Graham Stewart started his working life as a trainee at PBR brakes, and spent the next 10 years with the company.
Now 62 years-old, he is unemployed and has been that way for four years. Not that he needs to work, and he said he doesn’t know how he ever found the time to do what he did when he had a job. And what a job it was.
Graham was one of the founding partners in Australian Truck and Auto Parts (ATAP) and Auto Brake Service (ABS). In 2013, the business was sold to Metcash Automotive, and it is now under the Bapcor umbrella.
Graham lives on a couple of hundred acres situated about 40km northwest of the Melbourne CBD. The farm has cattle, but Graham is quick to point out that they are not his. “I’m not a farmer,” he said. “I let the neighbour run his animals on the property as it helps to keep the grass down.”
Graham started out in business in February 1981. In partnership with Les Clifford, the men opened an automotive workshop where they repaired cars, and reconditioned brake components.
“Our first premises were in Fitzroy, we started as Auto Brake Service and our core business was remanufacturing brake parts,” Graham said. “We employed two staff a mechanic and an apprentice, later we employed a driver.”
As the small business grew, a brake shoe and industrial bonding facility was introduced to meet the demands of an under-serviced market. This period also saw the foundations of the wholesale aspect of the business develop, with sales of hydraulic and brake components to specialist workshops.
Providing the basics of good service saw the business grow to the extent that by 1984 a larger site was needed. Graham and Les moved their small Argyle Street, Fitzroy operation to George Street, Fitzroy and a premise twice the size. This provided the room needed for growth and additional lines, brake hose and cable manufacturing were quickly introduced.
“Once the business got growing the re-manufacturing side of the business outgrew the repair side of the business by about six to one in the first year,” Graham said. “As we grew it enabled us to carry parts, which was how we got into the parts side.”
In 1982 Graham and Les bought another store, Morwell Clutch and Brake. This was the start of a growth stage. In 1983, Graham and Les went to a seminar on franchising, and followed this in 1984 with their first franchise store in Glen Waverley.
“This store was an existing brake place, so we converted it and called it Auto Brake Service,” Graham said. “We had taken three guys from PBR who we were joint owners with in the franchise.”
Graham said the store became very big, so by that stage we had three outlets, which in turn gave them more buying power.
“We were getting better deals from everybody we were dealing with,” he said. “So, we set up a delivery run and started selling parts to other brake people.”
“Parts were a by-product of the beginnings of our business,” Graham said. “It wasn’t intentional, it just happened.”
In 1986, Alan Jolly joined the company. Graham knew Alan from his PBR days, and convinced him to leave PBR and join him and Les as a minor shareholder.
As the business grew, opportunities continued to come their way. In 1987, PBR in Footscray Road, which was a big commercial store doing trucks and buses, wanted to sell.
“It was the biggest opportunity that we’d had,” Graham explained. “We scraped together the funds and bought Footscray Road, and Les Clifford, my original partner, went to Footscray Road to manage the store. We had intentions of moving our George St, Fitzroy head office over to Footscray eventually because of the size of the Footscray plant, which was 3000 square metres.”
In 1989, Les decided he wanted to pursue different interests and asked to be bought out of the business: “So we bought him out and that’s when Alan had the opportunity to top up his equity and become a 50-50 partner,” Graham said.
Graham and Alan’s partnership spanned 27 years, and their roles crossed paths on both sides of the business: “It wasn’t a sort of business where we said you just look after this and I’ll look after that,” Graham said.
“We both had experience in both sides of the business, and decisions were always made jointly.
“In our day to day roles, I would be more concerned with Auto Brake Service business than Australian Truck and Auto Parts, whereas Alan had ATAP as a priority. Any major acquisitions would be brought to the boardroom table and discussed before anything happened; that’s the way we worked, and I suppose that’s why the partnership worked so well for so long.”
Graham said there were weekly meetings where representatives from ATAP and ABS would all sit around a table and discuss what was happening so everyone knew what was going on.
ABS continued to expand, and the 1990s saw many changes. In 1990 the company opened its first interstate store in Hobart, followed the next year by a Hindmarsh, South Australia, store. By 1992, ABS had 10 outlets. The company was renamed Brake Parts Australia in 1993, and by 1994 there were 20 franchises in four States. The company got a major boost in size in 1996 when it purchased Adelaide Brake Service off the receiver. There were 13 stores.
“We bought the business cheap, invested a lot of dollars building it up, and eventually we only kept nine of the stores,” Graham said.
This period also saw an upgrade to the manufacturing facilities in Footscray, which were now manufacturing boosters and valves to supply PBR.
These upgrades included: machining centres, automotive chucking lathes, special purpose vertical machining lathe, NC drills, air and vacuum brake and production welding equipment.
In 1998 another name change took place and the company became known as Australian Truck & Auto Parts (ATAP), and with this came the launch of the Protex brand name. This brand was to grow over the following two decades to become established as one of the leading names in brake, clutch, suspension, driveline, cooling and commercial components.
In 1997 there were 40 Auto Brake Service franchise stores in five States, and Graham said this was when they decided to launch the ABS (Auto Brake Service) image.
“We shortened it because most of our customers referred to us as ABS, even though we called ourselves Auto Brake Service,” Graham said.
Sometimes opportunity comes out of adversity. In 2001, a company in Queensland was mirroring ABS.
“What happened was we tried to do a joint venture with them, but the joint venture failed,” Graham explained. “Unfortunately, during the joint venture, we allowed them to use our name. The joint venture failed, so they piggy-backed off us. In the end they approached us and sold to us.
“The Queensland franchise network took us to 50 stores; from then on, we just kept on adding stores whenever the opportunity arose.
Australian Truck and Automotive Parts (ATAP) was run as a separate company, and Independent Brake Supplies (IBS), was a national business when Graham and Alan bought it.
“It took eight years to reach 10 ABS outlets, but it’s the old story: business is hard when you are small, but once you get some critical mass, things move a lot quicker,” Graham said.
“By the time we sold the business to Metcash Automotive in 2013, there were 57 stores.
“The trouble with growth is you are always cash strapped. People used to say they can’t keep growing the way they are going, they’ll go broke.
“We found in early days we had very good positive cash flow from franchising and we sank that money into our warehouse, our ATAP side of the business to grow that. ATAP was hungry to grow through the purchase of stock and then it got to a point where it became self-sufficient in its own cash flow.”
In an interview in the June-July 2011 issue of Undercar Review magazine, Alan Jolly said: “During the 2000s our focus was to grow the product range and strengthen our position in the automotive aftermarket. During this time, we signed distribution agreements with many world leading brands across a range of products, including Brembo, TRW, Haldex, Exedy and Gabriel.”
The expanded range required another move, and ATAP Head Office became based in Derrimut. At that time, ATAP employed more than 160 people across the country, some of whom had been with the company for over 20 years.
“You know, we didn’t plan on selling,” Graham said. “I was 57 and Alan about 54. We envisaged working on for another 10 to 15 years, so it came as a bit of a surprise to us when we finally did agree to sell.
“When the sale went through we looked at one another and said what are we going to do with ourselves because it had been our lives, the auto industry?
“We got paid a fair bit of money and you end up with a lot of investments, and unfortunately, you’ve got to manage those investments. I spend an hour or two each day in the office just taking care of things like that.
“And then you go on to all the other things you have to do: I’ve taken up a big interest in cars, in hot rods; I have a plane, a Cessna 210 that I’ve had for 30 years, and there is the farm.
“One thing I can tell you is that I don’t miss the business, and I don’t know how I ever found the time to go to work,” Graham said.
Interviewed November 2017