Peter Doonan tells us the story behind Steel Supplies Charters Towers and how the company stood tough during the Queensland floods.
It took me quite a few weeks to chase the super-busy man behind the Top End’s favourite steel supplier company. Yet, when I got on the phone with him, I was in for a sweet surprise: Peter Doonan is a down-to-earth person who has struck the right cord when it comes to starting and managing your own business.
“It all started like this”
Peter had a nice, fat-paying corporate job in the steel industry. As any passionate careerist and a forward thinker, Peter had ideas worth trying. But the corporate structure didn’t quite allow that kind of flexibility. Frustrated with the rigid and adamant methodologies, he went ahead to take a bold step which would become the number one choice of industries for steel products in Queensland.
“I managed the steel business for another company and I wasn’t happy about the way things were going. I tried but things didn’t change. That led me to found my own company,” Peter says.
A smooth take-off
For many small-medium sized businesses, the main hiccups are in the initial three to five years. But with his strategic approach and industry hands-on know-how, Peter had the smoothest first three years. As the company has grown, however, some of Steel Supplies’ hindrances have been pricing, change of government and staffing issues.
“A couple of businesses have gone broke on us. Sometimes there are problems of cash flow. But our biggest hindrance has been a natural one . . . the Queensland floods three years ago. The sales were zero and we were stuck. At that moment, however briefly, we didn’t know what to do.”
Tough times require tough decisions. And discipline. Peter, as a leader of his company, is a real-life example of this. How did he cope with the grave slump period?
“We did everything we could do. We marketed rigorously. Normally, when your business slows down, marketing is not the first thing on your mind. You think, ‘Well, marketing is an added cost for my business, let me just concentrate on other important areas and deal with marketing last’. But the truth is marketing is an ongoing effort. When business was hurt, we didn’t forget that. We continued to service our customers the best we could and carried out targetbased marketing.”
No looking back
So did the Queensland floods lead him to re-consider his choice? What if he were offered the same high-paying corporate job again?
“Not at all. There are highs and lows in the life of a business, but I never considered going back to a corporate job. I always had the entrepreneurial spark in me and once it was ignited, there was no looking back!”
If allowed to go back in time, Peter would only do a few things differently. Mainly, it has to do with employing key staff.
“I’d staff differently. Finding the right person for a job rather than grabbing anyone willing to work yields better results more often than not. I’d manage my sales team rather than being the sales team. Back when I started, I was doing my sales, marketing and business management. Given another chance, I would delegate the right job to the right person rather than filling my platter to the brim.”
Unquestionably, Steel Supplies Charters Towers has met heaps of breakthrough moments. Many of them have to do with over-delivering on a promise which comes with team-effort and taking the company to the forefront.
“I’ve had a lot of them and most wouldn’t have happened without the people at Steel Supplies. I try to motivate my team every time we bag a new project—and when we don’t. People are our biggest assets.”
Where to from here
The next six month’s goals are clearly laid: spend more time enjoying life than working. But wait, his work is his hobby. That explains why he enjoys visiting his cattle property four times a month.
“Yeah, I am lucky I got to choose what I love to do. Going forward, I don’t want to sit in sales, I want to manage the business and overlook it. The next six months I am focusing on that aspect. And, on achieving a work life balance. Right now it’s not really there where I’d want it to be,” he jokes.
Lessons in the fields
A true lover of the rural and rustic life, Peter spent three and a half years managing a cattle property so as to understand the needs of farmers closely while he supplies them steel. The experience has been nothing short of “profound”.
“Living in their [farmers’] shoes was something very different. I experienced it all—the rains, the floods, the droughts, the solo life.
“When you’re on your own and you have no one else to talk to, it gets. . . unexplainable. Your mind starts playing games with you. It’s even more stressful than a city life, or a corporate job, if you ask me. At least in the beginning. Then you start to become friends with it.”
The period was so deeply intense for him that Peter decided to buy the 10,000 acre property which he was only managing for these years. And even till this day, he and his family visit the cattle property every weekend.
Advice to new entrepreneurs
The biggest piece of advice is “start where you want to finish”. Peter asserts if you want to be in sales, try getting involved in your business’ sales department from the beginning. If you don’t want to finish in it, don’t start in it. Set your goals and align them with where you want to be in the long run. The transition is really difficult mid-way.
“Another thing I’ve definitely understood is this: a lot of people don’t understand marketing and its importance. Most mix up marketing and advertising. But advertising is different: anyone can pop an ad in the paper. Marketing is a continuous effort—a strategy.”
Peter used to market Steel Supplies in an ad hoc manner at the start because of the business. But after engaging Marketing Eye, he has been happily looking at the larger picture and not the small technical details of marketing.
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