Woolworths marks 20 years in Tumut

Rex Fields, Julie Hughes, Julie Kuhn, Christie Hoad, Fiona McDougall, Nicole Rapley and Vicki Webb celebrate Woolworths’ 20 year anniversary in Tumut.

Today marks the official twenty year anniversary of Tumut’s Woolworths shop, but for at least three loyal employees, the past two decades have been more about building skills, families and friendships than just showing up to work.

Julie Hughes, Julie Kuhn and Fiona McDougall represent three very different career paths, but the three women joked and laughed their way through an interview this week, trading stories and finishing each other’s sentences.

Julie Hughes is one of the longest-serving staff members and holds a maternal presence in the store. Mrs Hughes started in customer service 35 years ago, working for Bob Bailey’s, IGA, FoodWorks, FoodTown and eventually Woolworths. She enjoys the bottle shop best, but has moved through various managerial roles, rising to Grocery Manager before stepping back to Grocery Assistant.

Mrs Hughes said she found it easy to step into leadership.

“That doesn’t bother me, because I like giving orders anyway,” she laughed. “I love things being done correctly.”

“That’s your work ethic,” added Mrs Kuhn.

Julie Kuhn and Marie Dowell on opening day.

Mrs Hughes started at Woolworths as the Bottle Shop Manager when it opened 20 years ago, moving into Grocery “under sufferance.”

“I love selling wine and I was into wine,” she said. “I really…”

“Love to drink it!” finished Julie Kuhn, as both laughed.

The friendship between the three women is clearly strong after so many years working together.

“I still love selling wine, and my aim was to get the bottle shop here up to what Woolworths were in Wagga, and that’s what I did,” said Mrs Hughes, “but now I would never go back to the bottle shop, because I would find it a bit boring.”

The journey over the past 20 years has seen each of the three women grow into roles they didn’t expect. For Julie Hughes, it was an upwards role which led to training hundreds of juniors and learning lots about compassion.

“I learned that I have to be more compassionate,” she said. “I learned that you’ve got to be more understanding and I’ve learned new things with the computers and to have an open mind and to accept change.”

Five years ago, Mrs Hughes scaled back from Grocery Manager to Assistant, but said she just doesn’t know how to retire. 

The store at the time of the opening 20 years ago.

“I’m one of those people that just like being around people, and Woolworths here is like my family, my work family. We look after each other and have great communication and a great feeling towards each other. If one gets hurt, we all hurt.”

For Julie Kuhn, the past 20 years have seen a broadening of her skills, moving through checkouts to bakery, deli, butchers, online orders, tickets and back again.

She also started with IGA and moved across to Woolworths when it first opened.

“I’ve been continually learning new skills,” she said. “When we started, we weren’t in a computer age, but to do our jobs, we’ve had to keep up with technology and so many things have really changed.”

Mrs Kuhn is especially proud of the store’s new online ordering and delivery system, saying she’s had to adapt and learn different ways to use the systems. Although the self-checkouts and online ordering mean less face-to-face customer time, she still makes the most of every interaction.

“It is different, but people still come through the checkouts because they like to have a conversation,” she said. “I’ve always said to the younger ones when they start up there, they think, ‘Oh that’s a grumpy person,’ and my philosophy – and I’ve always said to the younger ones – ‘Please be nice to them, you might be the only person that they speak to today.’

“We are a family, and some days we might have a grump at someone or whatever, but at the end of the day, we care for each other.”

Mrs Kuhn said she’ll probably keep working as long as she can, with both women agreeing they miss work when they’re away.

For Fiona McDougall, who started on the checkouts when she was precisely 14 years and 9 months old, the job has allowed her to build both a career (to Store Manager) and a family in her hometown.

Construction at the Woolworths service station in 2000.

“When I got with Richard at 16, he never wanted to leave town, he had the farm life, so I was going to be here, especially if I wanted to stay with him and that was my choice, so I made the best of it,” she said.

“I love my job.”

Ms McDougall originally trained under Mrs Hughes. The two women say they clicked because they share a strong work ethic and both progressed naturally from entry level roles to managerial positions.

“She had the same work skills as I did and I could see potential in her,” said Mrs Hughes.

Mrs Hughes eventually recommended Ms McDougall for more senior roles, supporting the younger woman as the two women swapped roles and Ms McDougall went on to become Store Manager.

“That doesn’t bother me,” said Mrs Hughes when asked about her former junior worker becoming her boss. “That’s the way I am. Change is change and I respect Fiona as my boss and as a worker,” said Mrs Hughes.

Ms McDougall said she had always hoped to work in business management – or possibly wedding planning – but chose to stay in Tumut with her partner, fencing contractor Richard Callaway. The couple have three children, aged three, four and seven. 

She and Mr Callaway have made sure to develop a good work/life balance between their busy schedules.

“I’ve got a really good partner,” she said. “I’ve tried to make the work life balance easy and I have struggled with that over the years, where I have done way too many hours and early mornings and late nights, but now I think I’m in a really good balance, but my partner is amazing.

“When I toyed with the idea of becoming Store Manager, he was like, ‘100 per cent, do it, whatever you want to do, we will always be here.”

The couple make sure to set aside Sunday for family days and support each other with weekend work. Ms McDougall said their families have also been supportive, helping with childcare and supporting both the young workers as they develop their careers.

As a fencing contractor, Mr Callaway has been especially busy since the January bushfires. Ms McDougall stepped into the Store Manager’s role just 12 months ago, right before the Telstra tower fire, then Christmas, then the bushfires and then the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although there were some hectic days, all three women say they enjoyed the pressure.

“We kind of thrive off it,” said Ms McDougall.

“We love Christmas, we love busy,” said Mrs Kuhn. “Some people would say -”

“You’re crazy,” finished Mrs Hughes.

“That’s why we’re still here,” added Mrs Kuhn. “Because I was on checkouts for a lot of years, you’d see people come in with their little babies and then they’re this high and they’re off to school and now they’re all grown.”

“You get to know families through all the years we’ve been here,” said Mrs Hughes.

The women say they enjoy when customers know them by name or might bring a Christmas card or small gift. 

During the pandemic, they say people were mostly kind to one another and patient. A special community hour for the vulnerable and frontline workers went smoothly.

“They were thankful,” said Ms McDougall.

“I would do the door, and we had to distance them and they were just really thankful they could come in early and do it,” said Mrs Kuhn.

Mrs Hughes said there were some sad stories, and some days when they’d dip into the store’s supply of toilet paper for the staff room to distribute to people who were down to their last rolls and had no other options.

Julie Kuhn still has her original sash from the opening of the store 20 years ago and promised she’d be wearing it with a smile all day.

Photos: Left and below left, construction at the Woolworths supermarket and service station in 2000, and below, the store at the time of the opening 20 years ago.