As part of the commentary in the past year about the characteristics of effective leadership, industry stalwart Neil Kinder charts the journey of his company Kinder Australia. He recounts its modest origins in a two-bedroom house in metropolitan Melbourne to a SME success story, both within Australia and around the world.
1985 was a pivotal time with the birth of iconic technology including the Microsoft Windows operating system, Portable CD Discman and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). It was a time of big hair, shoulder pads and acid wash jeans. In our two-bedroom house in Prahran, Victoria it was also the time my wife (Christine) and I began our business, then called N.C. Kinder & Co. Pty Ltd.
Kinder’s original focus was to supply conveyor and vibrating screen components, to keep aligned with my foundations in the field. When I left school, I began as a sales trainee for heavy lifting earth-moving machinery with a company used by the quarry, mining and timber industries. I later moved towards large helical gear reducers for the mining industry, among other related conveyor products. It gave me the confidence to begin this journey of starting our own business, myself together with Christine, with the motivation to succeed.
With no computers and high-tech databases to record inventory, and no mobile phones to quickly get in touch, I had to carry a pager to be reached by Christine whilst on my Australia-wide business trips. As soon as they were available, I was quick to obtain an early phone in my car, which I deemed imperative for the businesses’ evolution. Early business was based on mobile coverage at the time, during the rapid progression of 1990s e-technology. As the mobile phone network expanded, so too did the business, reaching the rest of Victoria and eventually covering Australia-wide.
We were early users of both mobile phones and the internet, and I have always been a big believer in keeping up with technology; Enabling us to market our products and services and reach both current and prospective customers effectively. We began our customer database from day one, and originally we contacted them using letters and brochures in the post, but this has evolved to informative email campaigns and maintenance of a thoroughly maintained CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system.
Staying organised and efficient is key to keeping on top of an ever-growing and ever-changing customer base and product inventory. Naturally as our business progressed, we acquired a variety of software to assist us and provide different functions. The issue with this however was that these programs didn’t “talk to each other” and we found ourselves overwhelmed by information and double-handling. I considered it a huge milestone to move everything to one platform in 2011. Shifting all our data to SAP Business One felt unknown and unfamiliar, and we had to let go quite a number of our crutches. It is very fortunate that we found a Logistics and IT Manager, who I discovered in an unconventional way. When we were moving our inventory to the new SAP system, we engaged a number of temporary staff to assist us with counting and data entry. Ian was one of those temps, and whilst chatting to him I discovered his remarkable background in computer engineering. I asked him if he could assist further with more of the complexities in the migration, and he was willing to share his knowledge, come on board with us as a full time employee and in time manage our IT and logistics department. Getting to know your staff and really understand and utilise their talents is so important – you never know what people are capable of until you listen and learn.
The addition of the internet presented a new-found digital horizon for us and allowed the business to go global, bringing markets closer together. I still find it amazing that you can buy something today from the other side of the world and have it arrive in the next week. It’s simple to set up a virtual meeting and chat to anyone globally. Kinder can service the South-East Asian market with a multi-language website on top of our extensive au website and in 2021 we were able to employee two international staff members who are local to their territories of Indonesia and South Africa. Without adapting to technology this would not have been possible. It absolutely feels like the world is more connected now.
People aren’t too concerned about where something comes from now. Instead, they’re more interested in who they’re buying from. The important questions are: Are they a trustworthy organisation? Will their products be reliable? What sort of global name have they got? We use these questions to keep ourselves grounded. Trustworthiness and reliability are at the core of what we do.
The addition of Charles Pratt to Kinder in 2004 as a fresh-faced engineer with a mechanical engineering and management background, provided an enormous benefit to the company in propelling it forwards and gaining new ideas. An energetic and driven Operations Manager and shareholder, Charles encouraged the importance of inclusiveness and upskilling.
Charles has been an exceptional collaborator to work with in the management of the company. He is a keen problem solver, not only for the company but for our customers. He digs deep and gives his best to find issues that even the customer may not see. He is diligent and diplomatic, striving for the best outcome and most practical solution.
I discussed previously the importance of getting to know your employee’s passions and skills in order to utilise their talents. Charles is especially a big believer that people can be taught if they have the desire to learn. It all comes down to personality and getting the right person for the right job. We have a great mix of introverts and extroverts, and each has their advantages. Some people excel in building relationships with customers, giving presentations and networking at events. Some people prefer to quietly do the number crunching. Both are equally important for a team to work. Everybody has their own personality and you simply work with that whilst gently encouraging to upskill and grow.
Kinder have always held their family business values at the core. Christine and I have continued to oversee the business and encourage growth and innovation. Our son Sean is a field mechanical engineer who enjoys building relationships with key customers, and our daughter Tracey plays a key role in the marketing team. Both Tracey and Sean were hired for their qualifications and professional merit; Sean possessing a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and Business, and Tracey having 6 years of Marketing experience prior to working with us. Christine and I also found it to be important that they don’t report directly to us.
Being a good leader is about showing respect. People have to feeling they’re growing, and not simply another number. Of course, a business is there to be viable, but without happy staff the company will simply not flourish. Staff celebrating both professional and personal milestones is win-win in my opinion – whether it be publishing a white-paper or purchasing a first home.
Being happy and healthy, both mentally and physically, is also important for Christine and I to both be effective and dynamic leaders. Each morning I begin my day with running the local trails, and this gives me the clarity and energy to start my day properly.
Surrounding ourselves with the right people has been paramount to the business’ success. It has been our mission to engage with the right specialists and engineers who have the ability to provide the expertise that our customers require. Our early home-grown business of two, has developed over the years to become a reputable engineering company, with a solid team of Mechanical, Aeronautical, Electrical and Chemical Engineers who possess proficiency with conveyor engineering and design. We have a team who really are specialists when handling complex problems with excellent precision, execution and creativity. It all adds to our reputation.
Charles and I have always encouraged our engineers to go outside their comfort zone to further their own credibility. Whether it be writing a white-paper with their name and qualifications on it, being interviewed for their professional opinions in an industry magazine, performing a technical presentation, and/or joining engineering groups such as CMPA and Engineers Australia. They need to know that they have our support and endorsement as professionals.
Since many of Kinder’s products are designed and sourced to problem-solve difficult conveyor issues, a deep understanding of your industry is crucial for staying abreast of challenges that customers may be facing.
We determined that training workshops could be a useful thing for us to provide, and in return we could learn the sorts of issues that may be faced by our attendees when they’re on site. It’s no good blindly releasing products if they would not be useful, effective and appropriate for our customers. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was simpler for us to host face-to face workshops and we had close to 50 attendees from a variety of our customers visit our head office. Throughout 2020 we were able to pivot these to become webinars, and this allowed for our customers to continue to touch base with us and learn how to get the most from our Kinder-K products directly from their interstate site and home offices.
It is crucial that these are worthwhile training sessions for customers and not “just another sales session” – educational content is key. As Marketing Manager, Christine believes that we want our customers to walk away from the workshops knowing that if there’s a problem, all they need to do is reach out and contact us for help. We are the company with the knowledge. Whether or not we have the product, it’s the engineering we can provide.
When learning your industry, you need to understand the main issues that are being faced by your customers. What problems are they wanting to solve? This will enable you to focus on the right products. An example of this is dust and noise. Time and time again, these issues are raised by our field specialists who travel on site, so therefore it makes the most sense to align our products accordingly. It’s even more crucial to follow this path when legal ramifications arise – for example, dust at a site can lead to silicosis and other airborne diseases which is an OHS (Occupational Health & Safety) nightmare for companies. Therefore, it is likely that they will invest in equipment that will minimise dust.
I recognise that environmental and global warming challenges, will undoubtably face our industry, so we will continue to source and manage our business to this end, using safe practices in an attempt to minimse the impact we have on our environment, while continuing to support the growth of infrastructure.
Solving the right problems and taking controlled steps towards goals is the best measure to ensure a viable business. We’re conservative with the way we operate, and we don’t try to take on jobs that are bigger than we are capable of managing. We don’t want to operate a business where if we have one little problem, the whole thing implodes. If you haven’t got a vision to survive, and that’s got to be deep in your soul, then you can have all the plans in the world but it’s not going to work.
35 years later after the humble beginnings of our simple business, myself and Christine, together with Charles, continue to keep our finger on the pulse of Kinder Australia Pty Ltd. Together with a skilled and trained team, we have moved premises several times to accommodate growth of product range and storage, as well as staff increase and needs. We have travelled the world to display at and attend international trade shows and events, as well as collaborate and build relationships with global suppliers and partners. It’s all about surrounding yourself with the right people, utilising the skills they already have or show potential to have, encouragement and support to both our employees and customers, and a keen eye for problem-solving in the industry. What’s it’s not about is putting yourself up on a pedestal – You need to harness the skills and energy around to you build a knowledgeable and effective team.