PARTS: Transit Supplies

By: David Goeldner


Dieter and Ilse Stoecker remain passionate and committed to their Sydney enterprise

PARTS: Transit Supplies
Family ties at Mona Vale, from left Ilse, Dieter and Patrick Stoecker

Ilse Stoecker appears restless, flitting between her work station where she commands a thriving bus and train parts business, and the lunch table where husband Dieter chats loquaciously on the virtues of European-made components.

Together, Ilse and Dieter are a formidable duo in spare parts supply to the bus and coach industry, based from their office and small warehouse at Mona Vale on Sydney’s northern beaches.

While Ilse toils quietly in the background with her encyclopaedic knowledge of parts numbers, Dieter is the ‘front man’ and chief spruiker of all that’s good about European-made or designed components.

His two favourite brands are Mekra mirrors and Teknoware lighting, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Australia with deeper knowledge about these two popular public transport necessities.

Like many young adventurers, Dieter Stoecker arrived in Australia from Germany in 1976 with an intended stay of just two years.

"I have now lived longer in Australia than I have in Germany," he says.

Although Dieter did return to Germany in 1979, he soon came back to Australia with his young bride Ilse, a mathematics teacher who took the plunge into a new life on the other side of the world.

While there have been a few ‘ups and downs’ across the past 35 years, there are no regrets at the decision to start and raise a family on Sydney’s northern beaches at Mona Vale.

The Mona Vale spare parts business formed as the legacy of a union of like-minded interests between the Stoecker and Fry families.

John and Sandra Fry ran a long-established automotive parts business at Crows Nest in Sydney’s inner northern suburbs — Fry’s Spares. Dieter had met John back in 1977, forming an association selling European automotive parts through John’s business. 

"Transit Supplies was born out of a necessity to have an outlet for small orders of parts," Dieter says.

Given that OEM parts are ordered in large lots from Europe by Transit Supplies and sent direct to the bus builder, there was a growing need back in the 1990s to keep in stock smaller quantities, necessitating a centre for storage.

For many years, Fry’s Spares and Transit Supplies shared storage space at Crows Nest, and also shared directorships, with John Fry and Ilse Stoecker becoming the directors of Transit Supplies when it became its own legal company entity in 1996, although they had traded with this name for some years before. Fry’s Spares, however, remained then, as now, a Fry family-only business.

How it came to be that two entities dealing in similar commodities from the same premises appears unique, but as Dieter explains there were ‘invisible’ boundaries set between the two families – who remain friends – to specialise in their own areas of expertise and parts supply.

Fry’s Spares, for example, became the acknowledged source for SWF wiper blades, while Transit Supplies moved firmly into mirrors and lighting systems — among a myriad of other specialist original equipment manufacturers’ (OEM) items.

The business relationship endured for many years, but sadly with John’s passing in 2003, and wife Sandra carrying on the Fry’s Spares business, now run by son Matt Fry, the Stoeckers decided it was time to find their own base to run Transit Supplies.

"When John passed, Sandra and I decided to separate the two companies," says Ilse, who bought the Fry family’s share of Transit Supplies.

Logically, Ilse and Dieter sought industrial space at Mona Vale, at the far northern end of Sydney’s golden stretch of beaches, moving closer to their family home.

"We found the premises here at Mona Vale in 2004, and I have been running Transit Supplies since then," Ilse says.

While Ilse is now the sole director of Transit Supplies, Dieter is very firmly attached to the enterprise as its technical consultant.

Rather than lease premises, Ilse bought the Polo Avenue Mona Vale industrial unit. With the firm commitment of ownership, Ilse spent the first four years from 2004 to 2008, not only as the chief executive but as the primary workforce. That meant ordering stock, managing accounts and keeping the business buoyant while Dieter attended to another enterprise in which he was contracted, ceasing four years into Ilse’s sole directorship of Transit Supplies.

The situation since 2008 is that Dieter is now eligible to work in Transit Supplies as a director if he so chooses, but time has passed, and now in 2014, the Mona Vale business steadied and Dieter and Ilse are comfortable with how each are engaged with family enterprise. They also have steady support from Stephen Hogan who is Transit Supplies’ foreman since August 2010 – capably covering for Dieter and Ilse when called to Europe to research new innovations, or taking a much-needed vacation.

Even with this complex set of circumstances which prevented Dieter from engaging with Transit Supplies as a company director alongside Ilse back in 2004, he nevertheless has remained totally committed to supplying quality European-sourced bus parts.

Dieter says he wouldn’t deal in parts without at least ‘Mercedes-Benz status’.

"Never have and never will," he says.

Dieter admits his business philosophy has sometimes pitted Transit Supplies against cheaper brands made in countries such as China.

"We will lose simply on price," he says.

However, Dieter cites numerous cases across the years where local bus builders have come back to Transit Supplies, after taking the cheaper option, to source the original European-made item.

"There are companies in the bus industry that cut corners for the wrong reasons," he says.

"A bus is a passenger vehicle, so you must not skimp on the quality of components."

MIRROR MAN

Dieter played a leading role with the Australian introduction of Mekra mirrors, initially with Alan B Denning in Brisbane during the mid-1990s, and then on to other noted Australian bus builders.

Through Dieter, an ‘Australianised’ non-vibrating Mekra mirror rod was developed, and became a hit with bus operators all over the nation.

"A lot of other mirror rods are too thin and flimsy," he says.

Dieter gets mightily disappointed to see his ideas taken away by others from Australia, sent north, replicated and then returned in a ‘less expensive’ form.

He says it’s not necessary to copy given he is in a position to negotiate a good rate on the original product.

Dieter’s first Mekra mirror appeared on a Sydney government bus in the early 1980s — and now they are ‘everywhere’.

While Mekra mirrors appear almost as a ‘must’ on the sides of buses, Dieter’s passion for the Finnish-made Teknoware lighting systems sees their use in government passenger rail systems in Australia, notably on Brisbane suburban trains, and the Cairns tilt train.

"We supply the whole interior lighting for these trains," he says.

"They come straight from the factory in Finland."

Through his work with passenger rail, Dieter has formed a close association with two of Australia’s biggest train builders, Bombardier and Downer.

"I deal direct with all the major bus and train builders," he says.

Dieter says he was approached by Teknoware in 1994.

"Teknoware has become a large part of what we are doing," he says.

"There is constant and ongoing development at the Teknoware factory."

The third item taking the Stoeckers’ attention is their promotion of the Parabus brand of roof hatches and ventilation systems. It’s not quite as high on Dieter’s ‘passion meter’ but no less worthy of his time to explain the virtues of yet another European brand, and also from Finland.

But Teknoware, dominates the Mona Vale store, which is part warehouse, part showroom and —with the lunch table right by the front door — a home away from home for the Stoecker family.

Son Patrick and daughter Tiffany, now in adulthood, spent their teenage years helping their parents, particularly Ilse, to get the Mona Vale operation running smoothly.

Patrick has taken up teaching, also a family trait from his mother’s side, while Tiffany is carving a career in the extroverted world of dramatic arts – perhaps taking cues from father Dieter’s enthusiastic approach to friends, family and Finnish lighting systems.

Teknoware, as Dieter illustrates by physical example, also offers wireless on board passenger bell systems, which he demonstrates by heading out the door, across the pathway outside, and pressing the button at 20 metres — and yes, it works fine back inside the office. The ‘next stop’ sign illuminates, and everyone smiles as the next demonstration is prepared.

"He’s so enthusiastic," Ilse says.

With a focus on bus and passenger rail markets, Ilse and Dieter have expanded the business in recent years based largely on Dieter’s expert salesmanship. Lighting systems in particular appear tailor-made for his dynamic presentations — this time illustrated by a bank of synchronised LED coloured light panels radiating from the work bench, the full range fired up at Dieter’s hand.

Mirrors, lights and loads of ‘action’ illuminate the Stoeckers’ world in parts supply from their modest Mona Vale facility.

It’s been a long road, with retirement occasionally discussed, but not too seriously.

As far as Dieter is concerned, he wants to keep working in the business ‘till doomsday’.

"We could retire," he says.

But even on annual vacation, which sees Dieter and Ilse take a south sea cruise, Dieter will check over the cruise ship’s use of Teknoware lighting.

"Teknoware is in me and you can’t get it out," he says.

It is proof positive that the lure of lights, mirrors, and the Mona Vale premises is too strong to ever leave, at least not for long.

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