Just off the high street in the Sydney suburb of Redfern is a bright sunshine yellow terrace house. You won't find an arm chair or the smell of home-cooking inside though. Decorated with large 'Boomerang Batteries' branding, past the lattice fence and through the front door is a storeroom full of - what seems like - every possible battery known to man and a busy-looking office; computer, desk and lots of paperwork. It's the headquarters of Wiradjuri man Tony Merritt's battery business and one of merely two Aboriginal-run private businesses in a community with a large Indigenous population.
It's been two years since Tony left his job as an Roadside Assistance Officer for Roads and Maritime services and made the brave decision take his skills and 'go off and do his own thing'. Now, he sells and installs large and small batteries for cars, boats, trucks and even forklifts through his own business, Boomerang Batteries.
Tony contributes to the six per cent of self-employed Indigenous entrepreneurs, and while working hard to support himself, he is also playing a fundamental role in closing the gap between the small number of Indigenous entrepreneurs, compared to the 15.2 per cent of non-Indigenous people who are self-employed business owners.
"It is hard, but once you get up and running and get into a routine you learn how to do it and how to manage it all," Tony told NITV. "I was doing 24-7 for a while - 7 days a week - but now I've cut down to 5, because I'm trying to have normal business hours."
"The Land Council helped me out big time to help me lease this place," he says as he describes his office. "It was really hard to get a place as a new business owner because they want a background of five years experience, or something like that. So, I was really happy for what the Land Council was able to do for me."
Operating from Redfern, the suburb where Tony was born and raised, has benefited the business as well. While Tony has a number of commercial clients across Sydney, many jobs come from friends and acquaintances from the area, a positive of trading in a close-knit community.
"I'm getting by, I'm chasing up a lot of work," he says. "I couldn’t take any customers from the RTA when I left, so I had to start out on my own. It was a risk.
"I first struggled with it, but then I started getting a wage brought in. I’m happy with what I’m doing now and I’ve got my own place to work in, so it’s good.
"I've worked with a few agencies who have helped me out, but they've only got so many cars and it's based on demand - y'know, you might not see them for two years. But a lot of people in the community have supported me and they'll call in. Everyone comes around."
This kind of community support has not only helped grow Tony's customer base, but collaborating and using the skills of friends and other Indigenous tradespeople helped with some of the initial set up of Boomerang Batteries. Boomerang Batteries' advertising, marketing and merchandise, for example, has been very successful.
"A friend helped me with the logo and they do all my shirts, and then another mate of mine does the stickers," he says. "I don't think I would have been able to do it without other people's help. My friend did the signage really cheap for me and it's been really good."
"I don't think I would have been able to do it without other people's help."
Tony is also fortunate to have a supportive family, who all pitch in to keep the family business running. His daughter regularly manages the phones, appointments and office admin and when his son isn't playing a starring role for the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Patrick will assist him with off-site jobs. Currently Tony's family are the only people wearing the Boomerang Batteries uniform, although he says he's invested in growing a team, giving back to the community and even taking on work experience students and apprentices.
"Everyone is asking for a job," he laughs. "But I just say, 'when I can help yas, I will'. I’m hoping to get to a point where I can get a warehouse, have many people working under me and have vans out on the road all day. I'd like to expand and not only service the Sydney area, but also to places like Wollongong and up the central coast. I’ve got a good picture to end up with that situation down the track, but at the moment, I’m just puttin’ me head down and tryin’ me best to do it."
For Indigenous people like Tony, setting up shop and running a business is very significant for Aboriginal Australia. As National Indigenous Business Month is celebrated this month, Tony's Boomerang Batteries is not only servicing the Sydney area with battery needs, but providing everyday acts of leadership, from working with clients, communities and consumers, to creating new market opportunities and income streams for Aboriginal people.
"I know a few people who are getting out there and doing it and it’s good," Tony says "We have to change direction from where we have been in the past and now actually go out on our own."
Photography by Stuart Miller.