of his business, it also offered new components-—computer programs and navigational control systems they utilise for other parts of the business. The big winners are consumer electronics, and now, home cinema.

Electronic Interiors, the home cinema arm of Toombul Music, allows Bull and his team to apply their knowledge of home entertainment and music and video to the home, and this new strand now contributes a major profit to the business. “Now that business is very expandable,” he says. “We install home cinema systems throughout south-east Queensland, just from our base in Toombul, and the average sale for that business is $50,000 to 100,000.”

The extra offerings brought more attention to the store, with customers travelling to visit them. Then the awards flowed in. “My vision was to win a national award, and it took nearly 10 years to win it.” In fact, Toombul Music won Westfield’s National Individual Specialty Retailer Award three times. Topped off with a Commonwealth Centenary Medal in 2003 for his business achievements, the gongs added another point of difference.

Not only was the attention great for the store, it was great for Bull’s next reinvention. “All this focus on one store in Brisbane got me on the speaking circuit.” Starting with talks to other retailers in the centre, it wasn’t long before speaking agencies contacted Bull to get him on board to talk about small business success, getting paid in the process.

And when he noticed all the good speakers also wrote books, Bull put pen to paper, publishing A Little Bull Goes Along Way in 2001, then My Little Book of Bull in 2002, and his latest book, The Bullseye Principle, due out around March-April this year.

Experience v Service

Active ImageWhile many businesses have grown by opening more stores or franchising, Bull says his success came because he didn’t expand. He had to look for other ways to build the brand. He says this, reinvention and diversification, is the only way for the retail music industry to survive in a climate where music sales have been declining between seven and 10 percent per year.

While there will always be customers who want to visit the store to buy a CD, digital forms of delivery are increasingly eroding this tradition. Despite that, Bull puts a lot of thought into making the shopping experience special for his customers.

Relationships with customers are also key to Bull’s success but he maintains this goes beyond customer service, beyond ‘have a nice day’. “Customer experience has to replace customer service,” he stresses. “In other words, what happens to your customers the moment they come in contact with your business to the moment they leave. What is that experience? If they want a CD, we find it for them, we may have to order it from overseas. It’s about rewarding our customers with what they want.”

Bull believes too many businesses are focused on price point, with disregard for service values. “A specialist like me is never going to win on a pricing judgement but we work on experience,” he says. “The customer remembers the experience long past the price.”

And because he only has one store, Bull says he can be sure his staff works to those val
ues every day, beyond learning how to operate the point of sale systems and approach customers. “They’re given this little culture about trying a little harder, smiling, offering information and creating conversation that leads to more business but also to customers feeling that we’re here just for them.”

Bull pays close attention to continual training and support for his staff, to ensure the team provide this experience. “We talk about that with every customer interaction. What is it that you did with that customer you just served that was a little more than you had to do?” And while this takes time he recognises it’s an investment that more than pays for itself. “Our competition is flat out getting staff to meet the job description, but it’s the way you teach and train that counts.”

Similarly, staff wages reflect his desire to get the best from his team, but the rewards don’t come free. “We pay a little more, and we expect a little more,” he explains. “If we can have our people performing that little bit more every day, every week, every month, it’s like compounding interest, and at the end of the year it’s very bankable.”

The real return on investment, Bull says, is measured by the number of referrals to the business. “Retention plus rewards equal referrals,” he quips. In the home cinema arm alone, for example, a huge 90 percent of the business comes from referrals.

No matter whether you’re a plumber, accountant, physiotherapist or retailer, Bull says the lessons in business are simple: “Know your customer, know what they want, when they want it, why they want it and where they want it. Spend time finding out what the customer needs, so you can tailor your offering. The business with a product or service I am going to choose, is the one which informs. Information is powerful.”

Then, he says, retain each customer with a goal of keeping them for life. “If you can keep that customer for life, you have no further acquisition costs.” He says too many businesses make the mistake of spending their time attracting new customers when they need to be taking care of the ones they already have.

Bull embraces his own mistakes as lessons to learn from. His biggest errors came from setting unrealistic goals, or goals with unrealistic time frames. But by failing to meet these, he was forced to sit down and more adequately plan his goals, giving the business more direction in how to achieve them. “A whole new set of business protocols that I was unconsciously searching for myself, fell into place.” These ended up being the ‘hit list’ for his first book and principles he embraces throughout his life.

Bull knows there comes a time when a business owner, particularly in a family business, stops being valuable to the business in terms of what they bring to it. From music marketing whiz to retail legend to author and speaker, 63-year-old Bull can’t see himself retiring, certainly not in the near future. What he does see is more reinvention in whatever form it may take, leaving the day-to-day running of store to his three children.

Even though not directly involved day-to-day with the business, all of Bull’s current activities involve continuous brand building, carrying the bull further and entrenching himself more deeply as the music man.


The Bull Hitlist

Active Image1. Vision: Bull didn’t aim to be the biggest but the best.
2. Goals: he set goals with a realistic and flexible timeline.
3. Difference: celebrities came to the centre and drew more customers.
4. Connections: Toombul Music offers loyalty clubs, tracks purchases, and maintains databases of customer info so they know what customers want.
5. Value: Bull diversified his range to add more profitability to his store.
6. Change: embracing new forms of technology.
7. People: develop and retain key people—some of Bull’s key staff have been with him for 25 years.
8. Accountability: the buck stops with Bull.
9. No is negotiable.
10. Happiness: it’s the key to success, not the other way around.

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