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Connection Matters Radio (CMR): Look almost anywhere in the media and social media today, and the chances are fairly good that you’ll see stories of very real business tragedy brought about as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
They’re often heart-rending and speak to an enormous number of underlying personal tragedies, yet the other – and brighter – side of the coin is that the coronavirus pandemic has been taken in the stride of many businesses; and a large number of those are Aboriginal owned, led and operated.
Today we’re speaking to the managing director and one of the co founders of one such company. Joining me on Connection Matters Radio from Supply Aus is Mununjali and Palawa man, Shawn Andrews. Shawn, thanks for speaking with me today.
Shawn Andrews: My pleasure Charles. Thanks for having me.
CMR: Shawn, before we talk about the current operations of Supply Aus and the diversification that was implemented as a result of the pandemic. Can you share a bit of the background of the company leading up to COVID-19?
Shawn: Yeah, sure can brother. And just before I share that, I just want to acknowledge that I’m sitting on Wurundjeri right now and pay my respects as the protocol demands to those people who keep my spirits up in their land.
Supply Aus began just over 18 months ago when there were four of us indigenous people, the owners were sitting around after a Murra Indigenous Business Course event. And we were really actually upset about indigenous youth suicide and the issues going on there; and the fact that money wasn’t getting to the ground, to the people actually who were doing the work.
We thought, well, why don’t we set up a business where we can actually create funds and jobs and opportunities and put money back into these types of programs.
And that was essentially where Supply Aus was born. We decided that we’re going to go into the areas of PPE and workwear, because Adam, our CEO, was in that space already. And as people who owned their own businesses and already, we had sort of, I suppose, contacts and ideas and what we wanted to do and how we wanted to supply and sell products out to the marketplace.
We really wanted to challenge the narrative of indigenous businesses, just I suppose, being small and not capable of growing and this idea that really we have this small little part of the market. We wanted to grow and become bigger and develop our own brands. So, we started doing that.
CMR: So, when was the company actually founded?
Shawn: It was founded in June, 2019. So, that’s not that long ago. That’s the company’s founding date, but it began six, seven months before that. So, in the idea stage.
CMR: Six or seven months after the company starts from what I’ve read, you’ve ended up with not a lot of money in the pocket. And all of a sudden you’re confronted by a global pandemic. What was the reaction within the group of the four founders?
Shawn: Yeah, we were struggling a bit because we were trying to develop these brands to go to market with and have our own sort of, I suppose, indigenous branding across what we were doing with suppliers. And in February this year, we found ourselves with probably just a little bit North of $500 in our bank account and all these products being developed. And we’re like, well, let’s hold for 18 months. And this is obviously before anyone knew about COVID. “Let’s hold, let’s develop, let’s get it out, go to market, strategy’s ready, and then develop them as we go.”
But then of course COVID exploded onto the scene and that changed everything for us in a heartbeat.
CMR: So, what was the straightforward, I suppose, process following the realisation that, “Okay, there’s not a lot of money in the bank, a bit North of $500 as you said.” You’re confronted with a global pandemic that’s set to hit the country pretty hard; and it did very soon after that. How did you recover? And what were the … I suppose, the key strategies that you employed?
Shawn: Firstly, we were actually talking about whether we wind the company up and do something different, or whether we place it into hibernation. This is a serious conversation that Adam Williams, the CEO of Supply Aus and I were having.
We were in the process of getting some hand sanitizer made and branded in China, when this all took off and what happened was this remarkable turn of events.
The government needed to buy things and they needed companies that could source them really quickly and at decent prices. And we have this extensive network both here in Australia and within the factories, across Australia and Southeast Asia. And we went down the pathway of going: “Well, we can supply these things,”;; and we rang our contacts, decided to reach out to them.
And the Victorian Government started to buy from us straightaway. And we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of products to begin with. Because, as that was happening and that was building, we saw the opportunity there and we went, “Hold on, we’ve got this hand sanitizer, everyone’s going to need it.”
Just as that occurred, they locked down the borders essentially for planes to really stop coming in, a whole bunch of things. And we were sitting going, “How are we going to do this? We’ve got essentially 150 tonnes of hand sanitizer that we can access now.”
CMR: Now, this was for the government was it?
Shawn: No, this is for Woolworths. So, Woolworths need to keep their shops open to keep everybody in Australia fed. So, one of the things that occurred was, we had these government contracts going on the side, which was great. And then we had this great conversation with Woolies around, we need to get more of this product into Australia to keep our shops open.
Everyone around is going really slow. They said: “You’ve got it. How quick can you get it here?” We have to then go from negotiating, so a 150 tonnes of hand sanitizer, it’s literally like flying a hand grenade across the ocean because it is 70% plus alcohol – 150 tonnes of it.
So, we not only had to secure it from our factories, get it all packed up and done when all the Chinese factories were essentially down, we also had to move it from one airport to another. The interesting thing about getting that going was that we actually had to ask Woolies to pay upfront because that was what the Chinese market was demanding.
We had to ask for – I won’t give the exact figure, but it was multiple millions of dollars. And Woolies came to the party and paid us. We were able to pay our suppliers and were able to fly in a plane full of hand sanitizer when none of the bigger companies in Australia could.
So, a small little tiny indigenous company with $500 to its name two months before, flew in a 150 tonnes of hand sanitizer and that kick-started us and got us moving and the business flowing,
CMR: That speaks a lot though and we’ve got to give credit to Woolworths to invest that much money in a small Aboriginal business, where so many other companies still have that ingrained bias towards our people in business. That is a huge thing. And it’s obviously set you forward for the future. So where to from here?
Shawn: We just going keep – growing. For example, with Woolies, the opportunity to work with them, grew into us selling them more and more products. So, we sold them five million, 3-ply masks only recently. So, we’ve had great opportunities with them, with developing these relationships. And we’ve actually opened a store in Brisbane. We’re opening a PPE and workwear store in Victoria. We’ve developed coffee brands, and all these things that we have developed.
We now have time and money to put into it. We’ve also employed a lot of people and our aim is to continue to grow and become Australia’s preferred supplier for businesses. We’re solution finders, that’s what we do.
CMR: One of the stated goals that you had at the beginning of setting up this business was to employ Aboriginal people. What impact has this amazing opportunity had with employment for Supply Aus?
Shawn: Oh, it’s been amazing to have the opportunity to actually employ, especially indigenous people who have been really struggling, who haven’t been able to find jobs and give them opportunities. It’s just been incredible. And that’s been a big focus of ours.
We’ve got three indigenous staff on now, who’ve been long-term unemployed; and they’ve been with us now for a few months and all the management team are indigenous. So, it’s quite a beautiful thing I think. And it shows the strength in indigenous people really.
CMR: What’s the future for the business and is growth sustainable post-COVID?
Shawn: Yeah, absolutely. So, we’ve looked at COVID always as just a bit of a one-off and not as something that is sustainable business practice, because it’s not. And for us, our future is growing and developing our brands… Because our whole aim is to be solution finders.
We want businesses to come to us and go, “We need to get this stuff.” A job site here in Victoria recently got us to fit out their job site with white goods and their office supplies and everything in there as well because that’s what they needed. So, we’ll keep growing that and keep employing. That’s our aim for the future.
CMR: Shawn, I want to thank you so much indeed for coming onto the program, it’s been greatly appreciated and uplifting talking to you. Best of luck for the future and keep on employing those Aboriginal youth because that’s the way of the future. Well done and thanks.
Shawn: The pleasure is all mine. Thank you for having me on.
Click on the play button below to listen to the full interview with Shawn