Bedshed Q&A: Gavin Culmsee on resilience and growth

Bedshed kept all lit stores open during the pandemic. Now it is on track to launch its e-commerce offering next month and focus on its expansion plans.

In this Q&A general manager Gavin Culmsee discusses trading through the shutdown and the importance of developing a resilient team.

What’s it like overseeing a nationwide business in a pandemic when you’re based in Western Australia and the state guidelines are all different?

“There is certainly a challenge around understanding what’s going on state by state, interpreting that and giving guidance to the network. That was a constant requirement almost daily, especially in the early days.

“We went through a process of standing down casual staff, then standing down permanent people and getting down to a skeleton crew.

It got to the point where it was almost just the owners working – the husband-and-wife or mother-and-son teams. We have a lot of families in our business.

“We pride ourselves on being family-focused and a lot of our team has been with us for a long time, so those decisions made by people who had an employee working for them for 10-14 years were heartbreaking.

“Then Jobkeeper came out, which has been tremendous and very helpful for some of our more heavily affected guys, as it allowed people to come back to work.

Gavin Culmsee, GM, Bedshed | Inside Franchise Business

Gavin Culmsee, GM, Bedshed | Inside Franchise Business

“In the early days, there was almost a desperation from some customers. We had a lot of customers who had more people staying with them than usual because of lockdown and their parents were staying so they wanted a mattress straight away. There was a nervousness around being out shopping – the interactions were really quite brief, very demand-driven. People wanted to know what they could buy right now.

“The feedback from franchisees and customers about wanting to buy our stock was interesting. Our business model means we hold a lot of stock for immediate delivery, so they were pleased we could help them straight away. That was a point of difference for us, whereas a lot of our competitors make customers wait eight to 12 weeks.

“There were lots of nice stories around community interaction and our franchisees helping out people who couldn’t afford what they were buying. A lot of our guys stepped up. It was a tough time not just for our guys, but the community and that uncertainty was huge, especially in the early days.”

How did your team respond to the pandemic?

“I think the nature of franchising is that you don’t have an enormous head office structure. Our business is flat, including our entire accounts team. We have 15 people, then four who work interstate. During the pandemic, I suppose what I saw from my management team and franchisees was that ‘Let’s just get on with it and focus on the outcome’. I think we’ve got a high level of trust.

“We had a national members’ meeting in February when we talked about resilience and growing market share. The timing of that work on resilience was perfect. I wrote a note to the guys on Good Friday to say, ‘I never thought when we presented on resilience in February that we’d actually be utilising the tools just a couple of months later’.

“That level of trust and alignment is what got us through. That gives me an enormous level of pride around the work my management team and franchisee did in their businesses and communities. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”

Tell me about that work you guys did on resilience during the meeting.

“We had a guest speaker called Cameron Schwab. He was an AFL CEO who has worked through his own issues. He’s had depression for a long time and worked through that. He presents from an honest level around what happens when you go through depression and how you have to stay focused on it to get through it.

“We also used a profiling tool called the Predictive Index, so we got to understand all our franchisees and management team. That’s also about sharing who you are and how you respond at work, so you understand your [team’s] triggers and how to work with them.

“For the last couple of years, we’ve been trying to take our franchisees on a journey to grow them personally. You become a better dad, husband, wife or business owner or manager through growing yourself personally. Sometimes in franchising that gets ignored.

“Having people who don’t have as much self-doubt or don’t have a monkey on their back and are concentrating on their business, family or both, means we all benefit from that. That’s also about showing that you’re human and some vulnerability. To me, that’s being able to say when you get stuff wrong, especially during a pandemic.”

A lot of retailers have been focusing on their e-commerce in this period of time. Where is Bedshed at with that side of things?

“In our business, we’ve been rolling out a new POS system since February with a view to launch e-commerce in June. How’s that for timing? That was one of the main reasons for keeping our stores open, too.

“We think we’ll launch a tremendous e-commerce platform for our franchisees. In traditional e-commerce, you service from one warehouse and account, but our franchisees will get service from 36 warehouses and cash from customers’ payments will go straight into their bank account. It’s taken us some time to get there.

“These things are simple when you put them on a whiteboard, but the end results are going to be spectacular. We’re in the final stages of testing now and we’re getting ready to launch soon.”

Bedshed has been around for 40 years and its stores are in most states, except for New South Wales. Do you see that changing in the future?

“Last year, we employed a franchise recruitment manager based in Sydney and that’s purely about our New South Wales expansion plans. We were actually doing a lot of progress in terms of franchise recruitment pre-pandemic. It’s tapered off a little bit, but what we see are some exciting opportunities in terms of retail property and network expansion in New South Wales.

“As always, when times are tough, the cream rises to the top and people who are struggling will struggle to come out on the other side. Some property opportunities will arise out of that. Now we’ve got to get back on track with our recruitment network. Southeast Queensland, northern New South Wales and Sydney metro are our targets over the next couple of years.

This is an edited extract from an article that was first published on Inside Retail, a sibling website to Inside Franchise Business Executive.