Australia's retail sector is not doomed, but businesses wanting to survive must continue to adapt, follow the "gold veins" and test new products, says Just Jeans founder Craig Kimberley.
Kimberley, who with his family built Just Jeans from one store to about 280 across Australia and New Zealand, says that while online selling has revolutionised retail, the sector has always been about change.
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Entrepreneur Secrets: Craig Kimberley, founder of Just Jeans
In the hyper-competitive retail space, Just Jeans, the company Craig Kimberley and his family founded in 1970, is still thriving.
"The only certain thing in retail is change," says the 71-year-old.
While the family sold the company before the internet really began to disrupt retail, Kimberley is now involved in the women's fashion business Blue Illusion, the fashion and accessory retailer Husk and the publicly listed brand apparel company Gazal, which all have online stores.
"Australia was very slow to take up online selling," he says. "Europe and America were well advanced on us. Now there's a big catch-up on it. And a lot of people are now getting up to speed on it, which is great, but they were very slow."
Kimberley says Australian retailers need to move quickly, but they are still in the race.
"Retailing is good, but I think you've just got to be right on to the button on what's happening. You can never ever sit back on your laurels and think you're going to have a good season, because really every season is the start of a new business again."
After Kimberley left school at 17 – "I was a shocking student, I'm not proud of it" – his mother wrote to the clothing company Hicks Atkinson suggesting her son get a cadetship. By the time he had turned 21, the firm had gone broke, but Kimberley was well on his way. He was snapped up by the sportswear manufacturing business Aywon.
It was on a buying trip to the US for the company that Kimberley noticed some of the first stores selling jeans only.
At the time, Australians were still dressing formally, with jeans available only at department and disposal stores. Many men were still wearing hats to work.
Thinking the idea could take off here, he encouraged his brother Roger and sister-in-law Chrissie to invest, and they opened their first store in Chapel Street, Prahran.
"We started with $4500," Kimberley says. "We were excited and we didn't have a lot to lose. The opportunity was there and we went for it."
Kimberley's wife, Connie, was also heavily involved, among other things designing the first Just Jeans logo, which remains today.
"Other retailers came and looked at the concept of all the jeans stacked on the shelves and everything and said it will never work. And they just made us more determined," he says.
The first day of trading didn't break any records – they took only $37 – but after a favourable article in the Melbourne newspaper The Herald, crowds started streaming in.
"Within six months we had three stores. It was just happening," Kimberley says.
Of course a rapidly growing business brings its own challenges. The three didn't take a wage for some time, instead trying to control their cash flow. Mistakes were made.
"We sometimes got too enthusiastic on a site and paid too much rent," he says. "We had to go and renegotiate when the lease was up.
"We made mistakes on products. Sometimes we got out of our niche a bit, but the fact that we had denim jeans was the hardcore basic of the business. And then we wanted tops and other things to complement the denim jeans. And I think that's the great thing about Just Jeans – it was a real speciality, it wasn't a general sportswear store."
Television ads were crucial in building the brand.
"We used to get personalities like Shane Warne, Max Walker and Gus Mercurio and models from overseas doing our ads and I think that really stood out."
After getting into some of the major Melbourne shopping centres, the business continued to expand. At its peak it reached about 240 stores in Australia and another 40 in New Zealand, he says.
The company also acquired Jay Jays, then Jacqui E and Peter Alexander.
In 2001, The Just Group, which the family had a 65 per cent stake in, was sold to the private equity group Catalyst for $105 million.
"We'd not had enough but I think we all agreed it was a good thing to do," Kimberley says.
"You look back 10 years later: perhaps we could have got a little bit more, the timing could have been better, the dollar could have been stronger. But that's life – you don't get 10 out of 10 all the time."
These days Kimberley is happily involved in the three retail companies mentioned above. But his burning passion is a historic Queensland tin-mining village he and Connie have brought back to life.
The Herberton Historic Village had been closed for seven years when the couple spotted it while driving past. Within six months they had bought it, and in 2009 they relaunched it to the public.
"Basically it's preserving Australia as it was 100 years ago," Kimberley says.
The village is a labour of love rather than a business proposition, but visitor numbers have risen to 25,000 a year.
Meanwhile the grandfather of seven, who recently returned from a trip to Alaska, is "as happy as Larry" with his lot, at work and at home.
He encourages would-be entrepreneurs to find an area they love and test out their ideas.
"I think there's opportunities out there every day," he says. "It's a matter of seeing them, testing them – you do not need a lot of money.
"If you've got an idea, you've got to test it, look for the gold veins, play around with it, get it right and gradually work it up."
Craig Kimberley's five tips for entrepreneurs
1. The business world is changing all the time. Understand that whatever concept you have, it's going to change constantly.
2. Travel to look at ideas that interest you and consider how you can adapt them to Australia.
3. Always get involved. If you're going to start a business, go and work in a business in that industry and learn the nuts and bolts.
4. Seek out someone in the industry that you like. They can mentor you.
5. Read and search the internet for books about your interests.