Lara Knight – 6 May, 2022
Salvage powerhouse Renovators Paradise runs Australia’s largest online catalogue of recycled building materials. The team strips hundreds of pre-demolition homes each year and delivers to customers as far away as New Zealand.
It’s a huge amount of work in an industry that’s slow to embrace ecommerce. Demolition salvage isn’t easy to store or ship, or even categorise for one-off or handmade fittings. We asked the team why digital marketing has been such a focus and where it’s taken the business.
The Hughes family has been saving materials from Melbourne demolitions for more than 50 years. Tell us how it started.
My mother married a pattern maker. Or at least that’s what she thought. Until one day my father, Ray Hughes, arrived home and declared that he was quitting his job for the demolition industry. This was sometime in the early 1970s and many of Melbourne’s vintage houses were making way for high rise apartments and low density flats. My father sensed an opportunity and embraced it.
Inspired by old Jim Whelan of Whelan the Wrecker fame, Ray familiarised himself with second-hand yards across the city as a means of offloading demolition materials saved from the wrecking ball. It was tough work performed by even tougher men but I suspect my father was energised by the thrill of the chase – you never knew what to expect from the next salvage operation. Mansions in Toorak and its suburban offshoots were high on the list, but there was plenty of bounty in period houses all across Melbourne where developments were consigning them to the scrapheap.
In partnership with his brother in law, Lance Hammerstein, the company known as Hammerstein & Hughes made inroads in an industry not known for subtleties. Many of the players had known little else all their lives and were protective of their business interests. Ray didn’t exactly set out to change this, but he saw a gap in the marketplace that could be capitalised on while aspiring to the greater good.
Long before recycling became a buzzword Ray was hard at it ensuring little was wasted that could be used again. He dabbled in salvage yards of his own but nothing ever really got off the ground. Whether this was due to time constraints or other factors has never really been clear. Conversely, he was happy doing the rounds of the established yards to pick up the loot that was generated almost out of nowhere when a good team of wreckers were applying their trade. It was high risk, high reward kind of work and I think Ray lived for the inevitable highs that accompanied the dismantling of homes with architectural significance.
Fast forward twenty years or so and Ray had seen his fair share of ups and downs. Myself and my two younger brothers, Craig and Simon, were all now of school leaving age and had begun working, albeit irregularly, with his downsized salvage operation. He had split from his partnership with Lance and was trying to make a go of it from day to day. I never really saw a long term future in the business but carried on a few days a week. Ray was a hard man to say no to, especially when he asked you ‘for a hand’. And the money was decent for a hard day’s work.
On average we were wrecking three houses every two weeks. The business was known as Age Old Demolition and we targeted period houses as a focal point – inner ring suburbs were the most desirable and we began to deal exclusively with the salvage yard ‘Steptoes’ in Rokeby Street, Collingwood. George Paras was the owner and took most of our salvage on a handshake type of agreement. Baltic pine flooring was the winner (as it still is today) as Melbourne was undergoing a renovation boom in the early 90s and people were keen to match their existing homes with materials of the same era.
Myself and my two brothers drifted in and out of the business for a few years before the decision was made to invest in heavy machinery. This meant we no longer had to rely on sub-contractors to clean up the site once we had stripped it out, however there was added pressure to ensure that the machine was continually in use and not sitting around waiting for the next job.
At this point the business underwent a name change as it had become a more consistent family concern. ‘Hughes Demolition’ was now the moniker and the weekly spreadsheet began to grow with jobs. My father still retained a keen interest in the recycling aspect of the business and the decision was made in the late 1990s to set up a yard of our own. Several sites were considered before we settled on a factory sub-division in suburban Oakleigh.
Racks were built and an office constructed from weatherboards inside the factory like a mini house, complete with fax machine and roses on my father’s desk. This was the era of the Howard Government’s transition to GST which encouraged us to keep more orderly accounts (I graduated to an office slot and implemented the changes for tax compliance). Our marketing at that point consisted of newsprint line ads, the ubiquitous Yellow Pages and the occasional pamphlet drop. The internet was in its early stages and we did not have a website, so mostly relied upon industry contacts, passing traffic and old school word of mouth to generate custom through the door.
We were eventually kicked out of our beloved Westminster Street home when the building was sold and torn down, and moved to nearby Franklyn Street. The tenure here lasted ten years – enough time to cram every corner of the factory so people compared the space to a scene from a Charles Dickens novel. Such was the chaos of the place there was hardly a corner of the yard that wasn’t filled, and fork lifts had to navigate through nervous tight spaces to access timber and heavy items. A full day’s shift at the counter felt like a marathon although there was always a story to be told at the end of the day.
Crucially during this period the decision was made to sell the demolition part of the business (including machinery) and concentrate exclusively on the salvage operations. This was a gamble as the supply that we relied upon from our own demolition work would be gone. We’d need to rely upon the goodwill of other demolishers to maintain a healthy level of stock in an industry that was known for its mistrust of outsiders. Although we were entrenched in the game it was like starting all over again as the business was effectively cut in half. Fortunately we had a stable client already on the books which allowed us time to navigate this new world order.
It was during the stay at Franklyn Street that the digital aspect of the business began. Ray was still on hand quoting houses for salvage and manning the sales desk. My brother Craig left to return to his early working roots as a baker so Simon took the reins and established a website showcasing the materials on offer. It was fairly basic to begin with but soon grew with the assistance of Tony Green, a family friend who was installed as the manager of the yard. The website quickly flourished and customers were drawn from all corners of Melbourne and regional Victoria, as well as interstate. The odd customer would also cross the Tasman which vindicated the time and effort invested in the website and yard improvements. Chaos still reigned, and it could be a difficult task to locate individual pieces, but there was system constantly working in the background to make the yard more effective.
After ten years at Franklyn Street the business had definitely outgrown the space. The idea of securing a new premises outright began to be canvassed. Oakleigh was the obvious choice but commercial real estate in the area was out of our price range as we were keen to find more space to sell and store materials. A vacant factory came up for sale in Keysborough and the next chapter of the Hughes family salvage operation began.
My father, who had been diagnosed with stomach cancer a few years earlier, sadly never saw the transition from the Franklyn Street yard but his presence still lingers. The spirit of the early years is still evident as many of our old customers visit Keysborough and compliment the changes. Four and a half years and counting now and we are optimistic as to what the future holds.
You’ve been involved in the business in some way most of your life. What’s changed in the salvage industry in that time?
It’s difficult to pinpoint major changes although the past decade has seen the closure of many of the old-school salvage yards, particularly the minor players. However in that time we have strengthened our foothold in the industry and the Renovators Paradise name is now synonymous with salvage in this city.
Through the website we’re offered a consistent stream of materials from the public doing renovations and the like, but the bulk of our materials are sourced by demolition contacts. This has been steadily built up since the sale of the demolition side of the business, and although some come and go, our site crews are regularly out stripping houses of whatever we consider of value.
Renovators Paradise continues to invest in digital infrastructure like the website and connected point of sale systems. How does that impact your reach and what is the response from customers?
Renovating a house is not something people typically do more than once in their lifetime. To survive in business Renovators Paradise must keep attracting new customers who understand the value of recycled products and their historical significance when planning a renovation or build.
The website is the obvious way to extend our reach and a huge amount of work has gone into maintaining the accessibility of salvage products online. This allows customers to research the stock on hand before visiting the store, as opposed to turning up blind with a tape measure and a few rough notes.
The appearance of the website doesn’t change all that much but the back end is constantly being worked on to ensure a user friendly experience for customers. An online presence also allows materials to be bought and transported to regional areas and interstate (and in some cases overseas) so the Melbourne pool is not the only market we’re drawing on.
Comments from customers regarding the website are overwhelmingly positive. If you cast your mind back to the old-school salvage yard, with stock stacked haphazardly and a gruff old demolisher manning a makeshift office among the clutter, then it’s not hard to see why Renovators Paradise has remained a success.
In this day and age people expect a level of professionalism and the website is crucial in establishing this. It also determines how materials are organised for display in the yard as it’s important to find things quickly. When people see that thought and effort has gone into the layout of the showroom then they’re more likely to leave as a paying customer. And a satisfied customer often recommends you elsewhere so the dividends are two-fold in attracting the next potential buyer.
The digital point of sale system is a relatively recent initiative that coincided with the move to Keysborough. With two computers in use at the counter it’s usually a hassle free process for the customer to pay and leave once they have selected their materials. It puts the yard on a level playing field with Bunnings or new material suppliers. Digital point of sale also builds a customer database that allows us to track individual sales history for those willing to sign up. It was 8,500 and counting at last check and each of these participants receive a weekly newsletter that contains all of the latest products to arrive at the store. This is especially useful for people who can’t find what they’re looking for on a particular visit. An elusive piece may be just around the corner with the volume of houses we’re salvaging from week to week.
Part of Renovators Paradise success is a loyal, passionate team. What keeps people working in a dusty, physically demanding, under-appreciated industry like salvage?
It’s an overused term in the modern world but I think the vibe of the place contributes much to the ability of RP to attract and maintain loyal workers. There is history behind every piece that arrives in the yard. The sense that we are saving more than a slice of Melbourne’s architecture from the wrecking ball helps create an environment that brings out the best in people. There is also the sense that we are unique in the general Melbourne landscape which fosters a healthy approach to the work that needs to be done to ensure the place survives.
Much of the grunt is performed off site by specialist salvage workers while the cleaning up and restoring of materials is shared among the workers who remain at the yard. There is a lot of variety in the work that typically goes on behind the scenes which also helps to maintain enthusiasm levels.
You’re saving as much as you can from Melbourne’s demolition frenzy. How do you feel about the waste involved in construction and demolition?
The state of the demolition industry at any given point has always been a double-edged sword for Renovators Paradise. On one hand we despair at the loss of magnificent homes making way for development (often inappropriate) and the years of history that is quickly turned to dust. It’s like lives are being lost and there is no way to replace them once they are gone.
On the other hand there would be no recycled materials available for renovating these beautiful houses if there were no demolition. So the best scenario is usually how often we are out rescuing salvageable items from landfill.
Unfortunately the demolition industry is predominately a knockdown culture where recycling is not particularly on the radar – you will hear the weary line that ‘time is money’ and nothing stands in the way of its heavy machinery. But it’s always been our belief that it doesn’t require a seismic shift of attitude to put a little thought into saving what can be salvaged before it is destroyed.
Also it’s difficult to keep pace with the state of the industry as new players seem to emerge as frequently as these houses are being torn down. Any regulatory measures to establish recycling quotas or similar would be difficult to implement.
However, the tide of public opinion is growing louder where destruction of old period houses are concerned and a savage knockdown with no community consultation is likely to be newsworthy. We have been caught up in this situation where cameras and reporters are dispensed to site to report on the ‘devastating’ loss of another grand Melbourne home. In reality, the future is likely to result in more of the same as we move to higher density living where a traditional house on a quarter acre block is considered dispensable.
Some countries are starting to design for deconstruction but Australia still uses vast quantities of disposable or adhesive-contaminated materials. What will be worth salvaging in 30-50 years from current builds?
To be perfectly honest, not a lot. Double glazed windows and sliding door sets might make the grade but the rise of MDF will render much of what goes into a current build unsalvageable. Perhaps kitchen appliances and split system units but these have a shelf life of about ten years typically so the reusing of this type of product will be minimal. On the flip side, we can safely predict that the quality of houses we are currently salvaging should continue into the foreseeable future so home renovators will likely see a steady supply of recycled materials at Renovators Paradise for years to come.
What’s next for Renovators Paradise?
The future of Renovators Paradise is naturally tied closely to the quality of homes that are making way for new builds. As these homes continue to age it is more likely that they will be slated for demolition provided they are not covered by heritage overlays. Perhaps at some point it will be harder to find a typical weatherboard in original condition, but we are just as likely to seek out a 60s brick veneer with old growth forest timbers to save as part of our weekly intake of salvaged materials.
It’s worth noting that the business has weathered the global financial crisis and Covid-19 so it has proven to be fairly resilient to external pressures.
In the short term we’ve invested in high-tech machinery that will allow us to cut and dress recycled timbers at the push of a button, and this has been a real growth area. Add to that an in-house joiner producing custom timber designs and product resizing and the future of the recycled material at Renovators Paradise appears to be healthy on all fronts.
We will continue to strive to be at the forefront of salvage in Melbourne with a reach far beyond our physical locale. And if you are looking for signs of longevity, a stable work force has always been our cornerstone so visit around closing time and you’ll find us in lively discussion of this and other topical concerns while the beers are being poured at the bar.