ACT News

Outdoor revolutionaries moved with times

Twenty-three years ago young families populated Canberra's outlying suburbs with big backyards - but didn't use them the way we do today.

Serving a city of 280,000 people, industrial Fyshwick was about to lose mechanics, metal workers and timber merchants, as bulky goods stores moved in and men in greasy overalls moved to Hume.

Ray Watson of Watson Blinds in 1991.
Ray Watson of Watson Blinds in 1991. Photo: Canberra Times

Two exceptions were Pete Wren and Ray Watson who transformed their businesses to match an outdoors revolution.

In 1991 the ACT's median age was 29, family incomes were about $49,000 and average monthly home loan repayments $638.

Watson Blinds and Awnings managing director Ray Watson above the factory floor in Queanbeyan.
Watson Blinds and Awnings managing director Ray Watson above the factory floor in Queanbeyan. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Canberra Sand and Gravel piled up soil sourced from Bungendore and mulches from Victoria and moved them out to customers with little fuss.

A youthful and bearded yard manager at the time, Mr Wren was organising deliveries throughout Tuggeranong and Woden and then into the north.

In charge of finance at Watson Blinds, Mr Watson, then 35, sat in front of a Singer sewing machine when The Canberra Times called to help promote the family's business.

He emphasised Watson Blinds manufactured locally, rather than ordering in from outside suppliers.

Mr Wren and Mr Watson say the biggest driver of their businesses over the following two decades have been people's shift to outdoor lifestyles.

Since 1991 block sizes have shrunk and more people live in city apartments but spend money on a wide variety of outdoor products.

Canberra Sand and Gravel, Hume Proprietor Peter Wren.
Canberra Sand and Gravel, Hume Proprietor Peter Wren. Photo: Archive

The soil merchants have more loaders and excavators and a commercial focus, although residential work makes up 50 per cent of their work. New homes at Tralee, Googong and Molonglo bring new clients.

Now clean shaven, 55, and the sales manager, Mr Wren has a busier day out in the yard than in 1991.

''Lunch? What's lunch? It's like a holiday, you just don't have them,'' he said. ''These days I'm on the road. In a service industry you must be available at all times.

''Multinationals have arrived. Bunnings and Masters have encroached into the landscape market. Our advantage is we produce a lot of our own materials.''

Now managing director, Mr Watson runs Watson Blinds with his brother Kevin. The business was launched by their father, John, in 1968. In 23 years Watson Blinds has grown 500 per cent, from a workforce of 10 to 45, with retail outlets in Fyshwick and Mitchell, and a factory in Queanbeyan.

''Outside of Sydney we would be one of the biggest manufacturing blind and awning makers in NSW - there may be one or two comparable businesses, '' Mr Watson said.

''A lot more retailers are coming out now and less and less manufacturers. The bigger manufacturers are supplying the retail outlets.

''Externally, there is a lot more lifestyle-type awnings and structures that we manufacture and install, primarily because more and more people are trying to get that outdoor living in their homes, even though we have cold winters,'' he said.