The reports of the death of manufacturing are greatly exaggerated. In fact, manufacturing can be found alive and well in a duplex in Leichhardt, New South Wales, headquarters of menswear brand aussieBum. At first the business couldn’t afford to go offshore because they didn’t have the minimum orders required, but as the business grew, founder Sean Ashby and business partner Guyon Holland found that having local operations made the business more agile-and profitable. "Not only do we find it ultimately cheaper to make here but it also provides us with far better control," says Holland. "Our external accountant-who is also an accountant for some other fashion designers-is astounded at our profitability, and that it has all been made locally."
Made in Australia
Holland recounts the experience of trying to find someone to manufacture for them. One business owner was about to close his doors, having sold all the machines bar two: "We asked him if he could make a few things for us and now he employs nearly 20 staff. The other two have probably grown about two and a half times their original size. Where we can we build people up. Nearly all of them make solely for us." But aussieBum is more than a saviour for the manufacturing industry. As a business, they are held in high regard as a successful self-made brand, a well-run online business and fashionable and innovative to boot. The brand began when Ashby found himself out of work and out of nylon swimwear, which he and Holland had been seeking without success. Sitting on Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach one day, Ashby decided to use his redundancy payout to make swimwear. "He had no background in retail, fashion, clothing or anything but he knew there was a market out there because we were looking for it. We were our own customer," says Holland. From scratch, Ashby found out everything he needed to know about fabric, pattern making, cutting, and sewing, asking plenty of questions along the way. With 300 garments in hand he started knocking on doors in the retail industry. The result was a resounding ‘no’ so Ashby took matters into his own hands and staged his own photo shoot at Bondi with some of his mates. "We happened to have a really sunny day, and some people that were having a lot of fun and a really good background of surf. He had inadvertently captured the essence of the Australian lifestyle," recalls Holland.
Marketing and innovation
The world took to the imagery and aussieBum was born. As it grew, they moved from the dining room table into a bedroom, into a house and then into a property of its own. It now straddles a corner duplex in Sydney’s inner west. Early success came in the form of another Aussie icon, Kylie Minogue. In 2003, her stylist Will Baker was after colourful men’s swimwear to make a kaleidoscope for her ‘Slow’ video clip and aussieBum was one of the few brands with the range of colours required. Ashby used the clip as a launchpad for media activity and promotion. The brand has also taken promotional advantage of their innovations, such as the use of interesting fabric-glow-in-the-dark, vitamin-infused, open mesh, and bamboo to name a few-and their designs. Their most popular design almost brought them undone, admits Holland. "We had a lot of male customers ask for underwear that would enhance the male form so we developed the ‘wonderjock’. Our business grew 10 times in 24 hours," he says. "Had we not been manufacturing locally, we would have crashed. We were able to monitor our sales activity literally on an every two-hour basis and say ‘I need 47 pairs of medium-sized blue tomorrow." For six weeks they worked 20-hour days to fulfill demand, and yet Holland says they’ll never be a volume brand because they’ve stitched up their niche: "We’re not about volume, we’re very lean."
Delivering the brand
So lean, in fact, that they do almost everything in-house, from product design to photography and advertising production, all self-taught. "If you have enough drive, enough passion and you don’t have any money you can teach yourself anything," says Holland. This model satisfies both the creative drive of Ashby, who can move his imagination into reality, and the more practical Holland, whose focus is on efficiency. "I tell the staff here that not one business process in this company is sacred," he says. "If they can find a better way to do something, we should do it." This is evident at their headquarters: from the shifting drawers of product in the stock room that changes according to a garment’s popularity to increase accessibility for staff to fill an order, to their freight handling, where they’ve integrated systems with Fedex for faster documentation. Being efficient also allows them to be flexible and take advantage of opportunities, as they did with their international advertising campaign, now taking advantage of the northern summer. "We wanted to advertise on bus shelters in Milan. People told us it couldn’t be done, that it would cost thousands and thousands of dollars. Well, there are always opportunities. We said to the agent ‘we’ll take off-peak, or let us know if there’s a cancellation, we can roll out our campaign in 24 hours’," explains Holland. "Those people who tell us it can’t be done then come to us and say ‘how did you do it?’" Another impressive aspect of the aussieBum business model is their relatively risk-free sales model. There’s no sales team because they make 85 percent of sales direct to the customer through their website, and customers pay before the goods are shipped. Brand loyalty is also a key success factor. "We have hundreds of thousands of customers on our email database and we’ll email them every few weeks to advise them of new products. If we want to lift our sales we can change our volume from 50 to100 percent more in the space of a day," adds Holland. With an expected turnover for the 2008/09 financial year to hit $22 million from a small team of approximately 30 staff, a customer base spanning 120 countries, and a website that will soon hit 13 languages, aussieBum is an admirable exporter and a truly global business. "We consider ourselves an international brand which just happens to have Australia as our backyard," says Holland.
AussieBum’s foundation for success:
- Grow with your assets. "We only ever used tools that were available to us at the time and we never spent money we didn’t have," says Holland. "We’re completely debt-free, we borrowed nothing."
- Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. AussieBum are renowned for being the exception, which Holland says is due to the fact that they didn’t know how it was done: "Because we’ve never grown up with retail we don’t confine ourselves to that model or thought process."
- Find opportunities. When the brand wanted to advertise in Men’s Health but found it too expensive, they ended up sponsoring the inaugural Men’s Health Ocean Race series, which directly exposed them to potential customers. "Always ask, ‘is there anything else?’" suggests Holland.
- Be agile. "We can bring out a product in a week. We can come up with an idea on a Monday and have it in production and sell quantities on the following Monday," says Holland.
Check out the aussieBum website, containing examples of their in-house video production and photography.