Greg Welsh has long been a passionate advocate for Indigenous Australians. While he was working as the CEO of a large furniture manufacturing company between 2008 and 2014, he would purposefully place Indigenous trainees into the business.
But after his employer was bought out by a company that put a stop to his efforts, he decided to explore new opportunities to practice social responsibility and create employment opportunities for Indigenous Australians.
But when he started looking around for an Aboriginal business that he could work with in the furniture manufacturing industry, he couldn’t find one.
“I’d already started working with Indigenous trainees in the furniture industry and I could see that some good could be done with it,” Greg says. “But there were no established Aboriginal businesses in the sector in Australia at that time.”
During his search, Greg was introduced to Debbie Barwick, the CEO of the NSW Indigenous Chamber of Commerce and Chairperson of the First Australians Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It was Deb who suggested they instead start their own business and in 2015, they founded Winya Indigenous Furniture.
Since then, Winya has gone on to become an award-winning majority Indigenous owned and controlled business that supplies furniture to corporate, government and financial institutions, while raising awareness on problematic issues facing Indigenous businesses, such as ‘black cladding’.
It has even been recognised by the United Nations with a Global Compact Award for Sustainable Development Goals for the Economic Empowerment of Indigenous Peoples.
Greg attributes a large part of Winya’s success to its focused, professional approach to doing good.
“We’ve been growing on average 50% per annum for all our life, even though COVID,” says Greg. “We try not to be everything to everyone, but we’ve got a nice, neat professional way of approaching how to do business better in Australia.”
Winya is dedicated to creating genuine social change for Indigenous individuals and communities, and Greg stresses the importance of avoiding buying from businesses that are less sincere – even if they are cheaper.
“There are people who genuinely do the right thing and are part of the social solution with their business practices, like we are with Winya,” Greg explains. “But there are issues, such as the ‘black cladding’ epidemic, where non-Indigenous businesses take advantage of an Indigenous business entity or individual to grab money set aside to create major social change.”
When he started Winya, Greg already had a strong knowledge of business management processes and models from his experience and his AGSM @ UNSW Business School MBA. And since graduating from AGSM in 2006, the skills he learned have accompanied him throughout his journey to founding and running Winya.
“I use my MBA knowledge all the time, especially when I’m talking to our marketing people about
statistical analysis, strategy, segmentation and the rationale for making certain decisions.”
So, when his co-founder Deb suggested that Winya be created with a completely new business model, he felt confident they could build something great.
Instead of setting up their own factories, they partner with other furniture manufacturers to place Indigenous trainees in their factories. The trainees are then taught to make Winya’s products – mostly office furniture for government, corporate and construction industry clients. With no factories of its own, Winya can fully focus on getting tenders from organisations looking to support their Indigenous Opportunity Policy and Reconciliation Action Plans. The manufacturing then takes place in the factories of their partner organisations.
“We have a replicated production capacity for almost all our lines of different furniture in nearly every state,” Greg says. “We are very well supported by the furniture industry as we’re not competing against them. In fact, we’ve been embraced by people who would otherwise be our competitors.”
This unique business model gives Winya a competitive advantage, as it can be nimble and resilient in unpredictable times. The business sources its materials locally and sustainably wherever possible, using recycled furniture or forest stewardship certified timbers. This, and the fact they work with furniture manufacturers in each state, has kept them going throughout the pandemic, multiple lockdowns and the current supply chain disruptions.
“We can make the same product in Brisbane as in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Adelaide. That makes us more nimble than our bigger competitors that are making things in just one state or importing,” Greg explains.
And with many of their clients being big corporates, banks and government institutions, Winya’s spread-out supply chain also helps them seal the deal from a risk management point of view.
“Large corporates require robust risk management,” Greg explains. “They’re moving people out of one building and into a new one on a certain date, so their furniture needs to be ready in time. When Melbourne was in lockdown, we were able to pull from every other state to get 600 workstations together for one client who was based in Melbourne so they could open in time.”
While their agility is a competitive advantage for Winya, many of their clients choose them because they are invested in the wider purpose of the organisation.
Greg spends his days visiting major banks, corporate and government departments to drive change in consumer behaviour and get more Indigenous procurement happening around Australia – something that is increasingly supported by government and Commonwealth organisations. And with ‘black cladding’ companies often charging less than Winya, convincing CEOs and company leaders to support Winya’s long-term goals rather than seeing Indigenous procurement as a box ticking exercise is a crucial part of what he does.
While he sold his stake in Winya in 2019, Greg is still immersed in its day-to-day operations as General Manager. But around the same time he sold his share of the business, he had a major revelation. He switched on the television only to discover that he himself had Indigenous Australian heritage.
He was watching an episode of ABC’s ‘You Can’t Ask That’ featuring Indigenous Australians when an Aboriginal man appeared on the show who looked exactly like his grandfather. He even had the same surname. Intrigued, Greg decided to do some detective work.
“I’d searched up my heritage before and it had always showed that I’m Irish Catholic,” he explained. But after ringing around and talking to several people, Greg learned the truth – his great-grandmother was a Kamilaroi woman from Narrabri in north-west NSW. As part of the Stolen Generations, his grandfather had been disconnected from the rest of the family.
Greg was initially surprised, but the knowledge has given him a stronger voice with which to tackle the problem of black cladding.
“Today, I choose not to promote myself as Aboriginal, even though I could. I haven’t had that upbringing; I haven’t faced the discrimination. By taking that deliberate stance, I can speak out against companies that misrepresent themselves as Aboriginal a lot more strongly than I otherwise could.”
He believes the tide is turning when it comes to issues such as black cladding and with pushback from the Aboriginal community, and changes in the way the government defines an Indigenous-run business, things will improve in the future. And as ethical procurement from organisations that are genuinely supporting Indigenous individuals and enterprises continues to grow, Winya will too.
“At the end of the day we’re not a charity. We make money,” he says. “We don’t make as much as other people because we reinvest in the extra work we do. And it’s this that has helped us grow.”