Indigenous disadvantage is an issue veteran furniture maker Greg Welsh cares deeply about. “Unless someone does something about it, nothing is going to change,” he says.
In 2015, Welsh and business partner Debbie Barwick, a Kamilaroi woman and CEO of the NSW Indigenous Chamber of Commerce, established Winya, an Indigenous furniture company based in Sydney. “We saw there was a real need for Indigenous employment growth,” says Welsh.
Winya, a Wiradjuri word that means “to sit”, supplies office furniture to some of the country’s largest organisations, including the ATO, the Department of Defence, Lendlease and Telstra.
Its profit-for-purpose model is “three different levels of unusual,” says Welsh. Winya is both majority Indigenous owned and staffed – a rarity among Australian businesses. “We’re basically a design and project management company,” he says. “We get other companies to make all our components for us and then we assemble them on site.”
Winya directly employs 12 staff in offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, but also places Indigenous apprentices and trainees – mostly school leavers – in the factories of its suppliers. “We fund the recruitment and the initial mentoring of that trainee,” says Welsh. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in Australia doing that.”
Winya is also committed to sustainability. Welsh, who ran Sebel Furniture from 2006 to 2014, says he is “gobsmacked” at the waste in the furniture industry. “Each tender we get, we have to enter pages and pages of data about how green our product is, [as well as supply information about the] take-back program at the end of the life of the product,” he says. “In 30 years [in the industry], I’ve not had one chair given back to me for recycling. Everyone is so focused on new buildings, no one cares that every scrap of furniture in their old building just went to landfill.”
Winya is in the process of launching a new product made from recycled melamine furniture that will be manufactured in Western Sydney. It’s also working with Babana Aboriginal Men’s Group in Redfern and Western Sydney to fill around 20 roles at the new factory.
Winya established itself in an office across from Redfern Park. “Redfern has a really good village atmosphere,” says Welsh. The team’s favourite local cafe was Three Williams, where they met for meetings as they outgrew their office. “We often spent half the day in there,” he says. “It’s a great casual atmosphere and they do the best prawn toast sandwich ever.”
Winya has since moved to new premises in the city. “Our new home is great, it’s in the roof of the old Georges House heritage building,” says Welsh. “We are right in the city centre, but we have big old windows on three sides and more natural light than you can dream of. The old high pressed metal ceilings contrast fantastically with all our modern furniture and Indigenous fabrics.”