Sabrina Hassen / Director / SK PIÈTRA NATURAL STONE  / 
Toughen Up Princess

story / Interview / November 20, 2021

I was out of home at a very young age. Independent from the age of 17. I didn’t get a chance to go to University, but went into the workforce at a very young age. I was driven into tele-marketing and sales. I met an amazing mentor on my journey who saw a lot of potential in me. He used to say that I had this fire in my belly. Even at the age of 18, he thought I’d be an entrepreneur.

I was given an opportunity to attend my first property seminar early on.  I remember sitting there thinking, ‘how am I going to create wealth when I haven’t gone to University?’ And I’m watching this 21 year old guy on stage who was already a multi-millionaire and all he was doing at that time was investing and buying property. No education, no university degree or anything like that. And I thought if he can do that, I’m not doomed to failure, I’m doomed to succeed. So I kind of followed his pattern and got my first property at the age of 20. I started investing and in the same year, at the age of 20, got into real estate as an Agent’s Rep and built my property portfolio over the next decade through my own property development. I then stumbled across this marble industry. It’s a male dominated industry. It needs a lot of female finesse and attention, which is what I believe I can bring to the market. And I think I’ve shown that in the last 24 months.

I had been doing my own developments. I’ve always gone out to source my own materials, through my (now) competitors and I was and still am; running an organic candle company. I’m all about the natural side of things. And when it comes to stone, I’m not about the synthetic, fake stone. I fell in love with natural marble, but hated the service I was getting. I went into suppliers time after time and was never taken seriously. I was young, I didn’t look my age, and it used to get under my skin that I was judged and not taken too seriously. It’s like if you walk into a luxury car dealership, the service you get will be matched to how you dress. And half the time, it’s the person in the tracksuit that has the money to buy, not the person that comes in all dressed up trying to look the part.

I just hated the way I was judged as not knowing much about what I was researching or looking for, because of how I looked. Either being hit on by the sleazy male sales attendant, or just being ignored because I fell into the category of ‘being a time waster’. I just decided that the industry needed a woman who could get in there and take charge. And here I am.

From having those horrible experiences I thought the market was lacking something. And since I’ve been running businesses for the last twenty years, I did my research, I realised there was a gap in the market and why not try to have the title of the first independent female marble importer in Australia? Under the age of forty!

Setting up the business had its challenges as well. We moved into this new location in Clayton South. We’ve had a couple of hiccups. I found a buyer originally who was going to do some of my purchases, but sometimes you meet the wrong people and you put trust into them…Let’s say the sourcing process didn’t come into fruition and this transaction actually left me in a deficit. In the end though, it actually threw me in the deep end, where I had to jump on the plane and get to Europe myself and learn how to hand select my materials.

A dear friend of mine who was a very reputable stone mason in the industry,  whom I’ve known for seventeen years, let me tap into his contacts during this time. He found it very inspiring that I was going to take on this risk and linked me with a gentleman who was an ex-director of one of my competitors, who is now retired.  From there the doors just opened. This man loved the vision of where we were heading and was more than happy to link me to all the buyers and suppliers internationally that he had done business with. He jumped on the plane with me to Europe. The greatest thing for me, going to all these European countries, being a female with a man who is like the godfather of stone, was that if I had tried to do this on my own, I wouldn’t have been taken seriously. I have to admit I was quite blessed in that aspect and it’s just snowballed from there.

COVID has interfered a lot. I guess my original plan, along with my assistant Keely, was to get out there and introduce myself and to network with architects and designers. I work better in person rather than doing Zoom, so we are very restricted in having our showroom closed. One of our main takeaways from such a challenging period is that we have actually been able to reach more people on a deeper level which has opened more doors for us.

I’m finding that our new clients are wanting to replace their existing specifications with our materials, if we have the material in stock or time to source. Ultimately our long term goal is to make sure our clients are repeat and that we are referred to their networks. We work hard to retain the quality, the pricing, and the service we provide end-to-end. Supply and install – we want to cater for a full package. We are all about service.

We supply a lot of stonemasons and builders. They are mainly our two sources. We still aren’t advertising to the open market just yet. It’s mainly just referrals at the moment. Starting off I was just getting out there and introducing myself to a lot of the stone masons. Making them understand where I and the business was heading.

When COVID hit, we had to diversify everything. I was like, ‘alright, well now I am going to learn how to use the forklift’. So I went and got my license and now I load and unload containers. I think a lot of men have some disbelief, ‘is that a chick on the fork?’ Now with the overhead crane, again we find that we have the admiration of people for the way we are so hands-on in the daily operations of the business.

Some of the challenges for us I think, are trying to break through the mentality of having young females running a business in this industry. People want to see people that have had 20 or 30 years experience. Which we don’t have. However, we have grown really fast in the knowledge that we’ve been able to obtain from our sources, which has helped us achieve our brand awareness faster than we could have ever imagined. We work better, like I said, one on one.

There’ve been massive curve balls thrown at us and there has been times when it would have been easy to give up. But we’ve just stayed on track. I want to get to the end goal – which is to have a really big team behind me.

I think, as well, as a female in this industry you meet a lot of people and along the way, they either offer to help with no expectation or, they have an underlying expectation. Sometimes it’s not all in the right direction with their intentions, so you need to get really good at not being too naive. It’s really easy in this industry…there are a lot of rogues and being the first independent female, everyone wants to help, but at what cost? Are they helping for the right reasons? Who can you trust and what are they coming to offer?

We’re very honest. And in our industry that’s very hard to find. You can come into the showroom and the information you’ve been given, the service – you know that it’s authentic and genuine. Before I started this business I kind of went out there and I saw how the industry kind of moves and I was going to do the opposite. We have pricing on all our stone. We don’t make a price up on the day depending on how we are feeling, or what car you rock up in or the watch or the bag that you have. We provide the transparency of what our material cost is. We are all about making clients feel safe.

There’s a lot of behaviour that takes place in this industry where you might purchase  a particular slab of material with a supplier and once you pay for it, what gets delivered is not the material that you bought. We are exposing all of that and  trying to educate people that you don’t have to feel that you can’t afford to buy natural marble, that you’re forced to go down the reconstituted path. I think that there’s been a lot of brainwashing with marketing over the last ten years and when people get to sit down and finally understand marble, and we show them the information and products, it then creates that relationship where they feel they can trust us and transact with us. We are loving that at the moment. But I don’t think we are going to be loved by our competitors.

It’s one of those industries where there are brands that are notorious for hiring beautiful women to send them into the male dominated industry to sell products. So there was a little bit of a struggle to be taken seriously. But the women we have in this business – I think people understand when they walk in here, that we aren’t here to look a certain way or talk a certain way. We are knowledgeable and respectful. We have the facts. We’re hands on. We want to be organic and very authentic. We don’t have to sell our souls to do a transaction.

I’m very passionate and opinionated at the same time. I think so far I’ve been able to balance that formula so it’s not offensive to the end user. But I do like to get in there and give my perspective and my opinion. I get very involved and that project manager side of me kicks-in. I want to learn more and more about the material and how it cuts. I want to get on site because I’ve done so many projects myself and I understand how all the components are going to come together. We hear from the clients now that we are different from the other suppliers out there. We are more involved. And I think we can do that because we are looking to be more of a niche, boutique kind of service. Stone is like a work of art. Each individual marble piece is a unique piece of mother nature.

I’ve actually got some really good moral support from men in the industry. They say it’s admirable to be able to see that I’m determined. I’ve had competitors come in and tell me to shut shop, I’ve had the intimidation, I’ve had people stand over me and tell me to get out of the industry. We have fairly tendered for and been awarded jobs however, when those jobs were lost, I’ve had people from the opposing businesses rock up to bully me. Originally it was very daunting and intimidating. There were a countless number of nights where I thought I started the wrong business. Maybe I should shut shop? Maybe I should go back to selling candles, and I thought you know what? No. I was bullied at a young age and one thing I can’t stand is people that bully people. So I thought, nope, I’m going to stand my ground. And I have. 20 months in we are kicking some pretty big goals.

We’ve had two intimidating males that came through the business when we first started and now those two are some of our biggest supporters. We didn’t bow down. We didn’t let their intimidation tactics take over. We stood our ground and we’ve now gained their respect. My advice to any female is that you’ve got to think that anything that you enter into is the right thing for yourself. And if you believe in that. You won’t be pushed out.

There certainly has been a lot of jealousy when I started the business. A lot of reps from other businesses probably dreamed that they could have done what I did. They are climbing the ladder in the industry, then getting to a certain position and finding themselves stuck there. But without knowing me personally – the rumours started – everything from me having a Sugar-Daddy, to my grandfather dying and I’ve apparently inherited millions…and I’m like ‘WHAT?’ At the start I used to take it personally, but good publicity or bad, at least you’re talking about me. I’ve even had one rumour where apparently other stone suppliers have invested in my business to try and take away the credibility that we had built. Now it’s all water off a duck’s back. Let’s come up with the next rumour!

I don’t have an off button. But I do like to regroup with my friends. I’m a social butterfly normally. Otherwise it’s me on the motorbike. I’m an adrenaline junky. But I think the older I get, the more I get a little cautious. For my fortieth birthday the team got me a Makita tool set. And I was like a little girl that just got make-up, except it was tools. From that Makita reached out and joined forces with my business. Don’t be surprised if you catch me on The Block.

My mum always told me, never forget the hand that feeds you and never forget where you have come from. You never take your wealth to your grave, but you do take your deeds. That’s why I always try to help people. You can help them financially, but that’s not always what they will remember. They’ll remember you for your generosity and your good deeds. That’s how I live. That’s why I never judge a book by it’s cover. My mum taught me to go by what my heart feels and always give back without an expectation to receive back in return and you will prosper. And I think I’ve followed that saying for a long time.

Toughen up princess. You have to be thick skinned in order to blast or push through. You really do have to realise there is female support out there, but you really do have to believe in yourself. There is a lot of bullying, there is a lot of tall-poppy syndrome. I used to be one of the first female real estate agents when I was in my twenties and I got out of it because it was the same thing – a male dominated industry, a female comes in… it was a bit creepy, you were never really respected. But I think now I’ve had to toughen up, particularly as life has had its challenges and I say to any female; “don’t give up, don’t let a man intimidate you, don’t let your own thoughts intimidate you. You really have to believe in yourself and just toughen up Princess and get it done”.

 

 

Keely contacted us late last year and we interviewed Sabrina through Covid. It is always so lovely when women come to us with the female leading their businesses and say ‘you need to know about this woman!’ Sabrina is passionate, strong and committed, forging a path in an industry devoid of female leadership. She has seen it all, done it all and will do it all again to make a positive change and see her business as a success. Bringing you her story has been thrilling. Wishing Sabrina, SK Pietra and Keely all the best for the last part of 2021. J & D x

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