Phoenix from the ashes

Fleur Doidge
11 December, 2007
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When the smell of smoke drifted through Designwyse’s Melbourne premises on 23 July, it was Jason, the 24-year-old son of managing director and founding proprietor Robert Kloester, who alerted the company to the possibility of fire.

“It was a Monday, about 5:15pm,” recalls Rob Kloester. “Jason was working downstairs and he smelt something burning and I was upstairs.” The Kloesters began searching the building, up and down on every floor, eventually finding the storage area in flames. “They were all over the place; it was too far gone to put out.”

The way Kloester tells it, the staff and family themselves narrowly escaped with their lives. Some people might not have wanted to persevere after such a catastrophe — some of the computers on site were so badly melted by the fierce heat as to make a complete mockery of the concept of business disaster recovery.

Yet three months on finds Kloester rebuilding the 12-year-old business and not only thanking whatever gods there might be but using what he learned from circumstances of the fire to benefit his customers. “We were lucky that we had a very good insurance policy and were well-covered when we really needed it,” he said, adding that he works to ensure his clientele knows about the difference proper insurance can make, and that one shouldn’t underestimate the damage a fire can do so quickly.

Sometimes he adds, wryly, that it’s pretty difficult to recover data from a computer or server that has become a puddle of liquid plastic. “But our stock was covered and also our relocation costs, and things like that,” he said.

Kloester had insurance, and sufficiently generous it proved to be. All staff kept their jobs. Similarly, Designwyse’s suppliers, including Apple itself, were very supportive, calling up immediately after the fire, and all the way through to the eve of the reopening of the Designwyse store, in a completely new location with a bigger showroom. And the customers — some of whom lost computers themselves in the fire — are only too happy to return.

Historical ties. To find out what created this loyalty to one relatively small store serving, mainly, a specialised customer base hailing from the creative, graphics and design sector, it might help to go back to the beginning.

Kloester and his wife, Barbara, have been in business together 25 years — about as long as they’ve been together, in fact. “Around 24 years ago, we started selling computers, when they were first released. We sold the Dick Smith Electronics System 80, the first Apple ][e, and that was at first at Bob’s Computer Centre,” Kloester said. Bob’s Computer Centre became Designwyse in about 1989.

“My brother’s in the advertising agency business. So we started selling to the people who know and love Macs,” he said. “And we just offered good service and prices, and business has grown.”

Key, he says, is to look after your customers. Sure, we’ve all heard that before but, nonetheless, when the soft-spoken Kloester says it, it seems to pack an extra punch. And there’s a real difference: Kloester tells his 28-odd staff to think long term, that building a relationship with a customer is more important than focusing on sales. If your customers trust you to give good advice and support, he says, they’ll come back. And that’s worth more to any business in the long run than the one-off sale.

In this mission he’s helped by his wife — who isn’t at all a computer fanatic — and the twins. Barbara is more focused on the marketing side of the business and assists as appropriate, juggling family responsibilities as well. When she was having the children, and busy with that side of things, she took time out from the business. But Robert is quick to point out that she helps whenever she can, in whatever capacity she can, according to circumstances.

Sharon, Jason’s twin sister, has just graduated from teacher training but also helps out in the family business when she can. “Jason, he did some work on the technical side but now he’s in sales,” Kloester said.

The family, working so closely together, obviously get along extremely well. In many families, that might be considered very unusual — almost impossible. “I don’t know why we get along so well. It’s just a choice to get along really well. We’re best friends,” Kloester said.

And when they’re not working, they socialise a lot. “We all love sitting around and watching a great movie together,” Kloester said.

“All kinds. And we go outdoors, or shopping.” That said, it’s been a long time since the family has done that, he says, due to the heavy workload — often 16 hours a day for Kloester himself — imposed on the family by the fire. Because of that, at the moment, he finds it hard to remember the last movie they saw. “Until it’s all rebuilt, we’ve got to stick at it,” he said.

So the last few months have meant mainly work, work, and then, just for variety, more work. By the time you read this, though, the new showroom will be open. Kloester is excited about the prospect of the new 1000m2 to 1500m2 premises, which at press-time were just two or three weeks from opening. Designwyse expects to have a new service centre too, and Kloester plans to offer training to Designwyse customers in the coming year.

Kloester admits it’s been hard. But his family and the loyalty of his customers have kept him going through the tough times. And IT isn’t an industry he would want to be away from — not now, and maybe not ever. It’s ever-changing. “It’s exciting,” Kloester says. “There’s always something different coming up and happening.”

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