Russ helps three generations “build” careers

As giant warehouse-style hardware stores grew around them, Russell and Knights Building Supplies owner Stuart Anderson were able to maintain—even build—their share of the area’s commercial trade.

Friday was Russell Barrett’s last day as director of Knights Building Supplies, and in a final message to his customers of nearly three decades, he had a simple message: thank you for your support.

He was never going to get away without receiving a traditional “farewell to trades” – in other words, Friday afternoon beers, and he gladly accepted the invitation to come to the Kyabram Club for the goodbye.

Such is the position in which the decorated sportsman is held with the tradesmen who frequented Kyabram’s hardware business that retired builders, the current generation of tradesmen and their new apprentices were all on hand to say goodbye.

In describing his 28.5-year career with the long-standing Kyabram business, he was quick to recognize the relationships he had established with what are now three generations of tradespeople.

When I asked him how many of his commercial customers had “stayed with” Knights since the rise of warehouse-type hardware businesses in the mid-1990s, his response was quick and decisive.

“A huge percentage, a majority of them in fact, stayed with us,” he said.

“We don’t take their business for granted and they always keep us honest, but if they’re in and around the ballpark with our quotes, they’d rather deal with a Kyabram-based company,” Russell explained.

Builder’s best friend: As Russell Barrett was the toast of the town last week after his retirement, he also paid tribute to the loyalty and support of Kyabram tradespeople during his nearly 30-year stint at Knights Building Supplies.

In describing the loyalty of the trades in the city, he said that during his time at Knights he had dealt with now-retired tradesmen, their apprentices, and then the third wave of trades – among them Jack Elliott, Dylan Fitzgerald, West Hill and Besim Besim.

He always had something to say other than providing quotes on the store’s products, his own career as a decorated footballer and his passion for the sport a source of jokes with customers.

“Footy has been a constant talking point in my position, but I usually limit it to a minute or two or nothing would get done,” he said.

Being an avid fan of the game (Australian rules), all of Russell’s clientele wouldn’t even know he’s following Essendon.

“There are many who are much more passionate about their team than me, like Steve Ward (a strong Richmond supporter) for example.

“I’ve heard a lot about him over the last few years,” Russell said.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused panic among several regional businesses, it has been a particularly enlightening time for building materials company Kyabram.

“People weren’t allowed to travel and Bunnings couldn’t cater to the general public, so suddenly I had a new clientele.

“I wouldn’t even have known many people who walked through the door.

“Many online shoppers came to the store and they were quite surprised at what we could offer.

“And, ultimately, we kept a lot of those people as customers from this first lockdown winter of 2020,” he said.

Russell said he was dealing with many people doing DIY projects at home where they used products such as Youtube for inspiration and direction.

“They came with a list and prices for what they wanted, not really knowing what they needed.

“At the end of the day, a lot of them are still walking through the door,” he said.

Russell said COVID-19 was a surprisingly busy time for the company.

His Kyabram Club shipment attracted several clients from the Knights business he inherited when he started in 1994, such as Noel Roberts, Barry Wootton and Andy Boswell.

Glenn Rathbone, Dean Chiswell, Jeff Howard and Leigh Huggard represented the next group of builders and plumbers who regularly stopped at crowded utilities for store supplies.

Sixty-four-year-old Russell was recruited by the current Knights owner after spending five years at the hardware store across the street from his current site.

“It was called Knights Hardware and it was a family store. I came from Stanhope to work with them, having worked at Bonlac after six months of traveling overseas,” he said.

Before coming into the hardware and building materials business, Russell recalls a short career as a “postman”, when he shared a house in Melbourne with Laurie Casey and Steve Sharp.

“Six Bank St was quite a famous place in Ascot Vale. Every time we played at Seymour, the footballers weren’t that far to come and stay for the weekend,” he said.

The three 19-year-old footballers were training with the Melbourne Under-19 team at the time, coached at the time by legendary youth football mentor Ray “Slug” Jordan.

“He (Jordan) liked us to torpedo hits as we worked in a circle around the MCG. I launched a full one, several rows back in the lower tier of the seats and I remember hearing it say, ‘the biggest bloody ground there is and you still couldn’t find the grass’.

“We were all playing with Ky and then in 1978-79 I came over from Stanhope and Laurie from Girgarre,” Russell explained.

Russell had played in Stanhope’s premiership team of the Heathcote league in 1976 and Casey had done the same at Girgarre.

In all, he played in Stanhope’s first three positions, 1976, 1986 and 1987, but lost in 1988 and 1989.

He was assistant coach to Neil Warnett during a golden period with the club, but the 1989 grand final was his last game.

“David Freer Alan Lanyon and I all gave it away after that grand final. I was 30 and after three or four knee surgeries I was fed up,” he said.

The father of four – Ellen, Mitchell, Liam and Drew – and grandfather of four, aged nine to two, said retirement meant he would pursue other interests.

“I’m going to work part-time, but there are other things to do,” he said.

He said he and his 36-year-old wife, Kath, had no plans to travel immediately and would continue to live in Fenaughty St.

“Three of the four children live in Bendigo and the other in Shepparton. I will spend a little more time with them and the grandchildren,” he said.

Russell’s relationship with his current clientele is a little different from how things started.

“I remember having a little nerve when I started, but there’s a little more respect,” he said.

“Many of the trades people I deal with now grew up while I worked here.”

Russell said that, like many people who have spent three or four decades in the workforce, he doesn’t know why technology hasn’t lightened the workload.

“When I started, everything was done by hand and we displayed everything,” Russell said.

“Now it’s just computers and email. It should be faster, I wonder where we’ve had time to do this for a long time.

“Much longer process then, but I think we still had more time.”

While it’s not a complete case of kicking and screaming training in a new era of technology, Russell admitted that learning a new way of doing business was a bit difficult.

“It was a very organic process. It was really difficult the first two years,” he said.

He explained that it was the camaraderie he would miss the most in retirement

“That and working with the team here at Knights. When I started there were eight people employed by the company and today that number has remained at seven.

“The business has certainly stood the test of time,” he said.

As for his replacement, the team is expected to take responsibility for leadership as a team.

About Catherine Sturm

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