Australia’s got talent


got talent

It’s not just the egg-laying mammals, laidback approach to life and larrikin sense of humour that make Australia unique. As Jeni Bone discovers, ingenuity, innovation, technical expertise and ethics are just some of the characteristics the world associates with the products and services from the Great Southern Land.

Text Jeni Bone

“For the global community, being Australian still retains a curiosity factor,” explains Bernard Salt, author, demographer and analyst at KPMG. “We are seen as niche manufacturers, rather than mass, and quirky to some extent, as a reflection of our culture.”

As Australians, we are seen as healthy, happy and bright, with all the sunshine, space, freedom and prosperity to be creative. “We don’t follow the rules, we aren’t bound by tradition or customs,” says Salt. “That in itself allows us to be inventive.”

Our historic isolation created a culture of invention and independence, perhaps tinged with a cultural chip on the shoulder that always made Australians strive to compete with our American and European counterparts. “That isolation is not so relevant now,” says Salt. “The market truly is global, with travel and the internet. But it’s our way of doing things – to innovate and invent rather than stick with the status quo.”

This quirkiness and perception of being niche manufacturers equates to a premium product. “People are willing to pay for that innovation and tap into a character they see as not prescribed by cultural conventions.”

Ian Harrison, chief executive at Australian Made Campaign, is a staunch advocate for making the most of a brand or product’s Aussie credentials.

“Our research says that being seen as Australian is very important in the domestic market and Australia has a very strong nation brand internationally. This can generate a much-needed premium for Australia’s exporters.”

Proclaiming your Australian-made identity is particularly important in a global market where margins are generally thin and there are often hundreds of products to choose from.

“In an environment where increased costs and a high Australian dollar have seriously undermined the competitiveness of many Australian products, country of origin is an asset we should be driving much, much harder,” he advises.

The alternative, not leveraging Australian identity, would most certainly mean the loss of more processing and manufacturing capacity.

On a domestic front, buying Aussie products puts dollars back into the local economy through jobs, career opportunities and keeping innovation at home.

MaryAnne Edwards, chief executive at AIMEX-Superyacht Australia, is an active supporter of Australian exporters and manufacturers.

Responding to the recent announcement of the establishment of Echo Yachts at Henderson in Western Australia, with its first project the construction of an 84-metre superyacht, Edwards says it comes at a time when Australia is making an impact on the global superyacht stage.

“Projects such as the new build by Echo ensure Australian skills and expertise continue to develop in this sector. Australia is a maritime nation and as such has always had a reputation for quality, innovation, skills, expertise and most of all a ‘can do’ attitude.”

Edwards says promoting a company’s Australian credentials is vital for connecting with customers who are looking for Australian attributes of “high standards, innovation and quality”.

“Australian pavilions at international boat shows are important in that they present a professional and united front to the world. Our key focus is on promoting Australian manufacturers and service providers to the world, as well as showcasing Australia’s attractiveness and capability as a cruising destination for the global superyacht fleet.

A custom-built Vikal tender.

Edwards acknowledges that since the Global Financial Crisis, price has become a determining factor, but she adds, “Buyers are still looking for innovative products that will attract customers, reduce costs or create another income stream.”

Globally, boatbuilding is seen as a very Australian enterprise.

On a recent visit to Australia, Maritimo’s USA president, Dave Northrop, described Australia as “the most expensive place in the world to build a boat, especially with the Australian dollar so high.

But the proposition is still compelling.”

According to Northrop, there are three things that distinguish boats made in Australia. “The first is, it’s in your DNA. Then there’s the labour force, which is unlike anywhere else in the world. In Australia, boatbuilding is a career. It’s a profession, not just a job. Tradespeople here see their role as part of the big picture, not just punching in a part on a production line.”

Maritimo, Riviera and Palm Beach Motor Yachts, among many others, have prospered on Australia’s east coast and are at the forefront of Australian exports in a crowded and cutthroat international market, while Vikal and Hanseatic Marine in the west are renowned for their boutique businesses.

Gunnar Vikingur, founder of Vikal International, is candid when he states, “Being Australian-made is not a question I have ever thought about.

“I have been a boatbuilder since I was 15. I am now 60, and have honestly never considered how being Australian impacts our business.”

Based in Henderson, Vikal produces three or four boats per annum. “Which is enough to keep my workforce of 40-50 people flat out,” says Vikingur. “Everything we earn on the sale of a boat goes back into labour, which is the bulk of our expenses, and materials. The rest we use to run the business.”

For the past 15 years, Vikal has exported 100 percent of its handcrafted luxury yacht tenders, which, depending on size and customisation, sell for $1-2 million euro – a price that makes them the most expensive boats in the world, by any comparative measure.

“Australian labour is very expensive and Perth is the world’s fourth most expensive city to live in. Training is an ongoing process. The core of our labour force has been with us for 15 years. We have had some of our apprentices come up through the ranks to become our senior tradespeople.”

The Vikal market is very small, explains Vikingur. “People looking for a special kind of boat, those who buy superyachts of 90-metres and above, know how to find us. Our location, the time difference and exchange rate don’t matter to them. Our boats are unique, they are the most handmade thing there is, and our clients are aware they are paying for that.”

And while this discerning market has the appetite for the exquisite, handmade tenders Vikal produces, they are every bit as price-sensitive as any other market segment.

“Most of our clients are self-made and they want value for money. When a product meets their expectations, they can stomach paying two million euro for it.”

For this boutique business, traditional marketing has never been appropriate. Vikal’s positioning as the world’s premium tender builder means clients have the confidence to buy boats from the company, sight unseen.

“A lot of the time, I sell boats from my desk,” says Vikingur. “Everything is done via email. I attend Monaco Yacht Show every year because it saves me a lot of travel – everybody is there in one place.

“We don’t have a stand or take a boat there – it would be too cost-prohibitive for a small company. But there are always some of our boats there and they do the marketing for us.”

Vikingur, who has been joined in the business by his son, Lynden, believes that operating in Australia, with its stable economy and high level of education, does benefit his business and the broader marine industry.

Anastasia designed by Sam Sorgiovanni.

“We have a great system that works. Our economy is strong and we have a skilled labour force. We are a long way away for buyers, but that is not an issue for us. We make small boats and they are not so expensive to ship anywhere in the world.”

The highly acclaimed, internationally in-demand Sorgiovanni, based in Perth, believes his affinity for yacht design comes from his location on the edge of the world’s largest island.

“Australians have a truly unique and casual lifestyle that focuses on the sea, sand and climate. With this lifestyle, beautiful surroundings and an affinity with our environment, this translates so well to life on a yacht. As yacht designers, we create in a way that ensures our yachts are practical, comfortable and distinctive.”

The design talent behind such award-winning yachts as Octopus, Nirvana, Anastasia, White Rabbit, Secret and Nomad (formerly Aussie Rules), Sorgiovanni is a regular winner at the annual World Superyacht Awards and was inducted into the Australian Superyacht Hall of Fame this year.

He says being far from Europe and the US has its advantages, particularly in terms of creativity. “Inspiration comes from our isolation, which creates the necessity for Australians to be innovative and creative in finding unique and distinctive solutions.”

Award-winning winch manufacturer, Muir, recently won the AIMEX-Superyacht Australia Exporter of the Year award as well as the Best Marine Industry Export Performance – Large Exporter award.

This Tasmanian company is known throughout the world for its innovation. But managing director, Matthew Johnston, says that while being Australian is a source of pride, promoting the company’s geographic location is not necessarily beneficial.

“Muir certainly leverages the fact in some markets that we are Australian, particularly in the superyacht space. However, in some cases we don’t promote our physical location because that can put up a barrier to the customer, because of the perceived distance from the supplier to the customer.”

Thankfully, with the improvements in communication technology in the last 10 years, this perception has diminished, Johnston concedes.

When it comes to pricing, Johnston says the reality is Australia is perceived to be an expensive place to produce equipment. “So we need to enforce the quality, global back-up service and strength of our products to our clients, as well as ensuring that our prices are in the vicinity of competitor pricing.”

Australian Made is vital to domestic marketing, observes Johnston. “The market understands that if a product is built locally then it will more than likely have superior quality to that of other competitors, particularly those out of Asia. It also means that servicing and parts are easy to secure, and more importantly, it means that the company producing the goods is employing Australians and putting revenue into the local economy, which cannot be underestimated in this climate. Look what has happened to the car industry.”

At Ronstan International, managing director Alistair Murray says promoting being Australian Made is a concept the company has pondered over the years.

“We operate in an international market and overwhelmingly, the greatest factor in being able to compete is a world-class product backed up by world-class people and customer service,” he says. “In sailboat hardware there is really nothing uniquely Australian about our products, or uniquely American, or English, or otherwise about our competitors’ products. We are all trying to design and produce the best products for what are very discerning consumers, intent on selecting products that are the most efficient, lightest, strongest, most attractive and best value for money.”

A winch by award-winning Tasmanian manufacturer Muir.

He admits that this suggests that Ronstan’s Australian heritage is irrelevant. However, he says, “There is certainly a perception in sailing circles that Australian sailors are the best in the world and that Australians generally sail in the most rugged conditions, that require rugged products.

“So that is a positive, and Ronstan is certainly associated with this rugged perception and with Australian Olympic and other sailing successes.”

The Australian Made logo is just part of the brand story for international markets, Murray explains. “It is one factor, because consumers will ultimately choose on quality, brand and value.

“I feel that the greatest value for Australian Made is probably in Australia, where consumers show a preference for products they know are made by Australians.”

Peter Crossley at Arctic Steel is proudly under the Australian Made banner and makes a point of promoting it in all corporate marketing.

“I believe it carries weight when establishing quality. This is very important because our product occupies that top end of the market.”

And while Crossley admits, “There’s probably nothing about our product that screams Australian-made”, he states that the company’s approach to business and client service is authentically Australian. “We are very friendly and efficient. We deliver a high-quality product with exceptional service. From experience, not many businesses seem to achieve this, so we make an extra effort to make the buying experience easy and efficient for customers.

“From experience marketing in the US and Europe, there is no hesitation from clients in those places dealing with an Australian marine supplier. They understand that the higher price comes with the Australian-designed quality. They expect a certain level of quality coming from Australia.

With experience in working on custom-designed interiors for yachts, aircraft and luxury homes, Craig Rothwell at Foundation Interiors believes innovation is a product of Australia’s culture and remoteness. “The superyacht industry is a custom-designed and built industry where design, quality and construction boundaries are constantly pushed higher,” he asserts. “In other markets, where production facilities employ staff that may move between different companies, quite often existing solutions are recycled rather than developed using the latest innovations.

“Australian companies have built a culture that has evolved from not having access to existing solutions. This has made Australia innovative, rather than adapting existing solutions.”

For example, Rothwell says Foundation Interiors has successfully responded to the trend of creating deck furniture to the quality and detail of interior furniture, with the ability to withstand the weather and UV exposure, and at the same time, being lightweight and beautiful.

“We developed a system that achieves all of this, whether the furniture is finished in timber veneer, lacquer or whatever, all while remaining stable and resisting movement, warping and twisting, ensuring a low-maintenance life. This has been done using a locally developed sheet material and unique construction methods developed in-house, to craft very detailed furniture that would suit even the most discerning clients.”

A timber artisan and master of ‘mechanical furniture’, David Boucher is deemed the best in the world at his craft. Boucher is passionately Australian and has promoted himself as such in his 40-year career.

“I have run my business, through thick and thin, as an Australian specialising in bespoke pieces – furniture with secret compartments – that only appeal to a certain market that is able and willing to pay for such items.”

Compared to mass-produced, or even handcrafted items from Europe, the US and Asia, Boucher’s work is ultra-premium. “I am passionate about keeping these skills alive,” he states. “There is still a need for bespoke pieces.”

A testament to this need is the fact that Rolls-Royce found Boucher and commissioned him for the interiors of its Ghost model. He has worked on the interiors of a Palm Beach 50 for a sports car fanatic to recreate a five-spoke steering wheel, like the owner’s Aston Martin.

The son of a Stanthorpe farmer, Boucher attributes much of his genius to growing up on the land, self-reliant and inventive. Moving to Dalby in his twenties, Boucher undertook restoration work and began making one-off pieces for clients.

Black Shagreen Bubble Box, inspired by the Beijing Olympic Swimming Pavilion made by David Boucher & Co.

Then he came across Art Deco. “It was an epiphany for me. It’s so ethereal, simple and elegant and uses strong colours and textures, including the shagreen [untanned hide], which I use for Rolls-Royce. My designs stem from my own creativity overlaid with the principles of Art Deco.”

With studios in Toowoomba and Sydney, Boucher and his team of craftsmen do things “the old-fashioned way”.

“We don’t use CAD, but I do use a Wacom digital drawing tablet with a 22-inch screen.”

Being Australian is paramount to Boucher and his work. “People are shocked that we’re doing this kind of work in Australia. We have worked for Royal families and extremely wealthy clients. Our clients don’t mind where we’re based, it’s such a global marketplace.”

Entirely self-taught, Boucher relished the chance to visit craftsmen in Italy. “A man in one village made the table tops and a man in another village specialised in the legs. I enquired as to whether they would make different style legs on a certain table and the answer was ‘Oh no. That’s the way we have made them for 300 years’.

“The good thing about Australia is that we don’t have cultural limitations or expectations. Cultural freedom allows us to develop our creativity.”

From the sublime to the supremely practical, polarised sunglasses are the stock in trade for Kevin Barr, managing director of Barz Optics, which manufacturers sunglasses on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

“In the marine industry, we are highly thought of as punching above our weight in design, development, innovation and quality,” says Barr. “Australians are avid participants and we tend to use a product and then try and work out how it can be enhanced to achieve better performance.

“With our small population there has always been a need for Australian companies to export to achieve the numbers to make businesses viable.”

In Europe particularly, Australian Made is seen as a badge of innovation, says Barr.

“Europe appreciates high-quality innovative products more than the US, where price dictates how successful a product could become. Even with some of my component suppliers in Asia, when I say I require a certain spec, they always say it’s too expensive because they are accustomed to US-based manufacturers beating them down on price.”

Barr says his European distributors know that the harsh Australian environment has created a need for innovative, high-quality protective eyewear. Australian Made is an asset to his branding, especially in European markets.

“My German distributors would like us to feature more Australiana in our marketing, so we’re planning to visit the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary to photograph a few kangaroos wearing our product!”

Palm Products (maker of unbreakable drinkware) has won various international design awards. The company is not distinctly Australian design-wise, but a keen Aussie yachtsman developed the product, says managing director, Robert Wilson.

“What is distinctly Australian, are the people who sell Palm Products, which helps when building relationships,” says Wilson.

“Most Australians are can-do people with a straightforward approach. We tend to be taken at face value. Most Australian marine export businesses are small to medium enterprises where the CEO has built the business by getting on a plane and seeing customers face to face. Customers are purchasing from someone who understands and is committed to the product – not a salesperson or worse, a catalogue!”

The Marc Newson range is priced at the premium end of the market, which customers expect to embody quality, unique design and longevity. Wilson says, “Customers would expect that Asian products would be cheaper, but they would be unsure of the quality and design. The marine customers in my segment place a premium on design and function rather than price. Many marine customers have luxurious boats and they want their drinkware to match.”

Above all, being Australian Made, says Wilson, is a virtue when it comes to boating accoutrements. “We are well known as a boating nation, so it gives our products and people credibility in the boating sector worldwide.”