While manufacturing appears to be on the decline in Ballarat with the closure of a number of businesses in recent years, long-time industrial textile product manufacturer C.E Bartlett is experiencing rapid growth.
The business that began as a one person operation in Ballarat in 1956 and lead the way in the industry now employs more than 120 people across four factories.
Well known throughout the city as Bartlett Blinds, the company has expanded its focus to niche high quality industrial textile markets, adopting innovative processes to create efficiency and ensure long-term sustainability into the future.
THE BARTLETT STORY
C.E Bartlett chief executive Dave O'Brien is the first non-family member to run the company. Today he tells the story of the Bartlett family's success with pride.
In 1956 C.E Bartlett founder Cliff Bartlett bought a sewing machine and started repairing tarpaulins from the family home.
He was a sail maker by trade and had worked for the railways making tarpaulins for train carriages.
"It is the quintessential family story that as the family grew they needed more income so he started working from home," Mr O'Brien said.
"In the last 64 years we have had four or five sites in Ballarat and we now employ 120 people. But it was all started from the family home wanting to gain a better income and support the family."
Mr O'Brien began working for C.E Bartlett 13 years ago and was appointed chief executive in 2015 after Cliff Bartlett's son Keith Bartlett stepped down from the role.
ADAPTING TO CONSTANT CHANGE
Continued growth and on-going investment in technologies has seen Bartlett stand the test of time.
More of the same won’t work.Dave O'Brien, C.E Bartlett
New products are being developed continuously as high quality niche-market opportunities are identified.
The business was inducted into the Victorian Manufacturing Hall of Fame in 2006 and is recognised as a leader in the industrial textile product manufacturing industry.
Mr O'Brien said representatives from the business had always traveled overseas to international trade shows to bring new ideas and technologies back to their Ballarat factories.
He told the story of one overseas trip where Cliff Bartlett returned with a welding machine, at a time when the company had come from a background in sewing.
"The story goes he came back and said to the boys 'I don’t know what we are going to do with it but I know we need to use it, so find something we can use it for and new markets that will want it'," Mr O'Brien said.
It is just one example of Bartlett's desire to 'stay ahead of the game' and create new opportunities for products and increased efficiency with transformative technology.
"If you’re standing still you are not going forward. Technology is a big focus in our business, not just from an IT perspective but from a machinery perspective," Mr O'Brien said.
One of Mr O'Brien's project highlights since working at Bartlett was investing in a large welding machine that transformed their process of fabric welding and increased manufacturing efficiency.
When they purchased it two years ago, it was the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere.
"In our industry you usually bring the fabric to the machine and move the fabric around the machine. This machine has a 360 degree rotating head and an 11 metre table which means you can automate the process," Mr O'Brien said.
"With this process you lay the fabric on the 11 metre table, set the machine up and it can do vertical or horizontal welds automatically. You can program it for repeat business or some of the larger scale things. The efficiency we get out of it is fantastic."
One of Bartlett's biggest growth sectors in recent years is creating products for defence force vehicles.
Mr O'Brien said the company had always manufactured products for the defence force - historically tarps and trailer covers.
Now the business is creating products in the defence space for armoured vehicles.
"Armoured vehicles and canvas don’t generally go in the same sentence but as part of the replenishment of all the defence vehicles there are troop carries, cranes and trailers with high tech canvas that has infrared protection and special patterns.
"For the last four or five years we have had multi-year contracts with four of the prime suppliers to the defence force."
Producing canvas for camper trailers is also an area of the business that has experienced growth in recent years.
"We went from servicing a local dealer here in Ballarat through our custom canvas division and saw a niche in the market where we could start offering our services to niche players - high end people that are offering a substantial product and the canvas is an important part of that," Mr O'Brien said.
Meanwhile, Bartlett Blinds and Bartlett Tank Liners remain two major sectors of the business, with a focus on distribution to wholesalers.
The company has stepped away from the retail market - blinds are now the only Bartlett product that is retailed in Ballarat.
BUCKING THE MANUFACTURING TREND
Continued growth and expansion into new markets show Bartlett is bucking the manufacturing trend in a city where manufacturing is becoming a dying art.
Mr O'Brien said Bartlett was a large player in the industrial textile product manufacturing industry with the typical industry participant a ten to 15 person operation that may specialise in one area.
But he said being a large player brought large challenges as well.
"We have a beast to feed," he said.
"Our market offering is more than just price - we will never be the cheapest in the market. Our offering is a value product, that quality service, reliability, repeatability and accuracy.
"We are moving to a more larger project based company rather than one offs. But we are really looking for larger projects where there is scaleability.
The key to manufacturing is finding that niche market.Dave O'Brien, C.E Bartlett
"It is a race to the bottom competing on price. We look for the value in niche markets.
"As an Australian manufacturer you will never be able to compete on price with competition from overseas."
Mr O'Brien said it was clear the manufacturing landscape was changing in Ballarat as it becomes more competitive and global players have increasing influence.
"I think Ballarat is changing. As the population moves west from Melbourne, Ballarat is becoming less focused on manufacturing and more of a health hub specialising in health and education," he said.
"I think the key to manufacturing is finding that niche market. There are other manufacturers in Ballarat who are finding a niche market through business development that was not necessarily their part of their original business.
"More of the same won’t work."
Now a local business with a global reach, C.E Bartlett is continuing it's strong presence in Ballarat, a city that has offered a stable workforce and a workplace culture where the people behind the machines are valued.
"We employ a lot of people in Ballarat so we are very conscious of being a successful business and supporting our staff," Mr O'Brien said.
"Part of what I am proud of as a company is we are very employee centric. We make a lot of products with machines but our people drive those machines.
"It is satisfying people think we are a good enough company that we have a number of people celebrating their 20, 25, 30 and 35 years with the business."
Shortage of skills for manufacturing demand
A focus on skills shortages is needed to prepare for the future of work and sustainable population growth in Ballarat, the city's thought leaders and employment services say.
Tim Walshe, general manager at recruitment agency JK Personnel, said manufacturing remained a 'massive' part of Ballarat's employment market but there were not enough qualified people to meet the sector's needs.
He said skills shortages were most notable for boiler makers, fabricators, welders, fitters and engineers in Ballarat.
"At the end of the day you need a certain number of trade qualified people and there is just not enough," Mr Walshe said.
"There is a business in Maryborough that has recently won a contract and needs to employ eight boiler makers overnight. They had no idea where they were going to find them and if they couldn’t find them they were not going to be able to meet the needs of this customer.
The doomsday scenario is a business thinks the Ballarat community can’t supply them with the people they need and then they move.Tim Walshe, JK Personnel
"Last year MaxiTRANS needed 70 welders and boilermakers and the positions couldn't be filled over a three to six month period. We were advertising all over the state, offering relocation bonuses, referral bonuses, a 12 week sign on bonus and we were still unable to attract people into those positions.
"The doomsday scenario is a business thinks the Ballarat community can’t supply them with the people they need and then they move.
"That would have a catastrophic impact on a lot of people in Ballarat that are on that lower end of the employment market and could potentially be out of work overnight. If good strategies aren’t put in place long term to avert that kind of thing then it could happen."
Mr Walshe said he would like to see a better understanding of Ballarat's employment profile to help young people make informed decisions about career opportunities in their home town and attract people with sought-after skills to Ballarat.
"If you look at jobs at a national level then it is probably difficult to predict but in Ballarat it might not be as difficult if you had an understanding of who all the big employers were and how many employers there were in each," he said.
"You would need some big employers to leave town or come to town or lots of little employers to go out of business to dramatically change the profile of the likely jobs for the future."
Committee for Ballarat has identified jobs and skills shortages as a strategic focus.
Ballarat Innovation series
The Courier's new series Ballarat Innovation features stories each week that showcase and celebrate industry, business, innovation and entrepreneurship in Ballarat.
The new series comes as part two of the More than Gold series that told the stories of Ballarat's diverse community members last year.
This new branch continues the aim of More than Gold to create a sense of pride in Ballarat's achievements and celebrate the fantastic people that make this city great.
In partnership with Committee for Ballarat, we hope these stories help create a sense of aspiration, a sense of excitement at the possibilities of what can be achieved in Ballarat, and a sense of confidence to take a risk.
We want to move past the buzz word idea of innovation and instead celebrate the diversity the word offers by telling the stories of new startups, long established businesses that are innovatively responding to change and challenges, and experimentation with technology.
As we tell the stories of Ballarat's innovators, we will also be asking the harder questions: what is needed to support and promote growth in industry in Ballarat?; how does Ballarat address the skills shortages that are holding so many business back?; how do we create the estimated 15,000 new jobs that are needed in the region by 2030 to support the projected population increase?; how do we ensure our education offerings are prepared for the changing nature of jobs; and how do we create more high level career pathways for Ballarat's youth?.
We hope you enjoy the journey, as we explore and celebrate innovation in Ballarat each Saturday.
OTHER STORIES IN THE BALLARAT INNOVATION SERIES: