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DahlsensTradeDeskLRFamily business going strong

An explorer, developer and investor in the fledgling Gippsland gold-mining industry, the pioneering John Christian Dahlsen could never have imagined that the hardware business he established – almost by accident – would still be going strong in East Gippsland 140 years later with a fifth generation Dahlsen at the helm.

One of the oldest and most successful businesses in East Gippsland, JC Dahlsen Pty Ltd was founded by Mr Dahlsen, who migrated to Australia from Denmark in 1862.

The business began almost by accident in 1877, when the gold-mining entrepreneur started storing surplus mining tools and hardware products in a tin shed in Nicholson Street, Bairnsdale, not far from Dahlsens’ current business home in Dalmahoy Street.

So begins the long and winding history of the Dahlsen family in East Gippsland and the birth of JC Dahlsen & Co, which was finally incorporated in 1935, and remains a thriving, family-owned business to this day.

“It is very unusual for a family business to last for five generations and to still remain alive, vital and growing,” Dahlsens’ co-chairman and owner, John Dahlsen, said.

“The Dahlsen forebears have been active in East Gippsland for generations, in industries including shipping, mining, saw milling, fishing, transport, vehicle and plant distribution, hospitality, farming, soap and lime manufacturing, orchards and a number of related activities,” Mr Dahlsen said.

But throughout the generations their interests in timber and hardware remained strong.

Today, JC Dahlsen Pty Ltd employs around 1000 people across the company and has 58 trade and manufacturing plants in most Australian states and territories.

Chief executive officer Geoffrey Dahlsen runs the business and shares the co-chairman role with John Dahlsen, now semi-retired, and gradually handing over the reins to fifth generation Dahlsen family members.

The senior general manager of JC Dahlsen Pty Ltd is Jamie Dahlsen, the son of former chief executive officer Bill Dahlsen, who is John Dahlsen’s younger brother. Bill Dahlsen remains engaged in the business as a non-executive director.

A former chief financial officer at the National Australia Bank, Richard McKinnon, and Jenny George, the chief executive officer of Converge International, are also on the board as non-executive directors.

“Dahlsens is fortunate to have a new generation of leaders uniquely qualified to take on the challenge of steering a large and complex retail business into the future,” Mr Dahlsen said.

“Geoff has an arts/law degree and a masters in business administration as well as speaking fluent Mandarin. He has worked his way up from the bottom of the business.

“Jamie has a degree in mechanical engineering and worked as a project general manager for a large mining company in WA before returning to the business and, like Geoff, began at the coalface. They both know the detail of the business from top to bottom.”

John Dahlsen, himself, has had a long and diverse career, including 45 years as a commercial solicitor. He has been chairman of the board of leading public companies, including Woolworths, The Herald and Weekly Times Ltd, Southern Cross Broadcasting Ltd. For many years he was a director on the boards of ANZ and Myer. While never an executive in the family company, Dahlsens has benefited from his corporate experience and he remains actively involved as non-executive co-chairman.

While family has been a key strength for the business, another is its ability to change.

While internationally owned hardware juggernaut Bunnings has decimated smaller do-it-yourself hardware stores around Australia, Dahlsens has survived and thrived by shifting its focus to trade and manufacturing. This limited its exposure to competition with Bunnings in the retail space.

The manufacture of products such as timber trusses and frames, windows and doors – comprises about 30 per cent of Dahlsens sales; the company owns 10 timber truss and frame plants, three steel plants, and a window and door manufacturing plant.

In 2016, the JC Dahlsen group has five divisions: Dahlsens Building Centres Pty Ltd in Victoria and southern NSW (28 outlets); Midcoast Timber Centres Pty Ltd in metropolitan Sydney (eight outlets); Cairns Hardware Company Pty Ltd in Far North Queensland (17 outlets); Nortruss Building Supplies Pty Ltd in the Northern Territory and Western Australia (five outlets); and Property Trusts, which owns and develops property in Victoria, NSW and Queensland.

But while the company is headquartered in Melbourne where its general management, marketing and merchandise functions are based, it maintains a significant support office in Bairnsdale, where local employees fill roles such as payroll, credit, accounts payable and receivable, audit and regional management.

“Our family has lived and worked in East Gippsland for five generations and we will never lose sight of our roots,” Mr Dahlsen said.

“JC Dahlsen Pty Ltd remains proudly family-owned, managed and directed from East Gippsland.”

To this end, the company supports a plethora of local and community activities, including a range of sporting groups, and organisations such as East Gippsland Marketing Inc., which exists to encourage people to live, work and invest in the region.

“Several national companies are based in East Gippsland and dominate the local economy but do very little to support the welfare of the area apart from by offering employment and choice,” Mr Dahlsen said.

“We have derived a lot of benefit from this area – as have so many others – and we believe it is important to give back. I urge other businesses to do the same.”