Manufacturing sporting success

While our tally of medals was below expectations in London, two Australian manufacturers are still enjoying exporting success following their Olympics exposure, despite the 'un-competitive' Australian dollar.

Advanced Polymer Technology (APT) Australasia, manufacturer of synthetic turf, acrylic, and polyurethane-based products, used the Olympics to promote its flagship products, such as its Poligras Olympia hockey surface. 

Jim Tritt, APT's technical manager, says having its products used at the Olympics certainly assists with securing contracts, before and after the events. 

"Once the decision was made to use our synthetic surfaces at the Olympics, and it became common knowledge, the national hockey centres from various nations around the world were in contact to put in that surface prior to Olympics," Tritt told Manufacturers' Monthly

While it is too early for Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Tritt says there is already a high level of interest in the company's products for the next Olympics. 

He explained that the company hs been exporting since it started in the early 90s.

"At the moment around 25 per cent of our production is going to overseas markets, with most of our products going to the Asia Pacific region and to some parts of the Middle East.  

"But we also export some of our speciality products globally, such as our hockey fields into Europe, cricket products into UK and some tennis products into the US," he said. 

Tritt says the company mainly goes through distributors, who actually lay the products, but says it depends on the market.  

"If they don't have the expertise we use our STI construction company," he said. 

Based in Melbourne, with about 50 employees, the company makes a wide range of synthetic turf and liquid coating materials that are mostly supplied into sport surface markets. 

"We can manufacture synthetic turf for almost any sport including footy, soccer, rugby union, cricket, tennis, as well as synthetic landscaping and liquid applied coatings for sport surfaces. 

"While Australia is geographically huge, we only have 22 million people, so we have to take every possible opportunity seriously and try to capitalise wherever possible," Tritt explained. 

However he says the high Australian dollar is having a huge impact on the company. 

"It certainly impacts us on the commodity side of things, especially on some of our products, such as our tennis court products, where we don't have brand equity.  

"It forces us to come up with some smart solutions in order to be competitive and profitable. 

"But in our other markets, like field hockey where we have supplied fields to three of the last four Olympic Games, and is among the world's best, we do have brand equity which enables us to compete globally.  

"Basically we have to be innovative to compete, because the other elephant in the room is China which has a big presence in our market. 

"While they are not at the same stage as us at the moment, they are getting better and better," Tritt said. 

"The key to our exporting success is our systematic approach to the design of our products, and incorporate all the technology we have from the chemical manufacturing process including adhesives and secondary backing materials to come up with the best overall system. 

"We have a very harsh climate here, and our locally manufactured sports fields are viewed as amongst the most durable available, with no concerns re UV. We ironed those problems out many years ago. So being Australian made is very positive for us, which we capitalise on," he said. 

Tritt advises other manufacturers looking to export to look at what assistance is available from a state and national level.  

"We are part of the Australian-Made made program and we believe that assists us with certain products. Plus Austrade and ICN has assisted us a lot over the years," he said. 

Oar-some job 

When the winning rowers flashed over the line at the London Olympics many of them where using an Australian-made Croker oar. 

Croker Oars, a NSW based manufacturer, is a small family company with fewer than 20 employees, but with a huge following globally. 

Rowers from around the world, including the medal winning teams of New Zealand, Ukraine, Croatia, and the US took advantage of the highly-advanced Croker oar. 

Darren Croker, owner of Croker Oars, based on Oxley Island in Northern NSW, said the Olympics was a big success for the company. 

"We went very well, but not with the Australian rowers. For some reason, more overseas rowers use our oars than Australian. 

"So international is our market, with 75 per cent to 80 per cent of our product exported worldwide," Croker told Manufacturers' Monthly.  

He pointed to Asia as the company's most important market at the moment. 

"We have some direct customers, but we also use distributors. It varies country to country and much depends on the tariffs etc. 

"Our key to exporting success is building personal relationships and being at all the rowing regattas and events around the world including school regattas up to the Olympics and world championships. We have to be there. 

"Our market is really niche, I could go and spend a million dollars on advertising, but it would not make a difference. 

"We have to go and shake their hands and discuss the technical details of our oars," he said. 

But it's not all good news for the oar maker, like most manufacturers the high Aussie dollar is having a huge impact of the business. 

"It's just not possible to grow a business with the dollar so high – it's horrendous.

"You can't compete, you just hope like hell that people believe in your product and you produce the best product in the world. Keep pushing that and keep producing the best," Croker said. 

"Other issues is the amount of regulations we have to comply with, and then to bring in a carbon tax, makes it very difficult. 

"Every dollar we have to pay is a huge cost to a business. The carbon tax makes Australia totally un-competitive. 

"Maybe it wouldn't have mattered so much a decade ago, but today with electricity costs going up, all of our suppliers are adding a one or two percent here and there. It all adds up. 

"We have to cut our costs wherever we can to remain competitive," he said. 

Croker's advice for other budding SME exporters is to work hard, and if they do use distributors overseas, to make sure they believe in them and can trust them. 

"If you get a bad one it can taint you for the next ten years or so. 

"And also make sure you will get paid. We have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years in unpaid invoices. 

"Some companies simply go into receivership, then open up a similar business." 

The key he says is to be ruthless with who you sell to.  

"Start with payments up front until you can trust them, then move to letters of credit where the bank guarantees payment, but we still get caught even now. 

"Getting paid is often the hardest part, and the most important," Croker said.