Robert Elphinstone knows all about teamwork. It was the key to success when he was a professional footballer, and it still works within his family business today. His father created Tasman Group in the 50s as a metal pressing shop. Robert joined as an apprentice in 1977, straight from school, and continued working even while playing AFL for St Kilda Football Club from 1980–89.
When his father died in 1989, Robert and his two older brothers took over the store. Feeling like he was thrown in the deep end, Robert sought advice from acclaimed businessman, and St Kilda’s former president, Lindsay Fox. “Lindsay and I have stayed in touch since my playing days,” says Robert, “and he has mentored me to some extent. He has great family values and I have tried to emulate that in my business.”
Under Lindsay’s guidance Robert began looking for possibilities with other metal products the moment he started. “I saw an opportunity in shop fittings and store fixtures, so I opened another division. That took off and the metal pressing — the automotive components — dwindled out and died.” Six years ago, when his brothers retired, Robert became the sole CEO, a role he still holds today.
A kick-start from Coles
A major turning point for Tasman Group was in the 80s, when the company won its first shop-fitting contract with Coles. Suddenly the business went from being a small sub-supplier to a serious player. After Coles came Kmart, Target, and other department stores. The 90s marked another exciting period as Tasman Group expanded into China, building strong relationships and doing some serious business there. Then, in 2011, the company took over an ailing business in the US.
“A few years ago we also started a building services division here in Australia,” Robert says. “It’s a full service turnkey operation that gives our clients a one-stop-shop advantage. We’re obviously well priced because we have great relationships in China, but also because we have our own building team. Therefore, the customer can place one order for an entire store, rather than orders with twenty different vendors. That takes a lot of pressure off the client because we basically run their timelines for them. Knowing there’s an opening date for a store, we work backwards from there and make sure everything is in there in a timely fashion.”
That service includes shipping materials directly to the port nearest to the store, rather than first to the company warehouse in Melbourne and then to the final destination. Good relationships with logistics teams in each state also means less cost to the customer.
Exciting challenges in China
Since taking over as CEO, Robert says the major change has been the expansion into China. Ten years ago he saw the need to have a team on the spot to work closely with suppliers, so there is now a full office team and joint-venture partnerships with those factories.
“There are good and bad factories,” he notes. “Anyone can find a Chinese supplier but it’s how you manage that which makes a difference. We do see it as more of a partnership, than a supplier and a customer relationship.
Anyone can find a Chinese supplier but it’s how you manage that which makes a difference; what sort of control you have along the way. We do see it as more of a partnership.
I was travelling about once a month for almost a decade before I got my own team up there, so I developed good relationships with factory owners. They would protect me if any other Australian company approached them to price up some equipment.”
That level of trust and friendship extends to his team of shipping agents. As a global company, working with global partners, Tasman Group warehouses and ships to twenty different countries around the world. Thus, close ties with the freight teams are vital.
Future sales to be boosted by new opportunities and business models
For now and into the immediate future, the focus for the group is on sales. Robert has hired a general manager to take care of the day-to-day business while he concentrates on seeking new opportunities and developing business models. “The main areas now are to consolidate that and drive some sales along the way,” he shares. “We currently have warehousing and our office in Shanghai, but I also have a team that works in other parts of China. We’ve had some success supplying shopping carts into the US market with another Chinese partner, so I will expand our team over there, not only in Los Angeles but with an office in Texas as well.”
It’s not surprising to learn that searching for these new opportunities and creating new connections are what bring Robert into the office every day — as well as working with his team, many of whom have been with Tasman Group for a long time. “I’m also loving my sons getting involved,” Robert says with a smile. “My eldest boy is 22, and started at the bottom unloading trailers and doing assembly work. He’s now moved into more of an account manager role. My other son is at university and working with us. Again, he is working his way up. It’s a family environment and the business is there for all of us.”