Garry Johnson – Steel Blue
Member of TEC 58, Chaired by Trent Bartlett
Perth, Western Australia
Steel Blue makes safety boots with a difference. The company was created in 1995 after its founders realised there was no one manufacturing and selling premium safety boots that focused as much on comfort as they did on protection. Since then, Steel Blue has always ensured that comfort & innovation remained a key focus.
This commitment to creating a world-class product means the Steel Blue’s boots are the only ones to be endorsed by the Australian Physiotherapy Association. Steel Blue has also shared its knowledge through a program conducted with Healthier Workplaces WA and released special edition Pink and Purple boots in a partnership with Breast Cancer Care WA and a Blue boot programme to support Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia & Beyond Blue.
The company has grown rapidly, defined by both a unique product offering and strong commitment to its status as an Australian owned and operated company. Now, Steel Blue is also active in international markets such as the US and Europe.
Managing this expansion and the company’s ongoing operations in its existing target markets is CEO Garry Johnson. After taking the role in 2009, Garry has been working to maintain the brand’s reputation while also ensuring that manufacturing expansions to Indonesia continue to align with the firm’s goals.
Turning confidence into sales while managing a growing skills gap
While Gary and other Steel Blue employees have always had confidence in the product the challenge in the business’s early years was to prompt this same reaction from their clients. The company’s founders knew that rather than simply talking about how the boots were different, actually getting employees to try them out and notice the difference themselves was better than any sales pitch.
“We were the very first to go out and offer free wear trials to larger businesses for their employees,” Garry explains. “We would go and talk to both the occupational health and safety people and the procurement people and we’d offer our footwear to selected employees to trial for up to a month”. We were also the first to offer a no questions asked money back 30 day comfort guarantee.
This belief in the product coupled with a resolute status as a proudly Australian-owned and operated business is one of the most important aspects of the Steel Blue brand. It’s an important asset for the company, acting as part of its marketing in Europe and the US. Garry notes Steel Blue has increased its focus on this trait as not only is it a sign of quality in the eyes of consumers, it’s also an interesting conversation starter.
While the brand value of Steel Blue’s boots remains strong, cultivating industry knowledge in Australia remains a significant challenge as footwear expertise grows in other international markets.
“We recognise there’s a skills gap,” Garry began. “Most of the footwear knowledge and skills now has moved to China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia. It’s moved away from Western countries to where it’s mostly manufactured.”
Offshore manufacturing and retaining local knowledge
With a local skills gap putting pressure on Australian footwear businesses, one solution was to look at moving parts of Steel Blue operations to Indonesia, where the new knowledge base had formed from many other companies outsourcing their manufacturing in this country and the surrounding region to make the most of affordable labour.
After getting the Indonesian factory up and running, Steel Blue enlisted the services of a consultant to ensure the business could continue to be successful in a new and unfamiliar environment.
“We’ve had a consultant by the name of Wieke Gur in to help us understand the Indonesian culture,” Garry notes.”The key in dealing with Indonesia is you’ve got to become a friend first before you can talk about business.”
Garry describes it as a joint-venture partnership, where the Indonesian partner exclusively manufactures for Steel Blue, giving the company a dedicated resource it has full control over. Recently, Steel Blue has been taking steps to ensure that this relationship is a positive one for both parties from more than just a financial perspective.
“Having an external party come and help us really fast-tracked our knowledge and how better to deal with our partners.”
However, this doesn’t mean the company has ignored the domestic footwear industry, offering cadetships in Australia is helping to ensuring that there’s still a thriving local knowledge base.
“We still manufacture some of our products here in Western Australia, because we want to preserve that knowledge,” Garry says. “We spend a lot of time making sure we document that knowledge and that we retain our people, and we have a very good retention rate.”
Adapting to industry demands to ensure quality
Despite providing its own challenges, particularly with regards to learning about a new culture, the move to outsource a large portion of its manufacturing to Indonesia has proved to be successful.
“It’s enabled us to produce high quality products and having a dedicated provider gives us great flexibility,” Garry says. “We can change the production schedule if we get a particular run of activity on a certain product, model or colour.”
“That gives us quite a strategic advantage when it comes to customer service.”
However, Garry was beginning to feel the pressure from the challenges but didn’t feel like he could air these concerns with other people in the business. After a conversation with a board member, it was recommended Garry join to TEC so he would have a forum of like-minded peers to gain inspiration from.
Garry’s TEC membership has also helped to generate positive results for the business, particularly concerning its expansion into foreign markets such as the US. The group functioned as a sounding board for both Garry’s ideas and hesitations, helping him to shape the product into something that would gain traction in new markets being targeted.
“I got a huge amount of support from my group through suggestions, questions and feedback,” Garry explains. “They put me in touch with people and so on, so that was most beneficial.”
Garry maintains that TEC helps him stay ahead of the curve, an important benefit as Steel Blue expands both its manufacturing and sales into new markets. Being able to reach to experienced peers that had overcome similar challenges in the past provided an important and impartial set of viewpoints which informed his own decision making.