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How this Aussie business used cardboard to turn around 50% sales drop

Parents, kids, laptops and schoolbooks all on one kitchen table: it's just not enough space, Benn Murphy thought. Images: Supplied, Getty
Parents, kids, laptops and schoolbooks all on one kitchen table: it's just not enough space, Benn Murphy thought. Images: Supplied, Getty

This is part of our Pivot Series, where Yahoo Finance tracks stories of small business survival tactics during the coronavirus crisis.

It’s every business owner’s worst nightmare: you have 65 staff, but sales have fallen 50 per cent in a matter of weeks.

Coronavirus has hamstrung Australian businesses left, right and centre, but for Benn Murphy, owner of Clarke Murphy Print, the new way of work has also presented an opportunity.

Faced with slowing sales and four school-age daughters stuck at home, he had an idea: why not start creating easy-to-assemble desks that could be shipped out for families and workers suddenly in desperate need of desk space?

It caught on like wildfire, and Murphy now receives orders from large corporations and schools across the country.

The Build-a-Desks are manufactured in Lithgow, NSW and can be built at home in under 10 minutes without needing an Allen key. The material used is an expanded honeycomb envirocore cardboard, considered an entirely recyclable alternative to plastic.

Benn Murphy shows off the desks. Image: Supplied
Benn Murphy shows off the desks. Image: Supplied

In fact, Clarke Murphy Print had previously used the material to make a two-metre robot display for fashion brand Sass and Bide. Understanding the material, Clarke Murphy Print was able to create a prototype for the desks within 48 hours.

For Murphy, the $149 desks ticked some major boxes, the first of which was giving his four daughters a place to learn.

“There's only so many… little nooks and crannies in anyone's house that you can learn from,” he said.

“But the main thing was that we were sitting at the kitchen table [doing] remote learning and also working from home.”

There was just no separation between school, work and home. Murphy said this was “the main reason to do it”.

The business owner now believes the desks will be a fixture of the business, even post-coronavirus.

“Like every Australian business that has seen a downturn in this period, we're pulling all the levers required [to stay alive],” he said, noting that the company had previously shifted to creating acrylic sneeze screens.

“These products do fill a void that was lost in our day to day sales, but we actually feel that Build-a-Desk is gonna be a bit more of a long term play.”

Traditionally a business-to-business firm, Build-a-Desk presents an opportunity to target consumers directly, Murphy said.

He sees cubby houses and chairs in the company’s future as the “big push” for Australian-made and sustainable products.

“So we really feel this is actually going to be a permanent feature of our business.”

Coronavirus could reshape the manufacturing industry, he added.

“It's a really important time in Australia, [and I think it’s a time] where we're going to make Australian manufacturing great again, because that's what this product is about.

“It's about keeping 60 families that we support in our business employed, and keeping them busy and navigating through this uncharted territory.”

How do you pivot?

The Murphy kids. Image: Supplied
The Murphy kids. Image: Supplied

As Covid-19 reshapes the world, Murphy said Australian businesses need to adapt to survive.

“There's a lot of people sitting back, waiting for the government to hold their hand through this period and [the government is] doing a great job supporting business,” he said.

“We want to be a lot more proactive in keeping not only the business full of work, but actually we see this as an opportunity to actually grow and promote our business through a period of troubled times for a lot of businesses.”

Murphy has three pieces of advice for struggling businesses: communicate, think outside the box and pay your suppliers. Communication, especially with your staff, is vital in challenging times.

“I’ve never seen our workforce never be more united than it is right now, and I think that’s one of our great strengths,” he said.

“That very collaborative approach with all members of staff, I think it's been one of the biggest assets that we'll take out of this entire period of time.”

The next rule is to think outside the box. While commending businesses that have switched production to make hand sanitiser and face masks or gloves, Murphy said it’s important that businesses think of ways to bring their work into the future.

He said a good way to do this is to just look at your capabilities, and talk to your staff about ways to leverage those for long-term opportunities.

“Look inside your business and see what areas can you evolve. So we've evolved a point of sale product that we use for the alcohol and pharmaceutical products into a piece of furniture.”

His last tip? Be good to your suppliers.

“We've learned the very, very basic fundamentals of business,” he said.

That is, you need to have more money coming in than you have going out. The same goes for his suppliers - mum and dad businesses also need to be paid on time, if not before.

“In this period of time, people who have been a little bit tardy in conducting good strong control of their debtors and creditors are now finding that they’re in somewhat of a bother.

“We on the other hand have been very diligent with looking after our suppliers during this period of time, and that’s definitely coming into its own in terms of those relationships.”

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