Endeavour Awards Young Manufacturer of The Year: Jason Oliver, Black Widow Enterprises

For leading the expansion of his family owned company and growing the automotive aftermarket company in a downturn, Jason Oliver has recognised as the Young Manufacturer of the Year. 

The Young Manufacturer of The Year's CV begins with him working in the family business, Black Widow Enterprises, before half a year as an accountant following his uni graduation.  

After throwing in the towel as a bean counter he moved back to BW, where he's been in charge for 18 months.

"For some reason, they let me take over the company as CEO and we're still going, somehow," offered the unreasonably humble Young Manufacturer of the Year Jason Oliver moments after being given the award.

After assuming the reins at Black Widow at 27, Oliver overseas a thriving little business that manufactures four-wheel drive aftermarket accessories out of New Gisborne, with a turner last year of $6.1 million, 40 staff, and plenty of opportunities for growth.

"We're in the aftermarket automotive sector, not the OEM, so we're quite lucky that we're not being swamped by all this doom and gloom," said Oliver, who received his award the same week that CMI fuel systems was put in voluntary administration, SMR announced that it would cut 90 jobs, and receivers announced that aiDair's Gisborne plant would be shut by the year's end.

Oliver worked part-time at Black Widow, which his parents started in 1995, during his school years and went on to study business at RMIT while continuing to work on-and-off at the family business. In his third university year he dipped his toes into the world of management with a co-operative program at Exxon Mobil, before graduating and getting a job at an accounting firm.

"I went and worked for six months at a chartered accounting firm, because I studied accounting at uni," he told Manufacturers' Monthly.

"I was going to come back into the business and do the accounting side of things but I was bored out of my brains at the chartered accounting firm and thought 'this sucks' so I rang up dad and said 'look, I'm ready to come back'.

He planned to handle the books, but this wasn't an option, it turned out.

"When I came back we only had about 15 people working for us and there wasn't a need for a full-time accountant."

This worked out nicely for Oliver, who was happier on the factory floor and was chuffed to be able to roll his sleeves up get back to business with folks he knew.

He resumed work as operations manager.

"Over seven years I put it all in and the business has grown, I've thrown my hand back into the other side of the business and the day-to-day, but operations and lean are still my passion and I'm very heavily involved in that, or at least as much as I can afford to be [laughs]."

Lean manufacturing ended up being an important aspect to how the company was run, after Oliver bought a copy of The Toyota Way at a Singapore bookshop to pass the time on the flight home. What he read on the trip back struck a chord with the young man.

Here was a way of doing things that crystallised many of Oliver's gut feelings about management.  

"My goal was eventually to write a system where the guys didn't have to rely on me as the firefighter or the guy to continually answer questions," he said.  

"I went about and tried to introduce that. Had obviously no experience with it and failed in a few things."

He sought as much information for himself and for his workers about the lean way of doing things.  

"Then I got the guys enrolled into a Cert III into lean manufacturing, got a specialist out and worked with him very closely and implemented a lot of changes. And then from there just went about benchmarking and doing factory tours and talking to as many people as I could."

What Oliver has implemented has worked a treat. According to the company's figures, as operations manager, he saw productivity up 40 per cent, lead time down 73 per cent, and a decrease in average stock holdings of 25 per cent. In his 18 months as CEO, the 29-year-old has helped boost sales by 21 per cent, released new products, and started exporting.

Currently, there's quite a bit of interest from the Middle East, where the company has been exporting "for about a year or two" and elsewhere in Black Widow's storage and organisation solutions.

"I'm going to Dubai in three weeks," said Oliver a week after winning his Endeavour Award.

"We've got a heap of stuff going in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The biggest opportunities for us at the moment are there."

Black Widow is currently looking to expand its sales through targeting fleet vehicle solutions, working with a RIM Services, APV Safety Solutions, independent OH and S consultants, and Deakin University, who have been providing advice on lightweight materials. 


Image: Oliver receives his award from Gary Cobbledick, CEO of Spectra

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