PHOTO ESSAY: Work boot company Steel Blue has shown niche, quality-focused manufacturing has a place in Western Australia.
A commitment to offer premium-quality work boots to a marketplace crowded with low-end, cheap and uncomfortable footwear was the driving force behind the creation of theSteel Blue brand more than two decades ago.
Backed by years of experience working in the safety footwear sector, five Perth-based co-founders launched Steel Blue in 1995 from a manufacturing facility in Bassendean, complete with a quality and comfort guarantee.
With their boots priced 50 per cent higher than the competition, co-founder and director Ross Fitzgerald said the team was determined to signal from the get-go that Steel Blue’s boots offered superior value.
“We took a gamble,” Mr Fitzgerald told Business News.
“In the first eight months we lost over $500,000, so that wasn’t a good start.
“We had to put more money into it, and that was gutsy.
“It was a recession at that time, but if we had brought out something that was the same (as competitors’ products) we wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.”
Although the market was initially sceptical of what was deemed an expensive boot, persistence paid off when the company launched a 30-day money-back comfort guarantee for all of its products, helping it to get a foot in the door with distributors.
Mr Fitzgerald said the tightening of occupational safety and health standards in Australia created further demand for work-safe footwear. And although this prompted the entrance of more competitors, Steel Blue maintained its market share.
Strong sales amid growing demand in the early 2000s led the company to shift to a larger factory in Malaga, and enter a trading agreement with a manufacturer in Jakarta.
Within 10 years, Steel Blue boots were sold in New Zealand, Africa, the Middle East and the UK, with distribution centres established across the globe.
In 2015, the company launched subsidiary companies in Europe and the US.
Mr Fitzgerald, who is now the only original founder still working in the business, said Steel Blue’s international portfolio accounted for a near 15 per cent of its revenue, with the company producing more than 500,000 pairs per annum, maintaining selling levels achieved at the peak of the resources and construction boom five years ago.
“This shows that our diversification strategy into new sectors, along with the addition of new ranges and our investment into international markets has been successful,” he said.
“We’ve made boots in Western Australia from day one, and I can’t see us ever changing that.”
Although the high Aussie dollar and labour costs may have resulted in some manufacturers quitting WA, Mr Fitzgerald said Steel Blue recognised the value in keeping the brand’s Perth ties.
“One thing we can’t control in this business is the Aussie dollar,” he said.
“As volumes got higher, it was always going to be difficult.
“But we still manufacture a percentage here, we’re proud of that and use it as a selling tool for the business.
“It would be probably better for the bottom line if we didn’t make it here, but then maybe we wouldn’t do the volume; it’s been great to showcase our business, bring distributors and end-users through and show them what we do here.”
Around 200 pairs of boots, or about 10 per cent of total output, are made daily at Steel Blue’s Malaga base, which has a focus on made-to-order boots, whereas the Jakarta operation produces the bulk of general and backfill stock.
“Before we made a pair of boots, one of the things we said we wanted to be was a sales, marketing and development business, not necessarily someone involved in manufacturing,” Mr Fitzgerald said.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement; product innovation is a big thing for us, we don’t want to sit still.
Steel Blue has always undertaken in-house research and development to explore ways to tailor its boots to reduce shock forces to the feet, knees, hips, and lower back.
As a result, it is the only safety boot officially endorsed by the Australian Physiotherapy Association.
Mr Fitzgerald said the business planned to release two new products later this year and hoped to start production involving a defence contract it recently secured with the Australian Army for non-combat workshop boots.