A little shop located at 1a Barkly Street Warragul, with a bus stop immediately out the front, would hardly turn heads. Yet it is a retailing success story, with orders coming in from around the world. The signage on the shop’s eaves announces ‘Port Phillip Trading’. It is the brainchild of a remarkable man by the name of Ian Wenzel and he is 80 years old.
At the age of ‘about 70’, when most men are well settled into retirement, Ian Wenzel had a vision. He realized that the age of the Internet had opened a new way to conduct a retail business and a new way to reach out to customers. Ian commissioned the development of a web based trading platform for his small retail outlet and after some trial and error, he had what he wanted – a platform that could service customers anywhere in Australia, or the world. Today the orders are pouring in from around the world and his business is growing remarkably. According to Ian, 70% of all his business is now done online.
“Without the online platform, we wouldn’t exist”, said Ian
Port Phillip Manufacturing is now the single largest retailer of the iconic R.M. Williams line of merchandise in Gippsland. Orders pour in from around Australia and indeed, from around the world. His trading figures are astonishing for a retail outlet in a regional country town and proof that this remarkable octogenarian knows his business.
Ian Wenzel says leather is in his blood.
His great grandfather emigrated from Saxony, Germany, in 1879. He earned a living travelling from farm to farm dressing leather, before opening a Sole Leather Tannery in North Melbourne, trading as G. Wenzel and Sons, a leading sole and heel manufacturing company servicing the footwear industry. The business was later run by Ian’s grandfather and then by his own father, Leslie. His grandfather travelled to the United States just prior to the outbreak of WW2 and in Chicago purchased what was then the most sophisticated leather heel manufacturing equipment available. G. Wenzel and Sons continued trading successfully in an era when Australia had multiple shoe manufacturers, among them famous brand names like Julius Marlow, Paragon, Saxone, Hollandia, Goodchild Shoes and others, including R.M. Williams. H.G. Wenzel & Sons serviced these major manufacturers as well as supplying boots to the Australian Army. When Ian’s father and uncle reached retirement age, G. Wenzel and Sons was sold to Julius Marlowe.
Ian, however, chose a slightly different path. After schooling at Essendon State School and Melbourne Grammar, he thought he might like to start a tannery and supply his father’s company with good quality leather. However, a visit to a tannery in Preston offended his sensibilities so much he instead opted for a traineeship in the retail shoe department of Myers on $10 a week. After a two-year stint, he took up a position with the British United Shoe Machinery Company in Fitzroy on $20 a week! That company launched Ian into the world of corporate manufacturing, beginning in 1959 with a two-year sojourn in the U.K, which interrupted a Commerce Degree at Melbourne University, but, as Ian explained, with a glint in his eye, it was also a honeymoon trip. He is now a father of four, with 10 grandkids.
He returned to Sydney in a senior executive role and spent many years travelling the world, managing, consulting, advising and trading. However, he tired of corporate life and its effects on family life, so in the 1970s he bought a dairy farm on the outskirts of Yarragon. He readily admits dairying wasn’t in his blood and he relied on share farmers while he explored retail trading opportunities and continued as a consultant to industry, particularly knitwear and textile manufacturers. He travelled the world promoting Australian Made knitwear, textiles, and Socks at trade fairs and shows.
Ian was Chairman of the Footwear Manufacturers Association of Australia.
But it all came crashing down in the 1970s, says Ian, when the then Hawke government drastically lowered or removed tariffs and labour intensive industries went into decline. Shoe making, says Ian, is and always will be a labour-intensive exercise. He said many manufacturers have tried various levels of automation, but in every case, quality has suffered. He said that’s why, today, a company like R. M. Williams is so successful. According to Ian, no two pieces of leather are the same and so choosing leather for items like shoes is a skilled art, as is the making of footwear and often, he says, multiple generations of families carry on a very specialised trade. R.M. Williams boots are still handmade and, in Ian’s opinion, the quality is even better than in the past. He has a close relationship with that iconic company that stretches back to when his father sold heels to them.
After 28 years in Yarragon, Ian sold the farm and moved to Warragul, where he established the Port Phillip Trading Company. He chose the name and the business’ distinctive logo of a sailing ship entering Port Phillip Bay, because he wanted something that would connect with Victoria’s and Australia’s past trading history. He is, in his own words, “obsessed with Australian made products”. When asked why, his response is matter of fact and to the point – “because they are the best”.
Ian stocks a range of Australian made items and in fact, sources some of his merchandise locally, wanting to give local artisans and craftsmen an opportunity. For example, he sells Visentin leather products; exquisite examples of leather craftsmanship made in Drouin and Wild Rider oilskin coats and jackets, made in Warragul. According to Ian, they are the best available oilskin product on the market. Ian also stocks Australian Rizzi Socks, products from Hats galore, and he trades in Merino Gold fine wool products.
Orders from around the world for these products come in constantly. Ian even admits to getting up in the middle of the night to check on orders. He breaks off from a conversation to answer the phone, dealing with sales and order enquiries from, well, everywhere, and the answers just flow from what is obviously a keen mind. In fact, he has the mind and intellect of someone who is in their prime – perhaps he is!
Ian also has corporate clothing contracts with large firms like Burra Foods, Heritage Seeds, Seasol and other, smaller, local companies.
His philosophy is quite simple; treat your customers just as you would want to be treated. And that’s what he loves about the Internet – it allows him to give a very personalized service, promptly. According to Ian, the decline in retail trading is a world-wide trend. If retailers want to prosper and grow, they must innovate and improve their customer service.
“The old model of being behind the counter from 9-5 no longer applies”, he said.
Ian also uses other social media platforms, including You Tube.
Judging from the non-stop phone calls and the busy staff who are constantly dealing with online orders and packaging items for mailing to the four corners of the globe, his innovative approach has paid off handsomely.
Ian says he wants to retire.
We just wonder what his next scheme might be.
Certainly, this amazing octogenarian’s mind and experience should not be allowed to simply fade away.
So, next time you happen to walk past that little shop in Barkly Street, please do take notice.
It’s a world beater.