Keeping it Clean

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-By John Boley

It’s one of the oldest and best names in Australia. It’s owned by a US company. And it’s run by a European. A recipe for disaster, surely? Another nail in the coffin of Aussie culture?

Not at all. In fact, quite the reverse. Because in this case, the US company is committed to sustaining the brand and Herman Verhofstadt is dedicated to keeping it proudly Australian. So much so that he will jump at the chance to become a citizen as and when the offer comes.

The brand is Sabco, once upon a time the South Australian Brush Company. Readers will probably know that already because the Business in Focus production team will have added some suitably whimsical title, such as “Cleaning Up”, or “Polishing the Image”. Certainly Sabco’s own kicker, “first choice for quality cleaning solutions”, is a little misleading for, as Herman explains, the one thing the company doesn’t offer is cleaning solutions. It’s hardware – hardware for consumer use and for professional applications – and in both sectors Herman insists the products on offer do the job better.

Herman is chief executive officer of the company that has been producing and supplying cleaning products for Australians for more than 120 years. Sabco is an iconic Australian brand and a name that was founded in 1892. “We pride ourselves on being at the forefront of mops, brooms, and cleaning in Australia.”

He’s a real enthusiast, too. Brought all the way from Europe by the US owners after they took the company over several years ago, he claims (almost certainly without exaggeration) that “I can talk for three hours about buckets if you wish.” He has researched the brand, which changed to Sabco some 60-70 years ago, and says confidently that it is the second-oldest well known consumer goods brand in Australia (behind, we think, good old Arnotts*).

“It is such an iconic Australian brand. People ask me lots of questions about it and I tell them I have not found anything older than us except for Arnotts,” says Herman. He explains that the probable explanation of the company’s origins dates back some two centuries to the Industrial Revolution in Europe, when people really started to build machines. One such machine was a block of wood with holes in it, he says, holes into which you could stick branches. Hey presto – the first broom. “The first broom companies in the world were all founded in Europe and an Australian businessman travelling in Europe put some machines on a ship back home to Adelaide and began working on them.”

That was the Hay family which founded what is now Sabco. At that time, says Herman, many such companies were springing up, though few survive today. Now the shares are no longer in Australian hands and are owned by a family running a private company in the US and taking a back-seat but keen interest in keeping the brand, er, ‘clean’. Environmental awareness is an important factor in the cleaning business these days.

“The family that owns the business runs it to very high ethical standards and will not allow anything that harms the environment,” says Herman. “We use recycled metal for all our handles, for example, and the bristles in the brooms are made from recycled PET bottles which we extrude again.” The green colour of the products may resound in consumers’ minds, he believes, but the fact is that this recycling is not only efficient but also cost-effective. “Ecological is really very easy – most of the time it’s actually cheaper to do the right thing. Recycled metal is cheaper and for a broom handle it’s perfect as it is as strong as virgin raw material.”

The best Sabco carpet sweeper is made using natural cow hair. This too is a product advantage as well as being ‘clean’ – it does not have a ‘memory’ like synthetic materials.

The reality of the global market today is that products are to a large extent made outside Australia. Sabco takes pride in developing products in Australia for the Australian market but it is sometimes difficult to also produce them in Australia if you want to be cost competitive. “I would say that we convert a lot of our products here and we add value. It’s difficult to be sure but I think maybe 15-20 per cent. We buy a lot from local manufacturers.” That includes the recycled materials, wooden handles and galvanised buckets. But there are other products that originate in Europe (mainly industrial cleaning machines of the sort you might use to clean a shopping mall), the US and China.

Herman stresses that the Chinese manufacturers have to meet Sabco standards. “In China we work with five key suppliers and I audit them myself to ensure we do the right thing.” It’s not just a question of walking round a trade fair in China and bringing back something off the shelf. “We design something from scratch and get it produced specifically for us.” One example is the Ultimate Pro bucket (please see sidebar) into which Sabco sank more than USD200,000 in moulds alone. It’s Sabco’s product and theirs alone.

Currently, some two-thirds of Sabco’s business is to consumers. Everything is via the distribution network which includes Australia’s big names – Woolworths, Bunnings, Target, Big W, Mitre 10, Home. Herman is confident the industrial sector is set for growth: “We can be a one-stop shop. So at Sabco you can buy anything from a 50,000 dollar sweeper to clean a shopping centre, to a very basic quality dish brush of a couple of dollars – the only thing we don’t sell is detergents. We also have an excellent network of dealers – with them, we can definitely seriously increase our market share.

There is value in ethical business, Herman believes. “We have excellent relations with our retailers. I think we are not an arrogant company, and we work hard to get things done correctly. I think that goes over to our relationship with our retailers. We are the challenger in the market so we have to try harder. We are proud about this brand; we have a team that is enthusiastic about it and this flows over to the retailers.”

Although Sabco is US-owned, “they kept the entire Australian identity alive. Actually all the money, all the profit Sabco makes is reinvested back in Australia. So we haven’t sent one pay cheque to the US. The benefit they get is that we develop products here in Australia for the Australian market. We have our own design & engineer team and they also learn from that. But all the profit that this company makes stays in Australia.” He points out quite fairly that if even Vegemite is in foreign hands, why not Sabco?

Herman explains that the US ownership of the company is a good thing because the family has helped it to survive. The owners “went exploring in Europe and hired me, and I migrated to Australia with my family.” It’s strange, he reflects, how he comes to be marketing and taking care of this oh-so-Aussie brand with all its stored values – yet he doesn’t even sound Australian. “My accent is Belgian. But I have been here 3 years and I will stay. This is not a job-hop for me!”

* if any reader can think of an older brand, we would be interested. let us know if you believe your company’s name is as old as these two.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

August 19, 2018, 7:50 AM AEST