We sat down with Colin Hofton, owner of bUTE Trays & Accessories, to find out more about those ute trays we see everywhere on the streets of Bendigo.
Tell us about bUTE and how the business came about?
We bought the business six years ago. Under another name, it had been around since the early 1990s. My son worked for the company and the previous owner was looking to sell. We considered it for about twelve months before we made the decision to buy it. I had had a business in the past and was working for someone else. It was an opportunity to get back into business.
It’s a brilliant name – whose idea was that?
I wanted an Australian type name that was appealing to clients and said something about our business. The previous name was just letters. We deliberately set the logo the way it is because people look twice. It catches your eye.
What is your professional background / what did you do before bUTE?
I was a drycleaner with my own business for more than twenty years. The industry was changing and it was also time for a change. Whatever your business, attitude is important.
Good pricing, good service, delivered in a timely manner. These are important whatever the business you’re in.
Where are your clients based?
Most of our clients are in Central Victoria and the western part of the state, but we’ve delivered trays to Pakenham, Traralgon and Darwin. There are other options within a couple of hours and we’re proud that people travel to use us.
What did you do to build up your client base?
When we bought the business we went to all the car dealers around town. We asked them did they use the business and if not, why not. We learned from that process.
We now carry a larger quantity of stock, deliver trays that look identical for large orders (after all most companies have a fleet of identical vehicles) and worked on more timely delivery.
We encouraged dealers to get their customers to talk to bUTE. We tried to have conversations with our customers so they could get what they wanted.
In short, we wanted to provide more responsive customer service.
How has the business grown since you started? What are some obstacles you have faced?
We had five staff when we started plus me. We now have fourteen to fifteen staff. We’re still growing.
Customers can get a cheaper tray from overseas but we believe it’s of lesser quality. Our trays are custom made. We invite customers to come in, even on a Saturday by appointment, to discuss their requirements.
Staffing can also be a major obstacle. Getting trained staff, training younger staff … Some staff have unrealistic wage expectations (fostered by competition from the mining industry and other large organisations). Bendigo is a small town and I do not believe (small businesses) can support exhorbitant wage demands.
When looking for employment prospective employees need to know the award they will be working under and understand the pay rates.
We also try to foster good relationships with the local automotive dealers.
What do you find most challenging about owning and running a small business?
Staffing! There is a real balance between having enough staff to do the work and enough work to keep them busy. And dealing with a range of personalities can be challenging.
We rely on other businesses to get stock to us in a timely manner so we can get back to our customers.
Government charges especially around Payroll tax can be difficult, do you employ more staff and get hit with additional taxes or fall behind on delivery schedules. And chasing up payment from clients so we are not running on an overdraft.
How do you keep ahead of the competition?
Simple – by producing a better tray.
We are constantly evolving the product, making slight changes to separate our product from the opposition.
And we try to have direct communication with the customer so we can deliver what they need.
What are your ingredients for success?
My philosophy is – the harder I work, the luckier I get. You’ve got to be prepared to work hard, put in the hours and have good staff around you.
Innovation – does this play a part in your business? Are you inventing new products or processes?
We are constantly evolving the product but at this stage, we are not looking at new products. We have good processes and my attitude is, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
Tell us about a time when you made a business mistake and what you learned from this experience?
I’ve learnt in business that communication at all levels is so important. For example, if a customer changes their mind, then we need to make sure that’s communicated on the job order.
Running out of stock is not good. We work hard at making sure this happens as little as possible.
If you could share one piece of advice with other business owners or aspiring business owners, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to have a go and don’t be afraid of change.
Have confidence in your own abilities.
And have a good accountant!
What digital channels do you use and why / why not?
We have a website and we are on Facebook. That’s it. We rely on TV and radio advertising and some newspaper advertising.
Most of our work comes from word of mouth.
What is an avenue you would like to invest in, that you have not yet pursued?
Being a small business it’s hard to devote the time to go to shows. It takes someone out of the business for a period of time.
Future plans for bUTE?
We have purchased land at Brickworks and are looking to expand there in the next two years.
We’re proud that we are a local company employing locals while sending our trays throughout the country as well as locally. We appeal to people who want to choose what they want to have in a tray.
Our slogan is “Don’t settle for a good tray; demand a bUTE tray.”