Chris Kingsbury is no stranger to adversity. The local business stalwart has survived more near misses than most, having sustained serious injuries in a car crash in his teen years before going on to beat cancer no less than three times. But these hurdles haven’t stopped him from deftly navigating Totally Workwear through some of Cairns’ most challenging years yet.
Chris and his wife June moved to Cairns in the 80s and spent the following decade performing a variety of roles. They drove taxis, worked in business communications, and owned a shoe store and an antiques store. It was then the couple agreed that they were ready for a change of pace. They were all but ready to leave the city when Chris says they saw an ad in the paper that changed everything.
“We were trying to work out what to do next, and then one day in the paper there was an ad for Totally Workwear,” recalls Chris.
“We went and had a look at it and thought it sounded like a good idea.
“Something that doesn’t go out of fashion is workwear.”
The pair decided to take their chances on what was still a very young franchise, and set up in what Chris describes as a “postage stamp” store just a few doors down from their current empire.
“We came down and had a look at the outside and it wasn’t much to see, but the concept was good,” he says.
“Weeks later we came back with the keys and let ourselves into the little shed that it was, and I said, ‘What have we done?’.”
But despite early jitters, Chris says the business has outgrown even his own great expectations.
“I’m an optimist, I always dream big. We’d hoped it would get to this scale, but it was way beyond our conception that it would grow like it has.”
The success Chris and June have achieved is no mean feat. From starting out in their “postage stamp” 100m2 shop, Chris says they’re now bursting at the seams in their current 1500m2 store.
And that’s not all. Since opening its doors a quarter of a century ago, their store has consistently been one of the top sellers in the country every year, and even received national recognition for its achievements in 2015.
“Only the biggest stores in the capital cities top our sales, and we consistently knock it out of the park every month,” Chris says.
“After all these years, where usually team enthusiasm tones back and some of the initial drive washes away, we’ve somehow maintained the rage now for 25 years.”
I’m an optimist, I always dream big. We’d hoped it would get to this scale.
So what is the secret to their success?
Chris puts it down to a combination of two things. The first is customer service, which he states is the cornerstone of their existence.
“We’re only as good as the people working in the store.
“They’re just your ordinary everyday people making an honest living and I like to think they try 120%, because that’s what it takes.”
He says it’s their best defence against the strong competition that emerges both locally and online.
“People by nature want to reach out and try all the new things,” Chris says.
“We have to somehow persuade our customers – who generally want to try the grass on the other side to see what it’s like – to stay with us or to come back.
“We hope that we’re never just a ‘try on’ centre so people can buy online, and why would they as long as our price is the same or better.”
He says the basic tenet is to look after others how you would like to be looked after yourself.
“Treat people well and they’ll come back, treat people poorly and you won’t see them for dust.”
The second ‘holy grail’ that Chris credits with his business’s success is advertising. He made the decision early on to dedicate a percentage of every dollar earned back into the town through local advertisements and sponsorships for sports teams.
Chris labels it a distinct advantage over their capital city counterparts.
“You can’t afford to do the advertising that we do in a metropolitan zone, it’s too expensive,” he says.
“Regional advertising is effective and affordable.
“We run a gamble and we’ve backed it to the hilt, and all these years it’s come back to serve us well.”
My greatest achievement certainly is having raised two wonderful, smart, personable kids.
While Chris has stayed consistent with his approach to business, he has had to adapt to many external changes along the way.
He says one of the most significant shifts he has witnessed is a desire for more choice in what people can wear to work. Where there once used to be a stock standard, there is now a much greater demand for individuality.
“Workwear is now very trendy.
“There’s a personalization of people’s wants, and people demand choice,” reflects Chris.
“If I only had the toughest, leanest stuff here, we’d only be a quarter of the size.
“We’ve got to offer a variety of things: different prices, different looks, different colours.”
Another significant change that no one saw coming is, of course, COVID. Chris says his unique connection to other local businesses had him witnessing the effects of the pandemic from all angles. But he says he has been fortunate in that demand for health and safety equipment has kept their store going.
“Any kind of business with this many staff, if your business halves, who’s going to keep their job and who’s going to lose their job,” he says.
“Many of our customers had to close their businesses.
“We really didn’t know month to month what would happen.
“Miraculously for us, on the back of people wanting what we had, most people in our industry prevailed.
“Here we are now, 10 months later and looking forward to the next year having survived the mental stress of that.”
When asked about his greatest achievement, the obvious answer would be his consistent sales records or outstanding reputation. Instead, Chris shows the real nature of his character.
“My greatest achievement certainly is having raised two wonderful, smart, personable kids,” he says.
“We gave them the example of how we think people should work, and they’ve both turned out to be really upstanding, hard-working adults who give back at least as much as they take.”
While their son Adam is stuck in UK lockdowns, daughter Jenni is moving into the top job at Totally Workwear as Chris and June prepare to take on a more backseat role in the company.
Chris doesn’t yet know what the future will hold for him and June beyond the business, but he says whatever it is will be enjoyable with June by his side.
He says he’s proud to take a step back with the knowledge that he leaves a well-established business in his wake.
For all your workwear needs, go see Chris and the team at Totally Workwear.