In Harman's Way

In Harman's Way

Tenacity / 1) Attitude of keeping a firm hold of property, principles, life, etc; not readily relinquishing. 2) Persistent, resolute [Latin tenax-acis from tenere ‘hold']"I met my wife when we were 12," confides Graham Harman, CEO of Office National. "I asked her to marry me then but she didn't believe me. Ten years later she took me more seriously."

And Harman doesn't limit this kind of tenacity to his personal life.

In January 1999, the boards of business supply retailers Office Force, Office National and Harman's own Advanced Product Technologies (APT) met to discuss the possibilities of joining forces. By March 1999 the decision had been made - the three would become one - and Office National was christened on July 5 that same year.

Harman was to oversee a transition period in which 130 stores and 1100 staff would take on a single look, a single buying model and a standard range of products. A mammoth task by anyone's standards, and one that would see the formation of the largest independent office supplies and IT retailer in the country.

It appears as though the whole process has gone ahead according to some kind of perfect plan, but Harman believes such an idea is folly.

"There is never a perfect plan," Harman said. "If it is a good idea go for it, and take it as far as you can. Set goals and be passionate, be prepared for every miserable, critical person to bring you down."

Now standing at the helm of retail conglomerate Office National, Harman is the man to ask when it comes to transition management, and building buying groups and franchise rollouts in Australia.

"Now we are aiming at strengthening the Office National brand, and standardising the look and product lines of all the stores" Harman says. "There is real power in brand recognition, that's why people buy a computer with IBM written on the shell, or walk into The Cheesecake Shop rather than take a gamble on the local bakery."

However, branding is not the only attraction for Office National members. Harman explains how the Office National franchisees are able to use volume to leverage higher margins and reduce the costs associated with marketing collateral.

"The difference between buying small and buying big in the IT sense is anywhere between 1 and 5 per cent," Harman said. "As part of Office National we can also provide full colour catalogues a couple of times a year. That would be impossible if each of these stores were working alone, we just couldn't justify the cost."

Harman's vision is a national chain of franchises that provide both the IT and office supply needs of business of all sizes.

"We want to be known for selling everything from a Post-It note to a LAN. We will be able to fill your whole office building and provide you with the back-up support."

However, his understanding of the power of branding and collective purchasing pre-dates the formation of Office National.

If you can get him to sit still for long enough, Harman will tell you his love affair with IT sales began "when selling computers was fun". In 1985, his parents bought into a store which specialised in electronic office goods like calculators and typewriters.

PCs were still in their earliest incarnations and, together with his brother, Harman set about importing componentry and assembling early business machines.

"Building a PC wasn't that hard," Harman says. "You were making 20 per cent margins on sales, even to other dealers. We would make $800 on a printer sale, these days you'd be lucky to make $30."

Within a mere six years, things began to change. "In about 1991, suddenly there were PC places popping up everywhere," Harman says. "We started to see sales-tax evasion and software piracy. I was finding product in the green guide that was being sold cheaper than what we could buy them for."

Rather than throw in the towel, Harman approached one of his vendor partners at that time, seeking some kind of explanation of the apparent inconsistancies in pricing.

He soon discovered volume buying was the key and approached other resellers in order to form a loosely bound buying group.

"It wasn't a company as such, there were four of us who went in together to approach the vendors. We also took out an ad in the paper. Next thing we were being approached by more vendors and dealers," Harman says, barely masking his surprise that the venture was successful so soon after its launch.

"We formed an IT buying group and called it Advanced Product Technologies," he says.

Over the next few years the APT buying group formalised its franchise structure and branding, and just as they were preparing to take the business model national, Harman heard of an interesting partnership forecast in office-supply land.

"We were perhaps looking to merge with another chain of stores when I heard Office Force was planning a merge with Office Network," Harman says.

He believes APT, the smallest of the triumvirate, was well served by a strong sense of the franchise model, and his own role in its establishment of the model was recognised when he was handed the position of CEO of Office National.

Over the next 12 months Harman is on the recruitment path, and looking to build the Office National business model into a significant force in the Australian IT/office retail environment.

"We are not a traditional franchise, we are developing a new system of doing business collectively," Harman says "Our members communicate a lot to each other and work together. We may well be a saviour to many independent resellers who would not be able to compete on their own.

"If it works, we will keep a lot of these guys in business. If it doesn't work, at least we can look back in 20 years time and say ‘we tried'."

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