The succession you have when you don’t have succession

The Birkill family hasn't passed on businesses, instead they start new ones. Family members tend to walk their own path by opening niche clothing businesses. It's a succession-less success story.

One way for a family business to handle succession is to not do it at all: each new generation starts again. That’s how the Birkill family has done it in the clothing business.

Bruce Birkill was a fashion wholesaler in Flinders Lane during the heyday of Melbourne’s rag trade in the 50s and 60s. His son David grew up in the business but then as soon as he could he and his wife Jennifer started their own niche operation, in large-sized clothing and maternity wear.

David’s son Brett grew up in that business and then as soon as he could, he and his wife started their own niche clothing business, in workwear.

Prime Mover Workwear, as it’s called, is now going beautifully, and so is Pea in a Pod maternity, the business that his parents started, and is now 100 per cent owned by Jennifer.

And in that business there is actually a succession plan: Jennifer is preparing to hand on the business to her daughter Nicole, who works with her.

David, meanwhile, has his own niche clothing business – contract embroidery for uniforms and workwear, partly working with Brett.

But let’s return to Bruce for a moment. For most of the 20th century, Flinders Lane was the heart of Australia’s fashion industry. It started in 1893 with a single factory making ladies white underwear and peaked in 1939 with 610 different businesses operating up and down this narrow street in Melbourne’s CBD.

Bruce Birkill’s business was started after he returned from World War 2, and died with him in 1985.

It was a typical Flinders Lane ladies fashion wholesaler, servicing city boutiques through sales reps who would collate orders through the week and then meet up with all the other reps for lunch on Friday at the Phoenix Hotel to collate them, and then deliver the orders to the wholesalers on Friday afternoon.

They did four ranges per year, and it was all locally manufactured – either in Flinders Lane itself or increasingly, nearby in Collingwood. It’s hard to believe these days.

Then in the 1970s, with parking and traffic a big and growing problem, the Melbourne City Council restricted the size of trucks that were allowed to drive in Flinders Lane. That forced the rag traders to move, en masse, to Collingwood and Fitzroy and the warehouses of Flinders Lane were first left derelict, and are now all fashionable restaurants and cafes – the new boom CBD industry.

David was born soon after the war ended and his son Brett was born in 1975. David worked with his father in the family business from the age of 17, delivering, packing, taking orders, and above all learning. At the age of 25 he struck out on his own, wholesaling maternity wear and large sizes with his wife Jenny, largely to Myer and Target.

They called the business Brett Fashions after their son, and naturally Brett himself, along with his younger sister Nicole, worked in the business on weekends – as soon as they could carry a box or write down an order.

Brett’s Year 12 coincided with the aftermath of the Recession We Had To Have, so he left school and helped his parents full-time.

For six years David, Jenny, Brett and Nicole worked day and night to get through the downturn, rebuilding the business from the ground up as Pea in a Pod maternity wear. And then in 1999, when the business was on its feet again, Brett left to join another family business: Clyde Davenport’s men’s underwear business – Davenport Boxer Shorts – which was eventually sold to the New Zealand firm, Bendon Group.

At Davenport, Brett was offshore production manager, learning about production and supply chains in China, Vietnam and India. He met his wife Wandy in Hong Kong, and together they put together a range of knitwear sourced out of Hong Kong.

Like a lot of start-up businesses, Brett and Wandy became the beneficiaries of opportunity: Adidas gave them a big order for sports tops and they started moving some serious volumes.

But they soon realized they needed their own brand: simply sourcing product for other brands involved low margins and high risk. At one stage they got a big order for high-visibility polo fleece tops, a business that was growing rapidly in the US and UK, and realized that here was an opportunity to establish their own niche.

So in 2004 the third generation rag trade Birkill began Prime Mover Workwear.

He and Wandy took their business plan to the Commonwealth Bank, with an investment property as security for the loan they needed, and… were knocked back.

And then a week or so later, remarkably, they got a call from a more senior manager at the city branch of the bank who said he had decided to overrule the rejection and approve the loan – a secured overdraft of $100,000 – saying that the bank needed to back businesses like this because in ten years they’ll be big businesses.

Well, needless to say, Brett and Wandy are still with the CBA and Prime Mover Workwear is indeed a big, and growing, business, employing 50 people and turning over close to $15 million this year.

One of the keys to their success was setting up doing in-house embroidery of brands, so the end customers didn’t have to send them off to be embroidered after delivery, saving about two weeks.

Oh, and they’re not selling online, direct to customers, like their big competitors, King Gee and Yakka (owned by Pacific Brands).

According to Brett, with online shopping taking off there’s an opportunity for them to focus on servicing their 2000 resellers. “We’ll never sell direct online,” he says. “We aim to be entirely supportive of our reseller base”.

Meanwhile, over at Pea in a Pod in Collingwood, his mother and sister are doing 40-50 per cent of their sales online, but this business has long been a retailer as well as wholesaler, operating through two stores as well as the website.

And Jenny, preparing for retirement, is planning to transfer ownership of the business to 34-year-old Nicole. It will be the first true succession event in the history of the Birkill family business.

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