A professional and personal path to success
4 November 2020 at 8:18 am
Muru Office Supplies isn’t just providing some of Australia’s largest corporates with stationary, it’s forging a path for a successful Indigenous-owned business sector that empowers disadvantaged communities, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on social enterprise.
In 2012 Mitchell Ross was on the hunt for his next career venture. After recognising a slow decline in the need for IT services (his first business) he knew he needed to pivot.
Being a proud Bidjigal man from La Perouse in southeast Sydney, he became aware of a growing movement in Australia called supply diversity – where large corporates buy from Aboriginal-owned businesses.
“I guess it was a bit of looking for different opportunities and then stumbling into this growing sector,” Ross told Pro Bono News.
Receiving advice from successful Indigenous entrepreneur Michael McCleod to move out of IT and into the resale of products, Ross launched Muru Office Supplies (MOS).
While MOS started small, selling ink cartridges, the business really started to grow after securing a partnership with Complete Office Supplies, the nation’s largest office supplies provider.
“Before that, we were pigeonholed into Sydney because that’s where I was based. It was really hard to get any significant partnerships,” Ross said.
“That partnership has really seen us grow from strength to strength.”
A personal pathway
The word Muru means pathway in the Bidjigal language. Ross said it was important that the organisation not only represented the professional path he’d taken in his life and in business, but his personal vision of creating pathways for future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“I had a great upbringing. Both my parents had good jobs and I had a stable home environment,” he said.
“I was quite fortunate, but I obviously witnessed a lot of hardships among my family and friends around me.
“So I wanted to build a business that could help my people, and show myself off as a role model for future generations.”
These days, MOS offers more than just ink cartridges. It supplies office supplies and stationery, hygiene products, and toilet paper, as well as IT products and solutions to its large corporate partners such as KPMG, Qantas, Commonwealth Bank and SAP Software.
Around 15 per cent of the company’s profits also go into supporting education, employment, health and wellbeing causes. The total figure of community contributions is now sitting at over $270,000.
Muru’s ongoing community partnerships include a playgroup in far-north Queensland supporting around 35 Indigenous kids to have access to literacy and numeracy support, and Indigi-Grow, a Sydney social enterprise specialising in education programs around native bush foods and medicines, and employment programs for Indigenous kids.
“Our support goes towards the training of high school kids going through a horticultural apprenticeship,” Ross said.
“One of those kids has since left high school and is now working full time in the business, which was a very proud moment for us.
“It’s a great feeling for me to be able to support some kids with the passion to work on-country and be connected to their culture in some way.”
Last financial year, the enterprise also made a one-off $14,000 contribution to Mudgin-Gal, an Aboriginal organisation delivering support, referrals and community-based services to Aboriginal women and families in inner city Sydney.
For some years now, the business has been financially viable and turning a profit. But that doesn’t mean Ross hasn’t come up against challenges proving himself and his business capability along the way.
“When you tell people you’re an Indigenous business, some people have preconceived ideas around what kind of capability you have, and whether or not we can actually fulfil the obligations of the agreement,” he said.
He said while the number of large companies Muru works with demonstrates they do have what it takes to remain competitive, the issue of unconscious bias is something they still occasionally have to deal with.
“There’s an Aboriginal business in pretty much every industry you can think of, and I’m just so amazed when I go to conferences and I see my peers doing some amazing things. It just blows my mind,” he said.
“I think over time, the broader public and business community will see that too… hopefully, that unconscious bias will just fizzle out over time.”
Adapting through the challenges
When COVID-19 hit back in March, like many companies selling hygiene products and toilet paper, Muru saw a spike in sales. But as most offices moved into long-term working from home arrangements, the enterprise had to rethink the way they support their customers.
“So it was a question of how do we make sure we can continue to be agile and adapt and support those customers,” he said.
“So there’s now a focus on winning more new business and new partnerships that help us support our customers now they are working from home a bit more.”
Looking to the future, Ross said building the Muru team will be a big priority, as well as hitting big revenue goals.
“I suppose longer term, I do have a bit of a goal of getting to $100 million in revenue by 2030,” he said.
“And what that translates to is half a million dollars to the community every year.”
Check out MOS here.