Home Industry Pro From surf to turf: the Ken Bennett story

From surf to turf: the Ken Bennett story

This is a yarn with more twists and turns than a cheap hydraulic hose.  It’ll take us from Sydney’s Northern Beaches to the Middle East and all the way back to BrisVegas. Which means, of course, we can only be talking about one man: Ken Bennett, owner of Melbourne Tractors and the most notable Kobelco dealership in Brisbane.

Raised in the surf at Dee Why, Ken started working life as an accountant for the City Tattersalls Club in Pitt Street, Sydney. But he quickly realised that life in accountancy wasn’t for him. “Just, the confinement of being indoors and doing the same routine, didn’t really wear well with me,” he says. “I decided to change my direction in life and applied to go to Hawkesbury Agricultural College.”

A late application, however, meant delaying his studies until the following year. Which, for Ken, meant taking what we’d now call a ‘gap year’. “I went and lived up at Noosa in Queensland, surfing and packing groceries at night to supplement my income,” he laughs. “When I got back to Hawkesbury Ag College, I studied agricultural science. From there I acquired a job as a cattle auctioneer.”

While a glamorous job in some regards, auctioneering proved to be not very well paid. Ken started looking for greener pastures. “I had the opportunity of joining as a sales rep to an Australian company called John Shearer,” he recalls. “They were a very large company in their day, in manufacturing, seeding, and tillage equipment. I served as a rep to them for a number of years and was later transferred to Western Australia.”

After five years out west, Ken found himself back in Dubbo, overseeing the Queensland and New South Wales markets for John Shearer. What followed was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“I got involved in pursuing export work with John Shearer overseas, selling seeding and tillage equipment. I spent a lot of time educating people about the dry land farming systems they should be using in dry parts of the world,” he says. “Australian farmers have developed their own technology, really – they’re pretty innovative. And these other markets were using European methods, just because of their proximity. But they were totally unsuitable for the soil types, weather and rainfall in those regions. So, before you could sell anything, you had to convince them that the technology in our equipment was better for their purposes.”

And so, our ex-accountant/surf bum from Dee Why found himself spending up to six months at a time selling seed drills in the Middle East. “I went to Iraq and Iran, North Africa and Southern Europe,” Ken shares. “And, at that stage, John Shearer actually had a factory in Rustenburg, South Africa. So, I spent a bit of time over there educating some of the sales reps as well.”

Ken feels fortunate to have travelled to regions the average person will likely never experience. “Most people never get to places like Iran or Iraq,” he says. “As tourism goes, they’re very beautiful. And you get an understanding of the culture of the middle eastern people.”

Being over there during the Gulf War, Ken did have the odd experience that would get anyone’s heart rate up. Although, he regards it all as an adventure. “I remember facing down the barrels of quite a few rifles at certain stages. Especially when the war was on,” he shares. “I was there when the city of Tehran was bombed. I remember seeing the jets flying over the top of the hotel I was staying in, thinking we were a target. I tried to dive under the bed, but it was too close to the floor! Fortunately, they flew on and it was nothing too major.”

Back home, Ken and his family had bought a property in Northern New South Wales, near the Clarence River, in a little place called Lawrence. “I lived there for quite a number of years, still working on that overseas market,” he recalls. “Then, during one of the major recessions, Shearers went quiet. They asked me to take long service leave, which I did. And I kept asking, ‘What’s going on? What’s happening?’ But they couldn’t come back to me with any answers.”

Amongst all that uncertainty, Ken felt it was time to forge his own path. “I thought, well, I have to make my own decisions,” he says. “At that time, my brother was running an import business for aftermarket motorcycle accessories. He offered me to be their rep down in Victoria. From there I moved on to work for another business, selling tractors.”

Finding himself unhappy with the way that company did business, Ken called upon a contact from his John Shearer days to help set up a meeting with Melbourne Tractors. “I went to see if there were any jobs available and they happened to be looking for a salesman,” he recalls. “But I said, ‘If I’m coming to work for you, I want the opportunity to buy into the company at some point’. They both thought that was fair enough – there were two of them owned the company at that stage. Well, long story short, I eventually bought them both out.”

Ken ended up owner of both Melbourne Tractors and the New Holland dealership up in Ballarat it had recently acquired. “I wanted to be master of my own direction,” he says. “To do that, I felt I had to own and develop a business, where the opportunity is not just working for somebody else. That’s what I really wanted to do.”

Down the track, Ford and New Holland merged and Melbourne Tractors became a Ford New Holland dealer. “New Holland had an extensive agricultural range in tractors and hay equipment,” Ken explains. “Being in the middle of the city, that market started shrinking. They did have a construction range – loader backhoes and skid-steer loaders. Most of the agricultural dealers were also selling construction equipment but they didn’t know what to do with it. Eventually they decided to appoint a limited number of high performing dealers around the state to officially become their construction and agricultural dealers. We’d proved our worth with them, so we were selected.”

Back then, New Holland and Kobelco had a marketing arrangement where New Holland could buy yellow-painted Kobelcos in the mini range and sell them under the new Holland brand. “That’s where our first association with Kobelco came up,” Ken explains. “We were keen to get the whole Kobelco brand, but there was already an importer. Kobelco weren’t based in Australia at that stage. So, selling those yellow ‘New Holland’ Kobelcos was our only option. That and selling from their secondhand range in Japan, which we did quite well out of.”

As time went on, Kobelco decided they wanted to sell into Australia themselves, which meant setting up a dealer network. “They appointed dealers throughout Australia and we were lucky enough to be one of those,” Ken says. “That was a pivotal moment.”

Since the original importer was on the opposite side of town, Ken knew there’d be backlash. “People would’ve had to drive all the way over to Campbellfield from Dandenong to get a look at a machine, get spare parts or come in for servicing,” he shares. “So, we decided to open up another business in the Dandenong area.”

This took Ken’s business footprint up to three locations – two in Melbourne and the one up in Ballarat. “Then, about 11 years ago, we also acquired the ASV franchise, which is Posi Tracks. It was a good second string to our bow,” he says. “At that stage, they had an unsatisfactory dealership network in Brisbane – they weren’t happy with what was going on there. So, they offered me the franchise up there.”

That Brisbane branch has become one of the most well-known earthmoving machinery dealerships in the region – perhaps with a little help from its memorable name. “Early on, I was flying into Brisbane and I heard the host say over the speaker, ‘Welcome to sunny Brisvegas.’ And I liked the sound of it,” Ken says. “We got a few heckles about it – especially once we started dealing with bigger clients. But a name like that, people remember it.”

Ken continued to grow the BrisVegas presence, later acquiring the New Holland franchise up that way. “With ASV as a standalone thing, we broke even but we didn’t really make a lot of money out of it,” he recalls. “The addition of New Holland really helped the effort.”

But his really big break came in the form of an out-of-the-blue phone call from New Holland’s then sales manager, Wayne Munce. “He wanted me to come to the Brisbane airport and meet someone. I said, ‘Yeah. What’s it all about?’ But he wasn’t going to tell me,” Ken laughs. “So, I went to the airport and met a guy called Doug McQuinn, who was originally at Melroad. He was the man responsible for setting up Kobelco in Australia.”

Kane and Ken Bennett

Doug told Ken the current company they’d been dealing with wasn’t performing. “They were a big John Deere dealer in agriculture and also dealing in Kobelco, but they weren’t doing a great job. They were happy to hand it over to someone else,” he says. “So, Doug wanted to know if we were interested. I’d been pushing for it for some time so, of course, I jumped at that with everything. It pretty much meant a 30% expansion of the business overnight.”

The business went from strength to strength, playing a key role in building up both the ASV and Kobelco brands in the Australian market. They also brought Merlo into the fold for their telehandlers. “They were looking for somebody they felt could do justice to their products and they settled on us,” Ken explains. “We were happy to have them because, while New Holland does a telehandler, supply was difficult and they only have one model. We were missing out on a lot of that market. Merlo has that big range and it works in with our synergies, as far as having both the construction and the agriculture sides of the business.”

Ken says it has been important to represent products he believes in, regardless of current trends. “With Kobelco, because they weren’t based in Australia, they had only a few little dealers around the place,” he says. “They certainly didn’t have the dealer network they have now. And they didn’t have the same advertising or even the population of the machines they do now. These days we’re one of the biggest dealers for Kobelco in Australia. And at one stage number one in Victoria, three years in a row – as in units sold.”

Some of Kobelco’s success, Ken says, comes down to their business model. “All the other companies do dozers and loaders and everything else,” he explains. “Kobelco chose to specialise in excavators. It’s all they make, so they pour all their effort into it. It’s got to be right doesn’t it, or they’re not going to survive.”

One thing Kobelco machines are known for is their fuel efficiency. “One customer who just purchased a new 500XD, he’d owned the previous model and before that a Hitachi,” Ken says. “He showed me his fuel figures for the three machines and we worked out he was saving $12,000 a year in fuel costs alone. That’ll be $60,000 over the time he’ll own it. Which is pretty impressive.”

Melbourne Tractors is also one of the largest dealers of ASV in the world. “We know they’re far superior to any other compact track loader,” Ken says. “We took on that brand when it wasn’t flavor of the month. We had to work hard with demonstrating the Posi-Tracks. Now we hardly ever demonstrate. People just know they’re the best out there.”

Ken’s son, Kane, and daughter, Tara, also working in the business, up in the BrisVegas branch. As the General Manager up there, Kane’s name is virtually synonymous with the BrisVegas brand. “He’s always been a good salesman, like his old man,” Ken laughs. “He had his own business, but it wasn’t going that well and I said, ‘Look, why don’t you come down here and work for me?’ He was living in Toowoomba at the stage. So, he moved down to Melbourne and worked in the business here for a number of years.”

When it became clear the business needed some more direction up in Brisbane, Kane decided to take that on and move back up north. “Now he’s a constant in the area up there. He’s doing a great job of developing the business. And he oversees operations down here from time to time, too. We work really well together and we can talk frankly to each other.”

That open communication is one of the main strengths of the business, not only as a family-based company, but as one that answers only to itself. “We’re not subject to corporates telling us what to do or how to do it,” he explains. “Whether there’s some small issue or a major business decision, we can resolve it ourselves. Customers don’t have to go through the sales manager, the branch manager and everything else to get a decision. They can virtually be made on the spot. And that’s what customers like, being able to do that sort of thing.”

Back down in Melbourne, Ken’s pride and joy is the custom-designed premises they built around three years back. “We bought a block of land – around 20,000 square meters – in Somerton. The other place we had in Campbellfield was really just some warehouses with showroom frontage. It was never totally suitable. But the place we’ve got now is something we’ve built knowing exactly what it was going to be: construction dealership, service center and parts center.”

Despite all his success, Ken says it hasn’t always been easy going growing a business. But the secret, he says, is to just keep going. “We’ve had times where the economy has taken a big step back and a lot of people get scared. Customers get nervous and put off buying a machine while they wait to see what happens,” he says. “But I’ve always taken the positive attitude that we can work our way through anything. Fortunately, that’s always paid off. Because we don’t stop, we’ve been in front of the event when the economy turns around – whether that’s with a new premises or new machinery etc. We’ve always been ready to pick up and run with it.”

Despite COVID, Ken’s still in growth mode, even bringing on new staff. “We’ve actually just employed two new representatives in Victoria, another service advisor in Melbourne and a sales coordinator position in Ballarat,” he shares. “Those are all new positions, so we’re still employing, despite the past couple of years.”

Ken reveals he also has a further side project going, under the brand of Kenbuilt. “It’s taken me a while, but we’re working with a good company in China, manufacturing buckets for our excavators,” he shares. “There are a few new products we’ve had them develop. We’re currently testing those products in the field before we add them to our range. So that’s become a big part of our business, too.”

Being in the game so long, Ken says it’s the one thing that always stays the same that makes it great. “They’re good people in this industry,” he says. “Basic people with a good understanding of what business is about. I’ve made a lot of friends over the years. People I still deal with on a regular basis.”

Looking back, Ken says it’s the simple things that have kept him motivated. “Just being able to keep growing. Being able to sleep at night, knowing that I can pay my bills – things like that,” he says. “And being a family business, we try to look after our people. You can’t run a business without them. People buy from people and to keep them coming back, you’ve got to have the right service backup as well as selling the machines.”

With a solid team of ten reps in Victoria and four in Brisbane, the depth of experience within the business is second to none. “We’ve got people who have been here even before I was involved,” he shares. “There’s one guy has been here 35 years. And one of the office girls about 28 years. I think the average length of employment in Australia is about three years. I’d say we’d be averaging eight to ten.”

So, what advice would Ken give an aspiring young sales rep with dreams of starting a dealership? “To establish something now is very hard. You’ve got to have the right franchise,” he explains. “I’d say start off small. If you’ve got a bit of capital, start a hiring business and get a small franchise. That or build some attachments or something like that. I admit I’ve been lucky in some regards. A few things have fallen my way. We were lucky to get the Kobelco franchise as we were to see the opportunity with ASV when it was offered to us.”

And his advice to young contractors thinking of striking out on their own?

“That’s easy – get a bit of work lined up, go borrow some money and buy a new machine,” he says. “When you get continual breakdowns, you lose credibility. You need that reliability, because if a contractor gives you a job to do and you have to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t go because machine’s just broken down,’ you probably don’t get that second phone call. So, you have to take the challenge and go ahead and borrow the money. But getting that first machine is difficult.”

Indeed, Ken’s had plenty of long-term customers who started off small like that. “Some of them started off with one machine, 10, 20 years ago,” he says. “Now they’re running fleets of up to 15 machines. They’ve stuck with us because we’ve looked after them. As they grow, we grow.”

So, with his kids coming up through the business and a succession plan in place, what does the future look like for the man who started it all? “The business itself is only going to expand. We’re always looking for opportunities, whether it’s with product or other dealership opportunities. We try and keep the business fairly liquid so, if something comes up, we’re in a position to go after it,” Ken shares. “And personally, I still enjoy working here. I’ll probably take a little step back. That was the reason for appointing Peter Keley down here as General Manager. He’ll work in conjunction with Kane, looking after the Victorian side.”

That said, it doesn’t sound as if Ken’s going to retire any time soon. “I’m fit and healthy and still enjoying it, why would I retire? I’m having fun,” he says. “And honestly, I just love meeting people, looking for opportunities and developing things.”

When he’s not in the office, you’ll still find Ken hanging out in the surf. “Enjoy life where you can, I say. I like to party hard,” he laughs.

Safe to say, he’s definitely earned it.


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