05/03/2008 - 22:00

Longevity through diversification

05/03/2008 - 22:00

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A large number of Western Australian furniture manufacturers have gone to the wall in recent years, but those that have survived and flourished, Fremantle Furniture Factory among them, have done so by adapting to the changing marketplace.

A large number of Western Australian furniture manufacturers have gone to the wall in recent years, but those that have survived and flourished, Fremantle Furniture Factory among them, have done so by adapting to the changing marketplace.

Established in 1978 in Fremantle, the business relocated from its five-level heritage building to a 2,500 square metre manufacturing facility with public showroom in Willetton four years ago.

The business was able to grow in its new premises, while offering its clients the same level of design and quality manufacturing it had been providing for more than 20 years.

Starting out with a key focus on domestic furniture, Fremantle Furniture Factory has since expanded to provide fixed and freestanding furniture for commercial, hospitality and retail markets.

Managing partner Barry Williamson, who took over the business in 1985, said the business’ ability to diversify and adapt to the latest technologies and trends has allowed it to continue trading when so many of its contemporaries had fallen by the wayside.

With the combination of an increase in cheap imported furniture and the diminishing source of materials driving the industry’s woes, Mr Williamson said Fremantle Furniture Company had managed to maintain its strong position in the niche market of custom-made furniture with a high level of craftsmanship using high-quality timbers.

“What keeps up alive is that we work on that part of the market that cannot be serviced by imports,” Mr Williamson told WA Business News.

“We’ve had the opportunity to be able to fit into the specifications that people demand.”

The business also diversified in the types of materials it used, insulating it from the possible effects of a diminishing supply of local product.

While utilising indigenous timbers, such as jarrah, it also manufacturers pieces made from Victorian ash and Tasmanian oak, as well imported high-value timbers including American oak, South African mahogany and European beech.

“There have been some substantial restrictions and locking up of old growth forests,” he said.

But maintaining profitability while competing in a capital and labour intensive industry has presented a number of challenges.

Mr Williamson believes that for businesses to survive in the industry, they must continue to re-invest in upgrading their processes using the latest technology, equipment and software.

He said his business had an annual budget allocation that went towards upgrades, funded either through revenues or loans, and had made significant machinery replacements three times in the past 12 years, at a cost of about $250,000 per machine.

Changes in work practices, evolving occupational health and safety requirements, and obsolescence are all factors that influence the need to make significant capital investments.

“You can’t stand still, because then you’ll become antiquated and you can’t compete,”  Mr Williamson said.

He also believes that providing a state-of-the-art working environment encourages employee satisfaction and reward.

“It’s better to be working on state-of-the-art machinery to work with than working on a machine that’s decrepit,” he said.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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