The bushfires: rebuilding from scratch

What is today the Betta Home Living store has been an integral part of the Batemans Bay retail scene since 1976 when it was opened by Ken and Cath McClelland – whose family have been in the region for generations – as KC Discounts. In October 2016 Geoff Hatton bought into the business in partnership with Ken and Cath’s son Dominic, looking to make the most of the growing demand for white goods and IT equipment for both the local community and the Canberrans buying up – and building – property in the region to let as holiday homes.

Stocking up for the high season

The main highway into Bateman’s Bay had been closed for much of December 2019 due to fire activity, denuding Geoff’s stock. So, when the highway reopened immediate after Christmas, Geoff filled the store with new stock in anticipation of a spike in demand for white goods from holiday-home owners looking to make up for the loss of rental income in December in the second half of the summer and for laptops, ipads and the like for the new school year.

The busy period was brought to an abrupt halt, however, with the warning of catastrophic fire conditions on New Year’s Eve. Geoff went into the store at 5.30 am that morning to ensure everything was safe and secure before evacuating the area, expecting the business to be closed for a few days.

“The belief was that the main street and commercial buildings – ours is made from steel and brick – would be okay,” Geoff explains. Indeed, the first firefront passed by without impacting the commercial centre, shared with six other outlets, in which Geoff’s business is located. However, a wind shift in the afternoon saw the fire turn back on itself and the commercial centre came under severe ember attack. Geoff received an urgent summons, under escort from firefighters, and watched his premises burn to the ground. At the same time a number of the store’s staff were fighting to save their homes, a feat they all managed to achieve. “Fortunately, my own home – only ten minutes away from our store – wasn’t impacted by the fire,” Geoff says.

Straight onto the front foot

Exemplifying the resilience of Aussie small-businesses owners, Geoff was making plans to keep the venture going before the flames were doused.

“My business partner and I were on the phone there and then, calling real-estate agents to find out if they had any vacant premises,” Geoff says.

Once they got into their premises a couple of days after the fire it transpired that there wasn’t one item of stock in their 1000 square-metre space that was saleable. “What wasn’t burnt or some-damaged had been rendered useless by water damage from the firefighting effort and the rain that fell the following day,” Geoff bemoans.

He and Dominic were up and running again quickly nevertheless. Although online had previously accounted for only a single-digit percentage of their sales, the community rallied around them and bought from there web store, with two neighbouring Betta franchises helping out with stock to service those sales. And a local agent found them a nearby, albeit much smaller, commercial unit that they stocked and were trading out of by 20 January.

Insurance a lifeline

“Every year you question whether it’s worth paying high insurance premiums,” Geoff says. “But this event just proved what a small price it is to pay when you lose everything.” He is full of praise for his insurance broker and insurance company, an interim payment within days enabling them to buy stock for the temporary premises and his business interruption insurance meaning he has been able to pay his staff in full throughout the disruption. Unfortunately, Geoff has not had nearly such a positive experience with the government agencies set up to help small business in the aftermath of the fires.

“Six times I visited the recovery centre, but they were just overwhelmed,” he says. When de did eventually manage to talk to someone he was initially advised that he wasn’t eligible for any form of grant because, he was told, “his insurance was covering things”. In recent weeks there have been changes to the government assistance process, with new forms asking different questions, and Geoff hasn’t given up on getting some help in due course.

Pivoting to adapt

His focus, however, is on safeguarding the future of the business off his own back. Sanguine about the fact that they may be in the smaller, temporary premises for up to another 12 months before the commercial centre can be made safe and rebuilt, business is brisk.

“The community have been incredibly supportive,” Geoff says. “And although it’s still far too early for damaged and destroyed holiday homes to be rebuilt, some of their owners are using their insurance payouts to buy new properties, and they need what we sell to kit them out.”

The online trading is picking up, too, with the business adapting to the new threat of COVID-19 by equipping delivery drivers with gloves and masks and offering the option of “zero-contact delivery” to minimise the health risk.

“Some people are having to isolate for two weeks,” Geoff says, “ and they want a nice TV to while away that time, so we need to provide a safe way of getting it to them, even if it means leaving it on the front step at a pre-arranged time.”

This story first appeared in issue 28 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine

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