The well-balanced and efficient operations of the industry’s Quiet Achievers are often held up to light during challenging economic times. Gerard Norsa takes a closer look at one such achiever, a niche distributor that is maintaining solid growth while others are flat.
There's nothing new about the concept of finding a niche market and building a business that fulfils it. Such entrepreneurial endeavours predate civilisation and are fundamental to the whole existence of the IT industry.
Anyware Computer Accessories is one such wholesale business that has found its little cubbyhole and is growing exponentially as a result.
"When I describe my business, I often tell people what we don't sell rather than what we do sell," said Garrison Huang, Anyware's Melbourne-based managing director. "We don't sell computer systems. We don't sell monitors, motherboards, printers or other components. They are all commodities. We sell accessories and peripherals. "That makes us a niche player which is one of our strongest points."
Anyware can trace its heritage back to 1996 when the company's other director and co-owner, Sydney-based Victor Lee, was finally persuaded to become an agent for his cousin’s Taiwan-based export company.
Lee graduated from the Shanghai Institute of Mechanical Engineering in the mid-1980s before migrating to Australia in 1987. While studying English, he worked for a variety of import enterprises, eventually starting up PC accessories business Elsa Australia in 1996.
"In the early days I was not sure what sort of reaction there would be to the business, so it started out slowly to test the market," Lee said. "I spent about six months just trying to identify what would sell."
Lee said that he jumped straight into the market with about 40 or 50 items that his cousin was exporting from Taiwan. The company’s first price list comprised of a large range of cables and connectors, as well as a range of “miscellaneous accessories".
The business did not experience instant success, but the results were encouraging enough to suggest significant growth potential. What it needed was a business plan and some marketing prowess.
Enter Garrison Huang. Introduced to Lee by a mutual friend, Huang became a partner in the business and founded an associated Melbourne company called Australian PC Accessories. Huang had also migrated to Australia from China in the 1980s after graduating from Zhejiang University with an engineering degree. Huang worked as a test engineer in the automotive and data communications industry while completing a postgraduate diploma in computer systems engineering.
This led him to his employment as a design and test engineer for Hewlett-Packard. During his three-year stint with HP, Huang also studied marketing part time at Melbourne University. It is here that Huang discovered his true vocation in life. After missing out on a marketing appointment he’d had his eye on, Huang left HP and met Lee soon afterwards.
At the beginning of the 2001-2002 financial year, the two separate companies -– Elsa Australia and Australian PC Accessories -- merged under the new name of Anyware Computer Accessories.
Starting out with two small warehouses in Sydney and Melbourne, the business has flourished and now boasts five sales and warehouse branches in Australia. Lee and Huang are now eyeing offshore opportunities, starting with New Zealand early in 2003. The company has moved three times in Sydney and twice in Melbourne, each time moving into larger premises to cope with an ever-expanding product range and customer base.
"We started trading [as a partnership] in January 1998 and were able to grow the business and capture market share very quickly," Huang said. "We have just grown and grown ever since. Sometimes we see seasonal flat spots on a month-to-month basis, but we have been able to grow continuously on a quarter-by-quarter basis."
A far cry from its modest product range of the early days, the company now has more than 2,000 products in its catalogue. Its range is the secret to the company's success, according to Lee.
"We think that our range of products has always been the key to our growth," he said. "When we look at our competitors, there were and still are very few that can match us on the range of accessories we carry. That has always been our strength and we market that as our differentiator."
Huang also attributed the company's achievements to fundamental business principles such as speed-to-market with new products, a strong customer focus, rigid credit control and a cost-effective, low-overhead business model.
"Running a successful business is a mix of ingredients and energy," Huang said. "You have to try and make the whole mix balanced, strong and progressive. I think many businesses falter because they don't develop and many businesses don't develop because their owners and managers don't mature or advance themselves.
"You have to keep looking for new opportunities or new technologies. Keep learning and keep updating."
Largely a catalogue-based sales operation, Anyware has opened new branches in Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane, with a view to launching in Auckland in 2003. It also has plans to build up its Internet sales and to increase its focus on outbound sales calls.
Lee sees huge potential in investing in Web activities but said it will be a progressive thing. "It is something that we are starting to focus on much more and something we are pushing much harder. I still think that catalogues are the main tool and the Internet is a secondary tool," Lee said. "I would say that 20 per cent of our orders are already coming through our Web site. "It is something that we continually improve like everything else at Anyware."