Ron Hill is, without any shadow of a doubt, a man of many talents. As proprietor of Broken Hill’s famous store, Outback Whips & Leather, he’s one of the country’s finest leather craftsmen, making everything from boots and hats to custom-made saddles. However, if he’d had his way back in the 1980s, he might still be driving his old ice cream van.
Ron Hill has garnered an unrivalled reputation over the decades as being one of the finest leather-workers in the country. He’s a true artisan in a world driven by lightning-fast commerce. He is, however, entirely unfazed by today’s high standards of customer demand. In fact, he’ll go so far as to refuse to sell you something if he feels it’s not right for you.
“When we opened the business, we wrote down all the things that we didn’t want the business to be”, Ron recalls. ”We looked at the big chain stores and said, we don't want to be like that. Whatever the new trend is, we want to be going in the opposite direction. What we wanted was something that came across as a family-run business that's been here for 150 years. The number one thing we decided, which still holds true today, was that we won't sell you anything. We'll help you buy, but we won't force anything on you.”
The comments in his bulging visitors’ book certainly suggest that Ron’s approach is working well – his customers make particular reference to the joy of the “old-fashioned store” where they can “see someone that can do things with their hands.”
“As much as the world is modernizing stores, I think we really need to go back the other way,” says Ron. “But it's not anything scientific. You just need to talk to people, take an interest in what they're saying. Bloody serve them. That's all. All people want is service.”
Ron must be doing something right – business is booming (2014 was his biggest sales year on record), and demand for his handcrafted products has never been greater. On top of that, Outback Whips & Leather was recently named 'Best Micro Business in Far West NSW'.
But none of this happened by accident – far from it. “We realized that nobody was purposely making agricultural leather goods. We set about to create a range of things for people that live and operate out in the bush. Our core business is everyday bush items - bags for motorbikes with pliers and spanner pouches, two-way radio holders and things like that. We are probably the only business in Australia that purposely manufactures these things and has them on the shelf.”
Although his love of leather was born from growing up around horses, Ron has also made some detours along the way. He ran a coffee shop on the current site of the Broken Hill Visitors Centre; he was highly active in the early days of the town’s Tourist Association, and part of a team that made Broken Hill’s first television commercial; he ran a lolly store called ‘Candy Land’ with scales to weigh your jelly beans, and for a spell he was the owner of the local ice-cream van.
“Ice-cream vans are magic," he says, with a wry, nostalgic smile. “In hindsight, I should have done nothing but drive that ice cream van. It's a license to print money!” Thankfully, for his customers, Ron avoided being Broken Hill’s next gelato impresario and opted for a life as a craftsman.
It’s fair to say that the store name has raised a few eyebrows in its time. “We wanted the name to reflect the outback and obviously, the items we were doing. We put a few names down on paper, and we handed them out to people and said, ‘Pick a name’. Everyone said, ‘That name sticks in your mind’ - so we went with it. You’d be surprised how many people stand under the sign out front and get their photograph taken.”
Outback Whips & Leather is located at 350 Argent St, Broken Hill, NSW.