October Cover – Peter Hilton

All States Trailer Spares – A Family affair

The humble trailer is one those items many of us own and take for granted until we need it and realise a vital part is missing or broken. Then there are the serious trailer users; the tradespeople, the ‘grey nomads’ and the horse float owners who rely on their trailers to stay mobile or in business.

Founder of All States Trailer Spares, Peter Hilton recognised the need for fast, reliable and competitively priced trailer parts when he opened his first business from a small shed in 1997. Today All States is one of Australia’s largest and most respected wholesale trailer spares distribution and manufacturing companies.

At the helm of the company are Peter and his two daughters, Sheree Robartson and Genette Gregson, who more than hold their own in a male-dominated industry. Recently moving to a facility more than five times the size they occupied in Tuggerah, which at around 4,000sqm was already substantial, the family and their growing team of 26 has steadily built the business over 20 years.

At face value, it seems like the perfect family business success story. However it isn’t until you delve beneath the surface and hear the full story from the beginning that you discover what an epic journey it has been.

Peter started All States in a 150sqm shed with nothing more than his faith and a vision. He had no money, no home (he lived in the shed) and no business experience. A Minister of Religion, Peter left the ministry to care for his wife when she became chronically ill. The couple moved to the Central Coast and, unable to find a job, Peter decided he had no option but to create his own work. He chose trailer spare parts on the back of a second job he had held in a small trailer hire business to subsidise his wage as a minister. When his wife’s health further deteriorated and she had to be placed in full time care, Peter moved his belongings to the shed and for the first few years worked three parttime jobs to make ends meet.

Peter reflected, “I didn’t know if it would work or not; I just had a go. I kept working, working, working. By the time I had outgrown the second shed and moved into the third I was finally able to afford to rent a small unit so I no longer had to live at work. At the start, I thought I knew something about trailers but I quickly discovered I had absolutely no idea. People would bring in an axle and I didn’t know what to do (of course I never told them that). I learned as I went and always found a way.

My whole motivation was to build something for the girls after promising my wife on her deathbed that I would always look after them. And that’s why I never gave up.”

Once word spread about Peter’s reliable next day delivery and commitment to go the extra mile, the business grew stronger and he was able to put on staff. His core values of speed, reliability and competitive pricing were his key points of difference and this remains the case today.

“Loyalty was a big thing in those days. No matter how big the order, I’d work all night if I had to, to get the orders out,” he says. Resourceful and resilient by nature, Peter taught himself to weld and began building trailers and axles to create an additional income to sustain the business during the quiet periods. This skill taught him the benefit of providing quality parts in an under-regulated industry increasingly dominated by inferior overseas imports. Today the company has a team of welders and fabricators trained through apprenticeships and they proudly manufacture around 35% of their own parts. Sheree said, “We care about the safety of our product. Unfortunately there are a lot of inferior products out there, but we won’t compromise on our standard because we’re not willing to risk peoples’ safety.”

While Peter always had a vision to go national (the name, ‘All States’ says it all), he never dreamed it would become as large as it has. He admitted frankly, “By the time the business was turning over $25,000 a month, I was happy. I made a good living, had no bills and everything was fine. But the bloody thing kept growing. So I had to make a decision – stay small or go big? I decided to go big.”

This decision was made during the peak of the GFC, a time during which All States’ turnover grew substantially in 12 months because they were carrying a lot of stock that served a real need. Peter says this happened more through luck than planning and admitted that since his daughters have been on board, they do a lot more forward planning.

She has been part of the business on an ad hoc basis from the start. As a qualified graphic designer, she helped in any way she could until the business could support her full time. Today she manages the marketing. Genette came onboard in an operational management role in 2010 after returning from the UK where she worked in a construction management role for 15 years. While both women have never been afraid to get their hands dirty or speak their minds, Sheree in particular found it took time to earn the respect of the heavily male dominant staff, not only as a woman, but also as the boss’ daughter.

Today both women are respected as company directors and Genette has recently been appointed CEO. Both are hard workers and straight shooters like their father. While they each have a primary area of responsibility (Peter in procurement, Genette in operations and Sheree in marketing), they share in the decision making process and come together daily to talk business. It has also created the perfect succession plan for the company, as Peter plans to slowly cut back on his hours.

Aside from how tough it was in the early days, some of the key challenges Peter, Sheree and Genette have faced include finding and keeping good people, waning customer loyalty, and the challenge of finding time to work on the business.

In terms of staffing challenges, Genette said they have a mix of low and high staff turnover as they have struggled to find people willing to put in the effort they expect. She said, “Dad’s old school, and it’s an old school culture here. We look for the type of person that earns respect from working hard, being honest and taking pride in their work. Trying to have that culture here has been challenging at times, but once people understand what we expect, they’re the ones that stay, and they’re great.” Working on the business is something the trio has become more focused on recently, in particular on improving their own skills as leaders and creating a better workplace culture through teamwork and incentives.

After a drop in turnover last year due largely to the move to new premises, the company is back on track for a year of growth. They have just employed a national sales manager and have a solid team of reps on the road who are geared up to educate customers on their key points of difference in an increasingly competitive market. Peter said, “Our vision is simple – to continue to grow our sales and footprint in Australia and New Zealand, keep local people employed and be known as a trustworthy company that delivers a quality, safe and reliable product.”