Steely resolve

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Born into the family business, Leigh Dawborn always knew he’d be a man of steel. What he didn’t know was that he’d need such steely resolve to survive in an industry his family had dominated for more than a century.

“I thought it was going to be my future,” says Dawborn. “But it didn’t turn out to be the case.” 

The Dawborn name has been synonymous with the steel industry in Victoria since 1902. Originally founded by Dawborn’s grandfather, Frederick, the company was passed down through two generations with great success. 

Despite, or perhaps because of, its exponential growth, the original incarnation of Dawborn Steels went public and, in the early 1970s, was acquired by McPherson’s Limited. Without the family name to work under, Dawborn opted to find his own way in the world. 

“I left the family business, worked for another company for 10 years to get some other experience and then started my own business.” 

He says his time outside the family business afforded him the opportunity to develop new skills and be exposed to new ideas. “It’s good to get some outside experience.”

It wasn’t that he couldn’t return to the fold under the McPherson’s banner, but that it was important for Dawborn, when he did, to do it on his own terms. “It was my goal to re-establish the family name back in the steel business.” 

For Dawborn, the family name and the culture it represented was paramount. There was also the question of taking back what was rightfully his. Of the experience, Dawborn admits to being frustrated, but never discouraged. 

“In the long run, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It gave me a bit of a goal, a challenge, something to aim for.”

But there were other things driving Dawborn. “The challenge for me was to work out what to do to make enough money to educate my family the way I wanted to educate them and to secure some assets like a family home.” 

Dawborn admits he is fond of a challenge, and just as well: the new generation Dawborn Steels Group began in the front room of his family home in the early 1980s, where he was kept company by a Telex and his wife as his secretary. Today, Dawborn Steels Group employs 25 staff, and boasts a turnover in excess of $20 million; he is the owner and managing director, his wife an active director, and his son, Timothy, manages Contract Slitters, a subsidiary Dawborn Steels acquired in 1994. 

Under pressure

With a family business there are many challenges. The demands on Dawborn’s time are great, as are the pressures of living up to the family name. “Most people probably don’t realise it’s a 24-hour involvement. It’s still your business once you leave the office.” 

When it’s a family affair, says Dawborn, there is a lot more at stake. “To start a family business, you need to put your major assets on the line,” he says.

Dawborn denies his is a family with a business, but rather a business run by a family. This distinction, he says, is an important one to make: it not only creates a very hands-on culture, but it affords the business independence, something Dawborn values greatly.

Creating, and maintaining, a strong family culture is key.

“It’s not trial and error, it’s something you’ve got to work on. It’s a matter of using and learning from those experiences. Make sure if they’re bad, you don’t repeat them and if they’re good, you capitalise on them.” 

Staff strategies

The Dawborn culture is the one Dawborn was raised on; a culture built on a steady diet of hard work, integrity and commitment. 

“From a young age, I used to go into work with my father on weekends and holidays. That was all part of learning the culture, I’ve grown up on it. You’ve got to work hard at your business.” 

Dawborn’s own children were brought up similarly: Dawborn Steels Group was a constant in their childhood as they too accompanied their father to work on the weekends and school holidays. “I used to take a bit of work home at times too so, indirectly, that involved them as well.” 

As they grew older, they became more actively involved in the business. Working in the family business is by choice, Dawborn says, not conscription. “There’s no pressure there,” he laughs. Most family members, however, have done their time. “They’ve all worked for me part-time and [over the] holidays. The same as what I did really.”

When it comes to core values, there is no distinction between Dawborn Steels and the Dawborn clan. “It’s a matter of having the same principles,” says Dawborn. “For me, that’s the only way you can work in a family business.”

With only three members of the Dawborn family currently active in the business and its subsidiaries, they are outnumbered. But strength, Dawborn assures, does not always lie in numbers.

“I think the most important thing for a family business with non-family [employees] is to create a family atmosphere for them as well,” he says. “We have minimal staff turnover because we make people feel part of the culture. I treat all my staff as one of the family. We’re family – we’re all working towards the same goals.”

The family culture extends beyond employers and employees to Dawborn clients and suppliers. Honesty is also important in the Dawborn culture, as is honouring all who work in, and with, the culture. Dawborn Steels Group prides itself on customer service: it is small enough to offer a personalised service and maintain strong relationships, and big enough to compete on price, ensuring their customers are not penalised for their loyalty. 

“You need to have respect for your customers,” says Dawborn. “If you don’t have your customers, you don’t have a business. We don’t lose too many customers because we treat them with a lot of respect. Being a family business, we have a more personal link with them than what some of our bigger opposition have.” 

Many customers even send Dawborn birthday cards, they are so much a part of the family.

Planning for succession 

There are many years left with Dawborn still at the helm; and as for passing on the baton, Dawborn says it’s not yet time, and won’t be for a while. 

Retirement, he insists firmly, is not on the cards. He admits this is something he won’t be able to skirt forever, so it’s crucial to prepare future generations to ensure a smooth transition. 

Dawborn jokes that his grandchildren are his contingency plan for the business. Despite their young age, he has ensured they too have been exposed to the Dawborn culture.

“They come in and ride the forklifts and play with the computer. So I guess that’s part of getting them familiar with the family business.

“It’s probably one of the most difficult issues with family businesses,” he says. “I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to acquire other businesses, but at the moment, my son is at arm’s length from myself. The main challenge will be to make sure he’s familiar [with] every area of the business. That means training in all facets of business. He started from the shop floor [and worked his way] upwards. I guess that’s part of the transition.” 

Dawborn is confident Timothy will be the one he hands over the reins to… eventually. 

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