Scott Kilmartin says it was one of those rare ‘‘epiphany moments’’ that turned his garage-born venture making bags and accessories from old number plates and truck inner tubes into a larger operation attracting big-ticket clients including Seek and BMW.
Driving to Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport some eight years ago, the former barman and personal trainer saw installers struggling with a big advertising billboard flailing in the wind. He realised it wasn’t made out of paper but some more robust material that could potentially be turned into bags or satchels in his workshop. He called a friend in advertising, asking him to get hold of one - and discovered that billboards are made out of non-recyclable, but wonderfully workable vinyl.
‘‘Billboards were the big turning point,’’ recalls the 42-year old founder and owner of Haul, a Melbourne-based design brand that makes eco-friendly bags, notebook covers, iPad sleeves, conference folders and other things out of discarded ad banners and other materials, such as rubber print blankets and sporting signs.
The North Fitzroy business had started out in 1998 with a stall on tourist Salamanca Market in Kilmartin's hometown Hobart, selling CD carriers and photo albums with number plates as their cover. But following his billboard discovery, Kilmartin started cold-calling large companies and their media buyers and agencies, seeking to convince them of the benefits of using branded accessories made out of old billboards, rather than having the vinyl banners end up in landfill sites.
Appealing to companies' corporate sustainability with a quirky opportunity to market their brands, Kilmartin began building up a client base that today includes jobs website Seek and energy company AGL.
Today, the corporate market makes up about 80 per cent of his close to $2 million turnover business. Accessories sold to consumers through some two dozen retailers across Australia, online and in Haul’s Fitzroy show room make up the remainder.
As the orders have grown in volumes, Kilmartin has moved parts of his production offshore, cutting up the billboards locally to then farm out the sewing or assembly to manufacturers here and in Indonesia.
He says the business will almost double its sales this year. He's also exploring the idea of starting a joint venture with a marketing agency in London, to turn Olympic Games advertising billboards into corporate accessories.
But there have been hiccupsalong the way. Kilmartin almost went under in 2008 when a couple of significant orders were cancelled, a chain of stores he was selling to went into receivership and the company overstretched itself struggling to push into the New Zealand market.
‘‘We went through about three months of real, teetering-on-the-edge pain,’’ he says. Credit cards were maxed out and banks wouldn’t lend any more, forcing him to cut staff and deliver donuts from 2am until 8am in the mornings just to bring in cash to pay the bills and stay afloat.
Focusing on keeping things manageable after the ‘‘emergency landing’’, the business steered through the global financial crisis in 2009 as marketing budgets froze and company orders stalled. When consumer spending dried up during the 2010 Christmas season, Kilmartin decided to refocus his business on the corporate, business-to-business market.
He has shut the stall on Salamanca Market, seeking to define the company as an upmarket designer brand.
Asked about the potential of green marketing, he’s quick to distance himself from the alternative eco-movement, saying his focus is on the design of his bags and accessories: ‘‘We’re a green business, but we are really a design business that happens to use green materials.’’