The JahRoc Story so far…
In 1982 Gary Bennett and David Paris were members of ‘Bob Hawke’s Surf Team’ when they first bumped into each other, while searching for spare parts for their old surfers wagons in a wreckers yard in Nambour, Queensland. Gary was an apprentice carpenter who had been on a working holiday in Queensland and David was a cabinet maker by trade. Both were originally from Western Australia and had many things in common – surfing, mutual friends and a loathing of the education system! A strong friendship was formed, but eventually ‘the party’ ended and Gary and David went their separate ways. David went overseas for three years and Gary continued his journey around Australia, stopping along the way to help Shirley Strachan (ex Skyhooks and Better Homes and Gardens) to build a cedar and Oregon surf shop on Victoria’s Phillip Island.
It was not until 1988, that Gary and David reconnected to commence building Jah-Roc into what it is today. Gary had started Jah-Roc in 1987, in his backyard shed in the Perth beachside suburb of Scarborough and was making pieces hewn from hand split pieces of Toodyay Stone and old bits of jarrah salvaged from building sites, hence the name Jah (Jarrah) and Roc (Rock). In 1988, he moved the business to Osborne Park and rented the rear of a shed. As Gary’s business grew, he soon realized that he needed some help – whilst his artistic talents were excellent, his organisational skills were lacking. At this point David returned from his world travels and decided to buy into Jah-Roc and thus the partnership was formed. David also became excited about Gary’s sister Joanne, and married her, cementing a family partnership!
With David’s cabinet making and organisational skills, Jah-Roc Kitchens was established. 80% of their business was kitchens (which they did not particularly like doing), the other 20% was creative furniture which was their real passion. In 1990, they decided to exhibit some of their furniture in art galleries in the South West of Western Australia. Their designs were well received and they also started to receive industry recognition. This gave them confidence that their future lay in the creation of fine and creative furniture rather than producing kitchen cabinets.
Gary also took some of their furniture products to Los Angeles and went cold calling, door to door trying to find a market for their product, and was eventually invited to exhibit their work in Beverley Hills. This proved successful and they began exporting to the USA on a regular basis. This followed with exhibitions in Milan, Italy, Tokyo and Japan in 1991, from which further sales eventuated. They also began to win awards for their work and this gave them confidence and the belief that they had a unique product.
They also suffered some setbacks along the way from which they nearly did not survive, but from which they learnt some valuable, albeit expensive lessons. 1991 was a particularly bad year. A large project that they undertook for ‘a friend of a friend’ turned into a financial disaster when the developer went broke leaving them owing $35,000 to their suppliers. A foray into the granite quarry business was equally unsuccessful. Their accountant delivered the bad news – ‘it was all over and that they should go off and do something else’. David briefly flirted with this option whilst Gary and an apprentice (Matt Hammill), who offered to work for nothing, persisted. Soon David rejoined and decided to focus on what they were passionate about and what they did best – making artistic furniture out of solid and recycled timber.
Gary and David recommenced by traveling to the south coast for some creative inspiration and to do some surfing. During this trip they designed a new range of furniture and when they returned to Perth, created the prototypes and then displayed them in a number of South West galleries. This proved very successful, and they managed to pay off their creditors and ‘survived to live another day’. In Gary’s surfing language ‘we got dumped, but did not suffer a complete wipeout’.
As their business began to grow, they realised they needed new premises. Nothing around Perth was suitable. In 1993, Gary took his wife, Lara to visit his parents in York, a small wheatbelt town where he had spent his childhood, and they discovered what was to become the new home for their business – a dilapidated old flour mill about to be auctioned. They decided to attend the auction and bid for it. They were successful at auction and purchased it for $155,000, $1000 less that the maximum that their bank had given them approval for. Given that the losing bidder had planned to demolish the building, it was significant for both Gary and David, as well as the town of York and lovers of heritage.
The Old York Flour Mill was constructed in 1892, and dominates the entrance to the historic wheatbelt town of York. It is a four storey structure, built using convict hand made bricks and occupies two acres. A week after the auction, Gary and David realized the challenge they had taken on. According to Gary – ‘an incredibly derelict building with missing windows, heaps of graffiti and holes in the roof and floors’. Family members and friends thought they were crazy. Their bank manager thought so too – ‘why would you move from Scarborough Beach Road with 70,000 cars a day driving past, to York with only 3,000 people in total” Knowing more about the market than what their bank manager, Gary and David responded with ‘Why not” They saw the huge marketing and operating potential.
Within two weeks, they were operating from their new premises and Gary and his wife Lara were literally living in a tent under one of the sheds. So the task of restoring the complex of derelict buildings began. The first goal was to ‘close up the building’, i.e. to fix the roof, windows, doors etc. The first twelve months were very chaotic and very hard work. It was also case of ‘sink or swim’, as they could not afford to stop or slow down otherwise their business would have drowned.
They had little money and what they did earn, they put back into the business. Like their furniture, which was mostly made out of recycled timber, they through necessity recycled materials that they found on site to renovate the building, which became their gallery. Apart from their own efforts, they had support from family, friends and even locals who were sympathetic to what they were trying to do, especially when they realized that they were actually restoring the building and were not pulling it down to make their furniture from it. The local ‘Friends of the Old Flour Mill’ group contributed $4,000 to help fund some of the 40 double hung windows that needed replacing.
Their courageous decision to move to the country and create a tourism based outlet for their business seemed to be vindicated as their turnover doubled in their first year of operations in York.
The renovations continued and as their business began to grow, so did their staff and number of visitors who came to York to view their business. In 1995, one of their visitors to the gallery was Brent Stewart, who owned a Perth marketing company called ‘Market Equity’. He undertook the development of a five-year business plan. Gary remembers looking at the plan and thinking that there was no way they could reach the sales targets in the plan. Nevertheless they adopted it, and to their amazement they achieved it in three years.
Gary and David learnt quickly the value of listening to advice, albeit they were selective as they picked and chose what they thought was relevant to their market. One of those pieces of advice was to realize that they were in fact, not in the furniture business, but in the lifestyle business. Gary firmly believes that ‘people who buy our furniture are buying a lifestyle’.
In 1996, a group of local jazz enthusiasts approached them to use the unused western shed for their annual Jazz Festival. The group re-roofed and re-floored the shed and three months later David and Gary found themselves wearing suits at a $175 a head show, watching James Morrison, Tommy Emmanuel and Grace Knight, whilst they ate crayfish and drank wine. The Premier arrived in a helicopter, and 1,000 people by train especially catered for the occasion. Gary remembers looking at David and saying “Oh, how your luck can change!”
There have been many defining moments in their business and none more so than in 1995, when they decided to opt out of the production side of the business. For a long time, they believed that no one could do things better than themselves, but if the business was to grow, then they had to learn to delegate and focus on managing the business. They also realised that they had to take responsibility for those aspects of managing the business that they were individually best at – Gary would focus on the creative aspects of the business, while David the day to day organisational needs of the business.
With the growing number of visitors to the gallery, they also realized that the business and its clients would benefit from the presence of other craft businesses and a café. A café facility was created in the mill’s old office complex, and rented out.
Attracted by the success of the Gallery, other businesses were introduced. Gary’s father-in-law (Leon Baker) renovated the third floor of the gallery to set up his jewellery business. Other businesses included ‘Errol’s Forge’ and Megan Gardiner’s ‘Card with a View’. It was apparent to them that this business cluster or incubator concept was a great opportunity to add value to the visitor experience and so they opened up more space for additional businesses. It was also a way of giving back, so that other artists could have the same opportunity as they were given when they paid $50 per week to rent part of someone else’s shed. It also solved the problem of having to maintain some very large spaces which always needed cleaning. Unfortunately, not all businesses made it, but as Gary explains -‘they often thought that they could ride on the coattails of Jah-Roc, but did not appreciate what was necessary for business success’. By 1998, 11 other enterprises operate in the complex, including the Café, a blacksmith, hardware outlet, and hairdresser. The same year Gary decided he was too far from the surf so he and Lara purchased a block on the coast in Margaret River. In 1999 Gary commenced construction of what would become a 10 year project on their new home and studio by the sea in Gnarabup Beach, Margaret River. In 2001 Gary, Lara, Emily, Rose and Frank moved into the shed of their new home where they stayed for 9 months while Gary finished the top story enough to move in.
In December 2002, Jah-Roc established an outlet in Margaret River, a coastal town in the South West of Western Australia, famous for its wineries and surfing. They had returned to the area that in the early days had embraced their work and had encouraged them to pursue their passions. They bought another restored heritage building as their gallery space.
In 2005 a major addition was made to the Margaret River Gallery with the design and construction of a 200m2 contemporary space that connected the 2 old cottages together. The rear cottage was renovated to become a manager’s quarters/gallery space. The additions made it possible to not only display there furniture but also art works by well known West Australian artists such as Larry Mitchell, Shaun Atkinson, Greg Baker and many others. JahRoc has undertaken several collaborative exhibitions with these artists creating unique exhibitions crossing genre’s such as art, Furniture and Poetry. 2005 was also the year that David, Joanne, Olivia and Virginia decided that Margaret River would become their home as well. Having stayed at Gary and Lara’s home on several occasions they found the lifestyle just too hard to pass up. They purchased a beautiful bush block between the beach and town and set about making plans to leave York.
By 2007 both gallery’s were selling so much work that it became very hard to keep up with the orders so the tough decision was made to pull out of their York gallery and move the workshop to Margaret River. A large bush block was purchased on the coast close to both Dave and Gary’s home and yet another design an construction phase was entered. At this stage Dave was commuting to York to run the workshop while Gary was building the new workshop in Margaret River. The Margaret River workshop is built using rammed limestone and of course all the joinery is Jarrah. It has lots of natural light with great bush views in all direction. The surf is only a dirt track away so the boys can get a fix without having to travel too far. Plans have been made to create at least 5 artist studios so that JahRoc can continue their collaborative approach to their craft.
In July 2008 JahRoc moved out of York completely. The Mill Gallery business was given to friend who had moved to York so the town wouldn’t lose a major tourist attraction. The knowledge that the Old York Flour Mill was left in a much better condition than when they found it made Gary, David and their families proud of the legacy they had left behind. The Flour mill would remain a major land mark in York for many years to come. While this was a sad end of an era as far as York goes it was also an exciting new beginning for their artistic lives in Margaret River.
Jah-Roc has received many awards, but probably the most significant and proudest awards have been ‘Best of the Best at the FIAA, Australian Furniture of the Year Awards 2002 with a piece entitled ‘Sue’s Chaise Longue’, in 2003, ‘Best First Generation Business Award’ and in 2005, ‘FIAA Western Australia Award for “Best of the Best – Overall Categories” with the new Silhouettes Range and FIAA Australian Award for “Best of the Best – overall categories in 2009.
Today, it could be said that Gary and David are surfing the ‘crest of a wave’.