Retail

Owner of Newcastle’s oldest independent hardware store Toolies opens up about the “heartbreaking” closure of a business locals loved

Emma Koehn /

Rob Chambers at Toolies Tool Specialists

Rob Chambers at Toolies Tool Specialists. Source: Supplied.

Newcastle’s oldest independent hardware store Toolies Tool Specialists has been solving customer’s problems for 44 years but its owner has made a “heartbreaking” decision to close the business in the face of tough economic conditions.

Rob Chambers has made the painful decision to close the business, which has been at its current site for 30 years, after rescuing it from liquidation in 2013.

At the time he was general manager of the store and couldn’t bear to see it close, so he made the decision to buy it.

“The process has been long and arduous — you can understand, as a business goes into liquidation or receivership there’s not much left in it,” Chambers tells SmartCompany.

“But I had to try to rescue it, it really is an iconic business in Newcastle.”

The decision bought Toolies another four years serving the region’s locals — and customers from around the country who’ve made purchases from the Toolies online store — and Chambers says establishing a relationship with the inventive people in his community has been a true joy since he got involved with the company 14 years ago.

Just recently he was out on site visiting a customer who had built a “007” style wood-panelled boat, doing some problem solving.

“Like, this guy had built one of those [boats] himself,” Chambers says.

He says one of the big most important differences between independent hardware retailers and the big players is that businesses like Toolies are focused on actually solving a customer’s problem, rather than selling them a solution.

“I sent a guy home the other day with a way of solving his problem that didn’t involve us selling him anything,” he says.

Toolies is in the process of selling off stock before a June 30 exit date and in the lead-up to closing, Newcastle locals keep popping in to reminisce about the characters who have been involved with the business since it started in 1973.

“They keep coming in and these guys remember all the guys that have ever been in here,” Chambers says.

The business has faced a number of hurdles over the past decade, including being hit hard by the global financial crisis and a sliding coal price, which had a big impact on the Newcastle region. In the years leading up to 2012, the business had annual turnover of more than $8 million and 15,000 ‘loyalty customers’ on the books.

Chambers says a key lesson he’s learned through the process of trying to save Toolies is that you need a significant amount of try to turn around a business.

“The owner prior to me just didn’t have the capacity to weather the storm when it came, because of the level of debt that was being carried. You can’t have a business that just relies on the good times,” he says.

“You need to come into something like this with a lot of capital.”

While Chambers says this has been a “very painful experience”, he has bought the business more time and continued to help customers in a way that no other hardware competitor will now be able to achieve, he believes.

“None of the others … seem to do that. This is a problem, with the rush to sale [from big players] and all that sort of thing,” he says. 

As for what’s next for the business owner, the community has come forward with a few offers so far.

“I’ve been offered a job as an assistant to a beekeeper, so we’ll see how that goes,” Chambers says.

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is SmartCompany's senior journalist.

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