You need nerves of steel to make a go of manufacturing in Australia right now.
Gordon and Susan Tait know all about it.
Designers and manufacturers of high-quality, locally made indoor and outdoor furniture, their business, Tait, recently turned 21 – but getting to the milestone hasn’t been easy.
They’ve taken calculated risks to keep their business afloat in a market that’s flooded with cheap imports.
Tucked away on the edge of the Merri Creek in the Melbourne suburb of Thornbury, Tait employs a team of 16 welders, timber and sheet metal workers and two managers who build more than 3,000 units for its retail stores in Melbourne and Sydney.
Susan and Gordon are steadfast about their commitment to the craft and the people who work for them.
“It has always been Australian made,” says Gordon. “I’ve been a real stickler for that and still are.”
Pioneers of the warehouse living trend that emerged from inner city Melbourne and Sydney in the 1990s, Susan and Gordon opened their first showroom in a Fitzroy factory. Gordon worked on the ground floor and they lived upstairs.
“At the time you could actually do that, “ says Gordon, “It was zoned light industrial and you could live in an actual warehouse.”
Susan was a creative brand specialist and cut her teeth on 1990s cosmetic success story Red Earth.
Gordon started Tait when the printing factory he was working at closed down and his former boss “gave me a push out into small business.”
“I’d make printing stuff during the day and pieces for clients in the evening.”
One-offs turned into ten, then turned into 20. Gordon had some contacts at Country Road and Witchery from the printing days and made tables and merchandising material for their stores.
In 1997, Susan met Jo Horgan who was working on a new venture called Mecca Cosmetica. The flagship store in Toorak was being designed by Nik Karalis (from architecture firm Woods Bagott) and Gordon got the fit-out job.
The Mecca concept took off and the exposure gave Tait an instant lift.
Applying some of her retail smarts to their fledgling business Susan thought: “Maybe we should do some product ranges. So we started making some simple beds and dining tables and benches.”
The Melbourne department store Georges loved what they were doing and commissioned the ‘Mega Bed’ – an early best seller.
“It was on castors and low to the ground with a platform around it,” recalls Gordon of the boxy, tubular bed that was so big “we couldn’t get it into the store”.
It was then that Susan thought, “there could be something in this” and Tait was on a roll.
Local architects loved them. Gordon could make anything in the factory and they found themselves doing a lot of commercial work. In the early 2000s, with the Australian dollar around 60 cents to, the US dollar the export market beckoned.
“A designer shop in Downtown New York used to buy container-loads of stuff,” recalls Susan. But in 2001, when the terrorist attack on the WTC struck, “that fell in a heap and we realised we really needed to focus here”.
They hired a business mentor and re-grouped.
“When we first had the mentor, he was like a marriage counsellor, because you take everything so personally when it is your partner,” says Susan.
The mentoring, which included advice from an accountant, a superannuation advisor and a financial planner, took the emotion out of the partnership and gave them a chance to stand back and plot their next steps.
“We’ve also become good at knowing what we are good at and we leave each other to get on with it,” says Susan.
“We were doing work for a large retailer who was importing a lot of outdoor pieces from Spain, but they were falling apart because they couldn’t cope with the environment.
“We designed a sun lounge and put it in their store and it sold really well.”
The ‘Linear’ became the basis of an outdoor range, which they still make and sell today. In fact, outdoor furniture is the backbone of their business and they have carved a niche for themselves in the expanding outdoor furniture segment.
Gordon thanks TV garden designer Jamie Durie for sparking the outdoor room trend. It also helped them survive the GFC – another curve ball for the business.
“As soon as it struck, everything commercially stopped or was postponed,” says Gordon. “So we had to broaden our footprint and we moved into retail.”
They opened Tait Fitzroy in 2009, moved the factory to Thornbury in 2011 and opened the Redfern store in 2011.
“It was hard. People didn’t really know us as a retail brand and they didn’t know us at all in Sydney,” says Susan.
A couple of rainy Sydney summers took their toll on sales in their new market, but the risk-taking and spending to move the business forward didn’t end there.
A 2008 collaboration with local industrial designer Justin Hutchinson created the sublime ‘Jak and Jil’ outdoor dining suite, which remains their best-selling product.
Further collaborations with Australian product designers followed, which included a foldaway outdoor kitchen and games table.
In 2009, they achieved green certification (GECA) for their outdoor furniture, and will soon go through the process to achieve the tougher indoor certification for the entire range.
They re-branded, hired a PR firm, built a new website, implemented a social media strategy, hired a General Manager to drive sales and even launched a book about their design journey.
All big-ticket cost items for a small business making furniture in an industry swamped by cheap off-shore knock-offs. In 2014, they plan to open up online.
“We take leaps,” says Susan. “Re-branding was a very expensive exercise for us but we knew we had to do it to take us to the next level.”
The last three years of hard work have paid off. In 2013 revenues grew by 20 per cent – and this year they expect even more.
“Retail trends have changed, “says Susan. “People are so brave now. They want something new and unusual.
“They love that it is local. [They] love that it is built for our climate and they can make it the colour they want.”
So while they have a great product, Susan says the sales experience is just as important.
“You can have the best products but everything is about how you treat people – your staff, your customer – that really makes the difference, because you can buy everything online nowadays, so we are having more events in store so people can meet up and have fun and that’s working for us.”
And five years from now?
“The model is working well,” says Susan. “I’d like to see a sustainable business supporting our employees and their families and be known as a business producing good quality designs. That would be fantastic.”
Angela Martinkus is a Melbourne-based communications consultant and journalist.