The Man With The Can

L to R: Jonny Haines, Martin Haines & Stuart Broadley

In 1967, a young and enthusiastic lad took up a purchasing officer position in the automotive aftermarket industry.

50 years later, Martin Haines was awarded the Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association's Outstanding Service to Industry Award, and inducted into the Hall of Fame.

It's been a long and winding road.

The business of running a business

After ten years of learning the industry, Martin had accumulated sufficient experience and confidence to start his own business, Mr. Phone, based in North Melbourne, Victoria. Starting life as a manufacturing representative agency, Mr. Phone eventually branched into wholesaling, sadly with less success. A major unrecoverable debt sank the business, taking every bit of capital Martin had with it. 

"To come home and tell my wife, the mother of two young boys, that we'd lost everything - I was absolutely gut-wrenched!" recalls Martin.

For weeks he was in absolute despair, self-esteem shattered, prospects gone. But the family pulled together. Martin's wife went back to work and Martin scrambled for any work he could find as the painful wind up process continued.

He started doing some work for an agency called Prestronics, trying to sell off a serious build-up in stocks, when a contract he had previously submitted for, to supply Shell service stations with metal Jerry Cans, fell Martin's way. The only problem was he could no longer afford to bring the products in, till Shell surprisingly agreed to finance things and continued to do so for the next ten years.

It was a profitable arrangement, and on Christmas Eve, 1988, Martin bought the Prestronics company, trading as ProQuip, and the setbacks of Mr. Phone seemed far behind him.

But days later, on 1st January, 1989, Shell advised a restructuring of its Shell Shops, delisting much of their previous range and effectively leaving Martin's new company with no customers!

Who in their right mind would run their own business?

Never go anywhere without a jerry can

Once again it was the Jerry Can that saved the day and got Martin up and running again.

"I think to survive in an industry you've got to have a gut feel for that industry. And I just felt the 20 litre metal Jerry Can had great mileage. And no one could match our quality."

The cans were being manufactured in the USSR, and Martin knew if he could secure distribution rights for all of Australia, the potential was immense.

He travelled to Moscow and then to the factory in Latvia. And as the Soviet block began to unravel, Martin found himself dealing directly with the Latvian manufacturing team, forming a joint venture to develop the business with them, eventually privatising the factory from the Latvian Government. And though the joint venture was eventually sold back to the Latvian owners, their intimate co-operation with ProQuip endures to this day.

Innovation is the way forward

As good as the product was, Martin and his team never stopped talking to customers, monitoring internet forums and trying to imagine ways of improving it.

There were new Australian Standards introduced in 1986 and revised in 1991 that Martin knew he would have to meet if they were to realise the full potential of his star product, and took in ex-Shell buyer Geoff Steventon as an equal partner to help fund the company's next phase.

A known issue of the original Jerry Can was the risk of accidentally opening and spilling. This was overcome with the development of the 'pin lock closure', a simple adaptation of the hand grenade pin that Martin was able to patent world-wide, creating the first product of its type to gain Australian Standard compliance and one that attracted global attention, particularly from the US and other military forces.

When overseas supplies of plastic cans faltered, ProQuip jumped at the chance to manufacture plastic cans in Australia, developing a stronger, safer product that is now carried by virtually every major retail outlets in aftermarket, camping and hardware.

To make metal Jerry Cans easier to open, Martin conceived the Super Can, with a locking interior threaded cap that is fully Australian Standard compliant.

Given his passion about safety, Martin takes particular pride in his work with the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities to develop a range of standardised Jerry Can colours that clearly and safely identify the different types of fuel they contain.

And while the Jerry Can continued to fuel ProQuip's steady growth, other lines were constantly being added to the range which today includes over a hundred different products.

Successful succession

For all his passion about the products he represents, Martin still regards his people as his greatest asset. With a tightly-knit workforce of 13, ProQuip is small enough to operate like a family. They pay above award wages, distribute bonuses and enjoy the benefits of loyal staff who care and cover for each other.

Over the years Martin had watched young accounting graduate Stuart Broadley grow with the business and when Geoff Steventon was ready to retire, Martin was able to buy back his shareholding and sell part of it on to Stuart, who continued to take on more responsibility.

And when Martin and his wife went on a trip to Western Australia, the realisation that the business could run effectively without him was revelatory.

"For two weeks I didn't get a phone call or an email and got back to find everything tickety-boo!" recalls Martin. "You like to think you’re the only one but you're not."

It was the trigger to winding back, and in 2016 Stuart took over as Managing Director, leaving Martin to help with export and new product development on a part-time basis.

The only one of Martin's four children to show interest in joining the business was his youngest, Jonny, who has fitted in well and helped Stuart take the business to a turnover approaching $6million. Whether Jonny is the future of ProQuip is too early to say, but the energy and fresh ideas that come with generational change is absolutely apparent to Martin.

A little over ten years ago, Martin joined The CEO Institute.

"It was probably the best thing I could have done at the time," said Martin.

"Talking to other people who, though from different industries, are still facing the same dilemmas as me has been so valuable. I've really enjoyed the chance to share ideas and solutions."


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