Watching his parents lose everything was a blessing in disguise for Brett Birkill, writes Nina Hendy.
Brett Birkill is the poster boy for self-made millionaires. The Melbourne man overcame major adversity to become rich and, given he fronts his own ad campaigns, arguably famous. But it was a long road to success.
In 1993, his life was turned upside down when his parents' apparel business went into liquidation. He was just a teen when he watched helplessly as the recession hit at the same time as increased competition came from China.
His parents fought unsuccessfully to retain control of what had been a thriving clothing brand stocked in major outlets across the country.
The business collapsed and the family lost everything, moving out of their comfortable Melbourne family home into rented accommodation, just as Birkill was leaving high school.
"It was a surreal time in my life," he says. "Suddenly, I was facing many decisions I had never contemplated. But my biggest lesson was watching my parents get out of bed the very next day after losing everything and start rebuilding their business again from scratch."
Rather than go to university or travel like many of his schoolmates, Birkill decided to pitch in and help his family relaunch its clothing enterprise. He spent weekends selling ice-cream from a Mr Whippy van to generate extra income.
"Watching as such a good business went bad and then recovered after years of sweat and tears can't be taught at a university. On reflection, it was a massively positive time."
The experience did nothing to dampen his love of the rag trade. Nine years ago, Birkill launched his own apparel brand, Prime Mover Workwear, into a market dominated by multinational names such as Hard Yakka and King Gee.
Today, Birkill's brand is the fastest-growing privately owned workwear label in the country, and expects to turn over more than $15 million this year. It holds 6 per cent of the Australian workwear market, has 50 staff and 1800 Australian distributors. It has warehouses in Melbourne, Perth, China and recently, New Zealand. Just two months into the new financial year, turnover has grown another 35 per cent. He is working to further grow his Australian footprint and expand into West Africa.
Most of his clients operate in mining, transport, warehousing and councils. About 65 per cent of what he sells is high visibility gear, along with other workwear items such as drill pants and shirts.
Growth in recent years has been fuelled by increased concerns and legislation around workplace safety. He also personally controls a property portfolio worth $12 million in multiple states above and beyond the workwear business. He recalls watching his parents struggle during the recession and says it was a turning point in his life. His family had long been a part of the thriving Melbourne rag trade. His grandfather had run an apparel business in Flinders Lane in Melbourne in the 1950s and '60s, where his father learnt the trade.
"I still think about those early days. My wife has been a mentor, and most definitely so has my dad, even though he had those hard years. My parents taught me that it's only over when you decide it's over."
Birkill has been successful in what remains a competitive and challenging apparel trade because he's worked hard to get the fundamentals right, he says.
He has forged a good supply chain that enables him to guarantee delivery and service. Being a privately owned business, he can also respond to individual client requests, such as logo embroidery.
Innovation has also been key to his success. "We're developing technology that can help us create fabrics that are far more flame retardant than our competitors'. This is especially important for the mining sector.
"I've also forged strong relationships with key people within our sector, and I personally visit a lot of the distributors myself. I treat everyone the same. I cherish the corner store in far-flung Western Australia just as much as the huge international companies that stock my range."
And despite imports changing the apparel trade and affecting many Australian businesses, including his parents' business, Birkill has gone offshore, manufacturing all products in China, employing staff there.
Birkill says working hard every day has been paramount. "There have definitely been no flukes along the way; it's all been hard work. And it's not easy to work hard day in, day out, which is the reason why a lot of people don't do it."