Interview with the Founder – The History of Melbourne Brick
In this series of enlightening interviews with the Founder of Melbourne Brick – Matt Curtain – we discuss the wide range of products available for the creation or renovation of your home or outdoor room at Melbourne Brick.
In this interview, we talk about the history of Melbourne Brick…
So, Matt, tell us a little bit about how Melbourne Brick came to be…
Well back in 1988 my father John and I co-founded the business in Glen Iris, at the site of the old City Brickyard. We were in the adhesives and tiling tools business selling and distributing Davco Adhesives and Eureka tiles (owned by PGH at the time) to different tile shops and hardware outlets around Melbourne.
Eureka Tiles / PGH offered us this site as an outdoor tiling hard floor retail site opportunity, something we were looking for at the time and decided the site could be good.
At the time we didn’t expect bricks and pavers to be part of it at all, but thought well there’s synergy’s and an opportunity, we can go in have a look at that at the same time and determine whether that’s something we could do and it all started from there we were now selling bricks and pavers imported from various PGH plants in NSW and SA.
So, we had one range of product back then which is still under the brand of PGH today, even though its had a lot of ownership changes since then.
But after two years of starting in ’88 we lost that agreement, we were so entrenched in selling bricks and pavers now we had to go out and get alternative products and that lead to travelling Australia visiting and setting up relationships with many new suppliers. So now nearly 30 years later we have great relationships with loyal companies that we have grown with together over that time.
So, you said nearly 30 years. Obviously, the business has been through a number of phases in that time. How have things come about? How have you ended up with new suppliers or new products? How have you gone about that?
Look it’s evolved through new products and innovation from our suppliers along with us adding new products and ranges to the traditional bricks and pavers range. Also as we’ve grown in number of stores and our revenue, that’s attracted suppliers to us as well.
A lot of our traditional brick suppliers, back then we might have had 20-30 brick suppliers but in the last 5-10 years, a lot of them have closed down because of OH&S and different environmental problems. The bigger manufactures have got much larger with more modern kilns and production plants so we’ve actually got less brick suppliers than we’ve ever had before. However, we’ve got a lot more supplier’s niche products that have fitted into the Melbourne Brick range.
This has now formed what we call our six pillars bricks/blocks, pavers, retaining walls, grass & turf, stone and landscape products. We’ve gone out looking for new products as well so not all of its just come to us. A lot of it we’ve gone and found and obviously since you’ve been on board with us since 2004 that’s been our ethos to try and grow where we can, in niche areas that we’re not always going to be competing against others.
So, it’s obviously important to be adaptable in this market?
Yes, absolutely. I mean even in the last 20 years, I mean we started our own company Melbourne Stone to make large concrete pavers back in 2000’s, so 17 years ago. I mean even then there was still quite a lot of suppliers in that market.
A lot of those since the GFC have gone by the wayside, so there’s still quite a lot left but not a lot of new entrants into that part of the market.
But at the same time, we’ve seen a huge resurgence in imported stone, porcelain and other manmade products and non-manmade products, in the paving market particularly.
Not as much in the brick market but the brick markets got its own competitors with new products, with lightweight construction, panels, tilt slab and a lot of cladding. There’s a lot of disruption in that market as well which is not traditional brick
Let’s talk a little bit about the customers you have in the business. I would have said two types of customers; you’ve got trade and you’ve got consumer but what do you feel is the thing that Melbourne Brick offers to them as opposed to say some of the competition?
Look, we really pride ourselves on presentation of our displays, on the way we look and the way we present ourselves. We are constantly upgrading our displays, making sure our staff present well and displays look great, everyone’s trained as much as they can be in the product range and how to use that product range.
So, we’re continually improving, continually reviewing what we do and how we implement to ensure we stay at the top of our market.
We don’t look at necessarily other people that are our competitors directly. We look at other businesses that might be in retail, which may be a Bunnings, which may be Harvey Norman etc. to draw inspiration from them and to see what we can do that’s different to present ourselves to the market differently.
Particularly from a retail point of view, so we often hear that people that may have been to us for the first time and refer to us as the Bunnings of Bricks, Pavers and Landscaping products. They are overwhelmed by our size, range and stock that we have.
Yes, in bricks it’s exciting, at the moment, different colours, surfaces, finishes, textures and coming from Australian made and the imported bricks which we didn’t think would ever happen due to the physical weight of bricks, however as the energy prices with gas particularly and that bricks are all gas fired and prices have risen locally this has made the imports viable.
A lot of the smaller family owned manufacturers have really gone into that boutique range because they’re limited on production but there’s a greater demand for these ranges now. This demand wasn’t there 10 years ago so they were just trying to compete in the same space as the larger ASX owned companies.
The bigger guys have also evolved their ranges all the way from the top to the bottom now with their own boutique range of bricks, as well as what some are importing from overseas.
So, we’re seeing some really exciting colours, exciting ranges. It’s really become trendy, which is great whether for the external facades or the internals of a house, making a feature of brick all around the home.
And because it is going to last, it doesn’t need painting, it’s there forever and that’s what we’re finding consumers are now realising that over time rendered or painted surfaces need costly ongoing maintenance.
Claddings are also used far more often these days. We have so many choices now with natural stone and Australian produced manmade stone. We support the Australian made products as often as we can; they certainly mimic natural stone at a very economical price.
So in the brick area that’s big, in the brick/block area though there’s some exciting things with the island block eco range which is the environmentally friendly range that’s been certified that has the reconstituted glass in it, so recycled glass, not reconstituted, recycled and that’s something that’s quite exciting because while we’ve had honed block and brick out in the marketplace which is quite expensive this offers new innovation and look.
This is not honed, it’s just brushed or sand blasted which exposes the glass from the face of the concrete block and it glitters in the light and sun and because it’s green certified, a lot of builders and designers want something that is Eco Friendly and green and the pricing’s very reasonable, so that’s exciting because it’s a lot to work with because of the environmental benefits.
So, the outdoor lifestyle is here to stay but people are investing more where you can see the feature or the surface in something that’s a little bit different or bit more fashion oriented?
Yes, we’ve seen for example in paving it’s gone from small clay pavers 230 x 115 x 50mm traditionally to a large format 500 x 500 x 40mm and everyone’s larger, larger, larger.
That’s probably come back a little bit because the bigger they get, the harder they are to lay, you need more people and you’ve got OH&S issues again with just physical weight and how you actually lay that product.
We’re seeing a lot of natural products but also a lot of manmade products as well that are mimicking natural stone, so that’s coming in with the porcelains that are pretty much maintenance free you don’t need to seal them, they don’t need any real attention but they are very precise in size.
If you still want something that’s naturally different and not every piece the same you are still going to the old favourites which are clay pavers, which are still made, not as much as they were 10-15 years ago but they’re still very much out there and natural stone still you’re going to get that variation in colour and individuality.
Just a little thing on the whole trend of people buying online, it sounds like with this sort of product range that people really want to see it, touch it, feel it and talk to someone who knows what’s going on. Is that where you see the success of Melbourne Brick? Is that you actually provide the service?
Yes, so that’s why we keep on investing in our display centres and in our staff and in our websites and all those things because ultimately people do end up coming into our display centres to touch and feel and understand the product.
Whilst they can see it on our website, they can’t feel the texture, they can’t see the variation in colour, they can’t always visualise the size so for them to be able to come in and compare products like that, that they’ve seen online, so they’ve been able to do their research which is great, they’ve certainly got a lot more knowledge of what they want to look at when they come in.
Makes our job easier because its already narrowed down. If they haven’t done that though, we go through a selection process with them anyway which is what we do all the time with both people that know and don’t know what they are afer, so often they come in with the mindset of getting A but they end up with B anyway.
Matt, thanks for giving us a bit of past, present and future for Melbourne Brick. Talk to you soon.