Gordon Cole admits he was “a bit of a rebel” as a young man. “I got kicked out of school at 15 and I had two young sons at the age of 19” says the Perth-based co-founder of Cole Workwear with. But he changed his views in his twenties when he decided to study at TAFE and get a regular job.
Cole worked as a program manager for the implementation of the Aboriginal Justice Agreement for the government of Western Australia and was the chair of the ATSIC Regional Council for Perth. He worked with the indigenous community in native title and social justice areas.
In 2009 he set up his own company, Cole Consulting which offered mentoring and coaching for indigenous people and advises on indigenous issues.
In 2012, a trip to America to attend a conference of the National Minority Supplier Development Council in Denver Colorado, inspired him to raise his sights about the potential for indigenous business in Australia.
“It opened my eyes to see what was happening in indigenous business in the US,” he says. “We had nothing like that in Western Australia.”
On the trip, Cole met Australian businessman Michael Cima, who had been involved with the establishment of the first indigenous workwear company Outback Global, a few years previously. He and Cole formed a good relationship and a year later Cima suggested they set up their own company specializing in workwear including uniforms and safety equipment.
Cima knew the workwear industry and could see the potential for expansion in the area of procurement for government and business. Cole already had strong links with mining companies government and not-for-profits in Western Australia, as well as connections with the states Noongar Community.
The duo set up Cole Workwear November 2013 and in June 2014 launched their own range of workwear products, The Boomerang Range which includes work shirts, cargo pants, boots, safety glasses and uniforms.It carries a distinctive logo made up of four boomerangs, representing Cole’s four children.
Clients now and include Shell, Worley Parsons, Veolia Environmental Services, Brookfield Johnson Controls and Mermaid Marine.
Cole was particularly pleased when his firm signed a five-year contract to supply safety boots to the Perth-based gas company Woodside. “It was very good for us, also Woodside to contract directly with a company like ours,” he says. “We are trying to get some other blue-chip companies”
Cole visited China last year to oversee the production of equipment for another key contract for the Defence Department. While Cima was experienced in importing goods into Australia, Cole wanted to see where his products are being made.
“I wanted to visit the factory floor for myself to make sure that we were not supporting anything unethical." He says. “When I walked in they treated me like royalty. For them to see the owner walk in the door and talk to them was really great. It was really good for them to put a face to a name.”
He says the company is “quite competitive” on pricing but sources of products in Australia when is financially worthwhile.
Cole’s business and community involvement saw him become an inaugural chairman of the Noongar Chamber of Commerce and industry in Western Australia to help other Noongar businesses. He says his company also gives back to the indigenous community sponsoring several local sporting clubs including the Noongar Sports Association and the Noongar Football Club with his son plays.
“We are on a growth trajectory,” says Cole. “We have a real vision to be the best with the company in the world – not just Australia.” His long-term goal is for Cole Workwear to become a thriving family business. His daughter, who is studying at university, works in the business and some of his other children do occasional work at the company. “I would like to see my kids and grandchildren right in the business long after I'm gone,” he says.
Cole says indigenous people in Australia were always “in business” but was suppressed when Europeans came to Australia. He feels this is changing with the rise of government and corporate procurement programs: “We are reclaiming our commerce and trade ...Being in business is not foreign to us. We have always been in business and we will continue to do it. Indigenous business is growing. We are the sleeping giant that has awakened.”