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BECOMING UNIQUE – LOOKING BACK ON 25 YEARS

Proudly Australian run and family-owned, Unique Health Products continues to stand the test of time and maintain its position as the most trusted nationwide natural health product distributor in Australia. 

For most of us, we’re always striving for a goal post far into the future without acknowledging the milestones and journey that we’ve conquered to get us to where we are today. 

So to celebrate the incredible achievement of reaching 25 years in business, our Founder, Dale Parkes, has taken a moment to reflect and offer you an insider view of the previous 25 years, revealing humble beginnings, the guarana-powered kickstart and a glimpse at just some of the wonderful people that have helped shape the enviable culture that makes Unique the thriving business it is today…

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

It was January 1996…

Spice Girls were number 1 on the charts with ‘Wannabe’, Independence Day was the top movie, Oprah started her famous book club, and a ‘twitter’ was the little chirping sound a bird would make. A search tool called Google started indexing the web and we all still hired new release movies from Blockbuster. 

My eldest daughter Harmony was 11, while Bhima and Sage were both 9. As yet, there was no Catherine in my life and, as such, no Melanie. Although the previous ten years had been spent opening and then managing Organic Oasis (now Kunara), January 1996 saw me as an out of work 36-year-old, struggling to support a family of 5 on government benefits.

dale and the kids
Dale and his children.

“Sensational Food Distributors”

Randomly, I called a buddy from Sydney who worked in a health food store, asking if he knew of any new products he could see emerging into the market down there. He said there was this liquid guarana product that was selling like crazy on the counter. All-night rage dance parties were the go in the mid-90’s and word had got around that guarana was a natural stimulant which basically kept you awake. 

Knowing it was not yet for sale in Queensland, I called the producer of Rage 2000, Benjamin Duncan, and he agreed to sell me the first order. Awesome!!! Small problem though. We lived from week to week and I didn’t have any money to pay for it. 

Enter my friend Michael, a truly generous soul, who lent me $2000 to get started. I somehow also convinced ANZ to lend me money to buy an old Mitsubishi van. I bought an invoice book (the one with a piece of carbon between the pages) and “Sensational Food Distributors” was born.

“The Guarana Man”

“The Guarana Man”

Over the next month, I drove from Cairns to the Gold Coast, selling a box of 12 guarana shots to almost every health food store I visited. I put all the takings back into the business and we continued to live as frugally as we had. Because the stores all paid me cash up front (or cheque), funds accumulated quickly enough to afford the next PO. And just like that, we were away. 

The table tennis shed was converted to a storage room for the guarana shots and I paid for a PO box at Woombye Post Office for the postal orders (yes, postal orders). The “business” phone number was our home landline and the kids would often answer calls from health store customers. It went a bit like this…. “Hello. Oh ok, I’ll go get Dad. D-A-A-A-A-D, PHONE”. 

Our customer service has clearly come a long way since those fun times. After a few months, I changed the business name to “The Guarana Man” since it was all I sold. By the time Michael was paid back (within 12 months), I had added 4 or 5 more products to the range that Benjamin produced (Smilax Sarsaparilla and Gay Nun cordials) plus a guarana capsule called Guarana 2000.

dale
Dale when he was known as The Guarana Man

Specialising in “Unique Health Products”

Over the course of the next 3 years, I approached several more suppliers who agreed to use this enthusiastic new Queensland company to distribute their products. These included industry leaders like Kosmea Rosehip Oil, Swisse Vitamins plus some fledgling start-ups like Byron Chai and Alchemy Sodas.

By that time, I was so flat out and needed some help to answer phones and pack orders while I was out delivering, so I employed an old friend called Annie. We bought a fax machine which was linked to the home phone (so you’d hear the “fax sound” when you picked up to answer the phone and have to push OK for it to come through). Annie’s daughter Susie and hubby Russell eventually joined the team and I was actually able to take a holiday after 3 years of working 90+ hours, 7 days a week. 

Truth be known, guarana now formed only a small part of what we sold so there was a need for a name change. But to what? With such a diverse range, I use to tell retailers we actually “specialise in unique health products”. There it was. And so, in late 1999, Unique Health Products was born.         

The iconic Unique catalogue

In subsequent years to follow, I continued to drive to Brisbane, Gold Coast and Byron every week, using the big heavy album displaying photos of all our products to take orders from the stores. I’d often ask the retailer if it was ok to fax the order through to the office while I was in store to speed up delivery.

The Unique Product Catalogue and Photo Album (2005)

As Unique got bigger, I was sometimes getting home from the Byron run at midnight and had a few scary moments closing my eyes at the wheel that made me realise I was pushing it to the limit. We started using Fastway and I employed a sales rep to do the Byron run and another to help with Brisbane. 

Same formula – show the products in their photo album, taste and try samples, write down product codes, fax the order through.

One day a retailer, as they were flicking through the photo album placing an order with me, said “Can you leave this behind one day? I always forget what I buy from you”. So circa 2007, the idea to produce a catalogue with product photos was born!

One of the original Unique Catalogues with product photos (2008)
One of the original Unique Catalogues with product photos (2008)

Building the Unique culture

Fast forward to 2021 and we are still seen in that same way. 

We are regarded by retailers in the industry as the company with:

  • the best customer service, 
  • the easiest webshop to place orders, 
  • the highest in-stock level (currently a phenomenal 96% across 3,800 products) 
  • and deliveries with virtually no mistakes or damage. 

These days, leading brand suppliers actually approach us to partner with them and represent their brands to our national retailer base. Such is the strength of our reputation and standing within the industry.

story-dogs-morning-tea
The Unique team continues to grow and thrive with more than 180 Uniquers on the team today! Note: This photo was taken pre-social distancing regulations.

Unique is the biggest importer of natural products from the USA and widely considered Australia’s best (and probably biggest) independent wholesale distributor in the health food channel.

Over the past 25 years, many wonderful souls have worked beside me along this amazing journey. One that I never would have possibly envisioned back in 1996. And when it comes to celebrating our people, we make sure we go all out!

One of our most iconic examples of Unique culture is when we farewelled one of our Uniquers, Pavel. He loved break dancing! So the entire team secretly practiced a flash mob routine to surprise him on his last day. This is what happened…

I am forever grateful to each and every one of those special people, all of whom have imparted their unique gifts and thrown absolute everything into building this very special business into what it is today.

Friends of Unique

Over the years the Unique team has had the pleasure of meeting a wide range of incredibly talented and aspirational people. From athletes and academics to musicians and pioneers in health. Here is just a handful of the wonderful friends of Unique…

From the bottom of my extremely grateful heart, thank you for the vital part you played.

~ Dale Parkes.

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