Hnulunbuy Photo

Business Reinvention And The Town That Changed Itself

I was invited to be part of the Northern Territory’s annual October Business Month, a couple of weeks back. to conduct a couple of ‘Game of Inches’ workshops. One of which was at a small town called Nhulunbuy (pronounced Nullanboy), which is situated on the Gove Peninsula in East Arnhem Land. A stand out of reinvention and a stunningly beautiful part of remote Australia.

As a town Nhulunbuy is built around a bauxite mine (which when refined a couple of times ultimately makes aluminum). A few years back it was decided that the alumina refinery was to be closed resulting in the population of the town dropping from 4000 to approximately 2200.

Think about this for a second, because the town practically halved in size overnight. What happens to local business, to those who own property, what happens to the local school and hospital? If your business lost almost half its clients, it would put you and your team in a complete tailspin.

Problems lead to opportunities

As one of the town’s prominent business owners told me, people got together and looked for gaps and opportunities, and for ways they could save their town. From adversity comes opportunity if you are smart enough and brave enough to try and find it.

Although the refinery closed, the mine itself remains open and so as a first step Rio Tinto stopped ‘fly in fly out’ workers’ so now if you work at the mine you must live in the town.

Then they found an opportunity in extreme tourism. Arnhem Land is one of the most beautiful, untouched and remote parts of Australia (if not the world) that you can visit. Although only an hours flight from Darwin and only 800 odd kilometres by road from Katherine, the drive will take you a least two days and as suggested to me you should do it in someone else’s vehicle. On top of that Arnhem Land is completely owned by the traditional indigenous owners and so to drive through it to Nhulunbuy requires a permit. When you get there if you want to walk on the beach (and trust me you will) you also need a permit because it is also indigenous land.

But here’s the thing. There are those who hanker for those off the beaten track, adventurous experiences, to go where the masses don’t and get that unique experience to see a part of Australia that is largely untouched. There is a market which is largely untapped and it’s what the people of Nhulunbuy are focusing on. They are ramping up their marketing, they are working with the traditional owners to make obtaining permits easier and faster. On top of this reinvention, they are looking into the possibility of creating glamping sites along the road. They found a gap in the market and they are filling it.

Reinvention leads to growth

Now obviously it is working or I wouldn’t be telling about this. From a low of 2200 people they, in a space of a couple of years are back to 3300 and looking at exceeding the previous population of 4000 in the next 18 months or so. Which by the way will mean building more houses.

I love this story and I fell in love with this town.

Things go wrong in business and life all the time. No matter how much you plan or how much your guru tells you they don’t. Someone, somewhere changes something and it can have massive ramifications for you. But here’s the thing, you have a choice. You can give up, you can stick your head in the sand, or you can do something. Nhunlunbuy took the third option.

They didn’t change things overnight and they are still in the process of rebuilding, but step by step, inch by inch. One small change at a time they are reinventing themselves. Individuals and businesses all over this country should learn from it because it’s a great reminder that when things change, and you look for gaps like the people of Nhulunbuy did, new opportunities arise. If you’re smart enough and brave enough not to panic, look around, think and act. Here’s another example of how finding a small gap made a massive difference to a small restaurant in Port Macquarie

So here’s to Nhulunbuy.

A big thanks to all the people of the town I met – you inspired me. And to the Department of Trade, Business and Innovation and Darwin City & Waterfront Retailers for having me as part of NT October Business Month.

I now find myself constantly speaking about the innovation of this amazing community and how they used change to their advantage.

Other similar articles to read are ‘The power of incremental change’ and Leveraging Change as well as ‘The Tasmanian who changed an industry’ as well as  ‘Ingenious Oz Project Reveals Secrets To Business Growth and Innovation’.

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Nigel Collin Speaker