Atkar co-director Phil Grimshaw on the approach that’s helped his family construction supplies business survive for 70 years

Few small businesses get to celebrate a 70th birthday, let alone be managed by the one family for all that time, but construction supplies business Atkar has seen four generations of the Grimshaw clan involved in growing the business since it launched in 1946. 

Atkar started as a roofing repairs business and was later involved in construction projects like the original Chadstone Shopping Centre. It is now a multi-division building and acoustic paneling supplies provider that turns over $20 million annually, with many of its 40 staff having been on deck with the company for decades.

The construction industry has undergone countless changes since founder Alan Grimshaw went door to door to promote his roofing business after the Second World War, but many principles of the business have stayed the same as the family built Atkar into the company it is today. 

Alan’s grandson, current Atkar co-director Phil Grimshaw, spoke to SmartCompany about how a conservative approach has been key to the company’s survival since it launched seven decades ago, and how the next generation soaks up knowledge in a family business. 

Atkar began as a roofing repair business, started by my grandfather. My grandfather set up the business down here in Victoria, and then Dad joined it.

They built the business up. It was a contracting business in the early stages, and they developed it until it became one of the biggest roofing businesses in Melbourne. I’ve never heard any problems [about them getting along], put it that way.

Somewhere in the early 1970s, they branched into building materials supply. They were using more and more materials themselves, that they were buying things in large quantities from overseas. So they came to start a roofing materials supply business.

It was always a bit hard for me to get my head around the business as a kid—[what they did] was in the world of commercial construction—but we did used to get down to the factory.

We used to pick up the business that way. I was starting to do a bit of in-house processing work, having rides on the forklift and that. There’d be none of that in these days.

We always had it really as the only pathway that we’d considered, the thought that we’d end up in the business. We used to be reminded plenty of it—it was like it just would happen.

My dad and grandfather helped in the formation of the sense of responsibility that we have towards the business.

I guess we’ve got a fairly conservative view in relation to business. Our ultimate checkpoint is making sure we don’t overexpose ourselves—that was something they did since the early days.

They were always extremely cautious to not be over extended, and of the financial risk if you overextend yourself.

That’s how we’ve survived 70 years. There are plenty of businesses that have took on big projects and big risks and are not here.

One of my major considerations I think is the pressure on margins there days. A lot of building materials have become very commoditised, and there is huge pressure on margins.

I guess it’s not so much around the project that you choose in itself now, as it is about the relationships and the people that you’re working with.

We’re pretty selective about the people we work with and have built very strong relationships. We work with people that we know that it will be a win/win situation.

That is far more under price pressure these days. Of course, back in my father’s day you’d have relationships where you automatically give all your work to one company. All we can hope for now is that we are the suppliers of choice.

We have multiple staff that have been here 20 years plus. We haven’t had a lot of trouble with staff, we are very selective with who we want to take on.

One of the biggest assets is our staff and the advice that we’ve had over the years about investing in your staff, supporting them and training them, to develop them to take things on. You start off managing by task, then give them a project, and then an area of responsibility in the business.

It’s also about being prepared to tell them when it’s time for them to develop their own solutions, when it’s time to cut the anchor.

Working with my brother works well. We tend to have areas of the business that we’re responsible for, but on any major decisions, we decide them together.

It’s much the same way with our kids [in terms of learning about the business], I guess. Although it’s a tougher environment now.

The one thing we do say is while it’s tough for us, it’s just as tough for competitors. And it’s great, it’s one of the pleasures of having a business, to watch the kids rise to the challenge, and they’re both on the management team.

Much like [my brother] Lloyd and I, they’re now managing some of their own things.

We have started on the next phase of things, and have now employed a general manager for the first time in our lives a general manager. We’ve also put in some key management staff in areas of specialist skills, like product development and finance and marketing.

That’s all new for us, because [in the past we] drove all that ourselves to build a base, to grow a business and weather the storm—to stay front of the game.

We’re aiming for a 30% growth year-on-year goal over the next five years [across some of our lines]. We err of the conservative side, as I’ve already mentioned.

Everybody needs a carrot for sure, and it helps if we’ve got a goal.

That’s a major thing, to get everyone focused on one goal.

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