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Export Profile: RJ Walsh & Son

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When Australian bureaucracy threatened to bankrupt Jim Walsh he looked to America. Through innovation and persistence Walsh has revolutionised the dog driving industry. Police have twice clocked Clara Pratt speeding at 36 miles per hour. But she’s not driving a car, she’s driving a bloodhound cross in her Regal Mini Sulky. "That is the racing speed for the fittest harness horses in the world," says sulky inventor Jim Walsh. The former management professional has brought science to the simple harness cart. "It’s the high-tech end of a low-tech market." Starting out in 1961 manufacturing horse sulkies alongside his father, Walsh invented a new technology to build the lightest, fastest, smoothest ride a harness cart had ever offered. His tubular stainless steel, independent suspension jog carts blew the competition out of the water when introduced in an Australian interdominion race in 1987. When Walsh first calculated the cart’s projected speed, he thought he had his maths wrong. "The performance is a thing that surprised both their creator and everyone else," he says. The Australian authorities didn’t take the surprise well, promptly banning the light sulkies and forcing Walsh to look abroad to save his company from bankruptcy. It took five years for Australian race authorities to repeal their decision, after Walsh’s sulkies swept the prize pool at every American race event. The bureaucratic nightmare was a blessing in disguise for Walsh’s business, opening up the American market. It was there Walsh discovered dog driving. He modified his miniature horse sulky to fit city sidewalks and through park bollards, and the Regal Mini Sulky was launched in America in 1992. It took a year to sell the first cart but, once it sold, Walsh began trading off a reputation so good that industry forums banned mention of his sulkies, counting all discussion as advertising. Seventy-five percent of Walsh’s carts are sold to the USA. Where he used to sell 90 percent race sulkies and only 10 percent dog sulkies, Walsh has watched the balance shift to 50/50. He expects the dog sulky market will grow as the traditional market declines. In 2010 Walsh appointed distributors for the dog sulkies in Europe, the United Kingdom and Ireland. "It’s a potentially huge market, because there are so many dogs in the world. It’s much more fun to drive them than it is to walk them, both for the dog and the owner." Walsh has found a niche market among disabled people in the United States (roughly 20 percent of his business). The carts allow people who cannot walk to exercise their dog effectively. In Australia the dog sulky market is limited, but Walsh puts that down to ignorance. "Ninety-nine point something percent of the market are simply unaware the sport exists!" With no advertising budget, Walsh says his customers are his best marketing resource. "They garner enormous attention wherever they go." When he drives his own dog, Walsh says he is overwhelmingly grinned at. In five years, he’s had one complaint of cruelty. Walsh said "You don’t see a whip do you? Can you see his waggling tail? You can’t force dogs to cart." Walsh has stayed competitive by subcontracting manufacture of various sulky parts to factories in China-but he is careful to split manufacturing among different factories so no one can trade off his design. He has also registered patents all over the world to protect his innovation. At 67, Walsh says his "fondest wish" is to be 20 years younger. "I think this is a market that will dwarf horse racing in the years ahead." But he plans to keep growing the company until he finds a suitable buyer. "I would like to see another innovative Australian corporation take it up and realise its potential." As he looks to retirement, Walsh is proud of R J Walsh and Son. "We’ve accomplished more in innovation in our field than any corporation of our size in the history of the sport."

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