Twiggy Forrest’s purchase of RM Williams shows Australian consumers want to buy local, experts say
Iconic outfitter RM Williams is back in Australian hands, with its new owner vowing the company will manufacture more of the brand’s footwear and clothing locally as support grows for Australian-made products.
The Australian cattleman’s brand was sold offshore in 2013 to LVMH Group, which owns French luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton. LVMH Group was rolled into a private equity firm L Catterton several years later.
After years owning RM Williams and trying to market it to an overseas audience, L Catterton tried to sell it again in mid-2019.
Investment company Tattarang, owned by mining magnate and Australia’s second-wealthiest person, Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, and his wife Nicola Forrest, announced on Monday it had bought the brand, returning it to Australian ownership.
RM Williams is based in Adelaide and was founded by bushman Reginald Murray Williams 88 years ago.
Tattarang chief investment officer John Hartman confirmed the company had been circling the bootmaker for close to a year.
“I was fortunate enough to go to the workshop in Salisbury in Adelaide back in December before coronavirus started to have its impact,” he told the ABC.
Mr Hartman said Tattarang had no plans to close any of RM Williams’ 63 Australian stores.
It also has one store in New York and one in London.
Mr Hartman said Tattarang decided to buy the luxury brand in the middle of Australia’s first recession in decades due to the opportunity it presented.
“In business, sometimes you have to take an approach to get a reasonable deal,” he said.
“We all are aware it’s a challenging time for many in the community.”
Calls for manufacturing of textiles to return to Australia
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall has taken to social media in the wake of the purchase, describing it as “great news for local manufacturing and local jobs in SA”.
RM Williams has a factory in Salisbury where its boots are made. The factory expanded last year to hire 100 more people.
While some production has moved offshore in recent years, Mr Hartman said most of its products were still made in Australia.
“There are a few products made offshore but it’s only 1 or 2 per cent,” he said.
“In this time of reflection on our manufacturing base, we’re certainly committed to maintaining the Australian manufacturing focus.”
There’s also an affordability challenge — people often will need to pay a bit extra for Australian-made products.
Mr Hartman said Tattarang would “work through” the idea of moving manufacturing entirely back onshore in “coming months” but made no firm commitment to going 100 per cent Australian made.
“We’ll commit to more Australian jobs and particularly keeping the boots made onshore,” he said.
“The business strategy is one of growth.”
After decades of seeing Australian brands moving production offshore, RMIT design and technology teacher Andrew Robinson said he was happy RM Williams was back in Australian hands.
He said it could become the catalyst for the growth of local manufacturing and help Australia bounce back from the COVID-19 recession.
“Governments need to invest in onshore manufacturing to skill up a new generation,” he said.
“It would be fantastic to bring manufacturing back here.
“It’s been dwindling for the last 25 years and going offshore, but with COVID-19 pandemic people are starting to realise we need to bring it back.”
Mr Robinson said there was talk of several Australian brands bringing manufacturing back onshore.
“We have an opportunity to skill a generation who haven’t been exposed to the shoemaking side of things. Textiles used to be our biggest job-maker,” he said.
Consumers show support for Australian-made products
Australia Made chief executive Ben Lazzaro said the coronavirus pandemic had created demand for goods that would support Australian jobs — despite the extra cost of buying Australian-made products.
Research by Roy Morgan in July found 90 per cent of Australians surveyed wanted more products produced locally, up from 88 per cent in January.
The most common reason given was the pandemic had “highlighted Australia’s reliance on other countries”, the second was new employment opportunities needed to be created in Australia.
Mr Lazzaro said there was “a very pro-Australian sense in the marketplace at the moment”.
Mr Lazzaro said since state-based closures associated with the pandemic began in late March, Australia Made’s social media platforms had reported a 300 per cent increase in traffic.
“Consumers are taking time to consider the impact of their purchasing decisions given what we are going through,” he said.
“We’ve had an over-reliance on imported products and now is the opportunity to address that imbalance and shift the needle back to local.”
RMIT marketing lecturer Marian Makkar said there was “a lot of potential” to sell the luxury product locally and overseas, even during a global recession.
“People aren’t going anywhere so they’re are shopping online, and the brand experience of RM Williams is really highlighted online,” Dr Makkar said.
“This brand is powerful and there’s an Australian trust that goes with the brand.
“People want to support their country, especially when so many have lost their jobs.”