In 1995, brothers Grant and Bradley Johnston and their father Steve recognised a need in the Australian marketplace for an importer and processor of reinforced steel. At that time, there were just two key players in the space, BHP and ARC Smorgon, both of which had steel mills in the country but had become somewhat complacent due to their stature and the lack of competition. The siblings established Best Bar Reinforcements and started to import products from overseas before cutting and bending it to the requirements of the customer. Its operations grew from there, and today the business is a leader in its field, delivering a diverse range of reinforcement solutions to the civil, commercial, and residential construction industries. Grant and Bradley continue to manage the operations as managing director and group operations manager respectively.
We started off doing smaller homes and structures to build up the business, and it was going along quite nicely, Grant says. We then got the opportunity in 1997 to work on the Northbridge Tunnel in Western Australia, which was a very large project consisting of about 26,000 tonnes of reinforcing steel. We were invited to tender the project, the reason being that the company at the time, which happened to be the Baulderstone and Clough joint venture, was not too happy with the pricing of the two major players in the marketplace. They felt that there was an opportunity for better pricing, so they invited us to put a price on the project. To be honest, we never thought that we would have any chance of winning it.
On the back of that assignment, in 1999 the company felt pressure from the duopoly dominating the sector and reacted by expanding into Melbourne, Victoria. Grant says that it quickly became evident that without a strong backing from a steel mill, things were going to be tough.
Conveniently, the Singapore mill NatSteel was moving into Australia at the time and opened up an operation in Sydney, New South Wales. It was looking for a suitable acquisition and subsequently went into a 5050 partnership with Best Bar. We ended up selling down to around 30 per cent and we expanded the business all over Australia, Grant recalls. That gave us the opportunity to put new equipment in, modernise the business, and grow it further.