Taking a Shine to Oz


Waproo is a proudly Australian shoe and leather care company that literally spans the globe. We talked to owner Meryl Dahlitz, of Hungarian heritage and living in London. Meryl runs Waproo by remote control.

The Waproo brand is a well-known one. The origin of the name comes from ‘waterproof’. It is one of Australia’s most experienced manufacturers and suppliers to the footwear manufacturing, repair and retail sectors. Waproo offers a large range of shoe and leathercare products, including equestrian leather goods, and a healthy private label business.

It was founded by Julius Henley, a talented chemist who had already found success in developing a variety of soaps. He arrived in Australia with his family prior to World War II. Henley worked out of a small basement to develop his chemical products, manufacturing and distributing the products in Melbourne. He moved to a factory in Brunswick where he developed the first water-based glue for the Australian Air Force, before launching shoe and leather care products in 1945.

Meryl is Australian but based in London, where her spouse is a professor at a London university. The internet has made it much easier to look after Waproo from halfway round the world, she says, although Meryl relies on a talented team in Melbourne for much of the day-to-day work. She also makes frequent trips back and forth.

Meryl acknowledges that there has been a substantial cultural shift in how consumers view footwear. There has been a decline in the popularity of traditional leather shoes that require looking after. There has also been a rise in demand for synthetic shoes, generally of lower quality and more ‘disposable’. “However, there are still many people with a special pair of shoes, who care very much about them and will always look after them, using the very best products,” Meryl says. “They are loyal customers. People interested in leather will always look for premium care products – and we haven’t seen much change over many years in that situation.” Waproo has not seen any decline in business despite changing consumer trends.

More than six billion pairs of shoes per year are made in China, making up more than 90 per cent of world output. Waproo makes glue that is used in shoe manufacturing. The company exports its glues to China, and its glues and dyes are used by three major shoemakers in Australia. Individual consumers buy Waproo products not only to clean their shoes, but also to alter their appearance. They can change the colour, for example, with dyes available at retail stores. “Our customers can match a shoe to a specific outfit, they can virtually paint a shoe if they wish,” says Meryl. Shoe comfort will always remain a priority. Waproo has a full range of stretchers and fitting aids, including high-performance insoles and gel inserts. There are even charcoal-activated insoles that reduce or eliminate odours of the sock or foot.

While retaining all its ‘traditional’ products, Waproo has remained responsive to market trends, increasing its product offerings to change with the times. Meryl knows the Waproo customer base well. “Do you know, many people find cleaning shoes quite therapeutic,” she says. “A surprising number of our customers sit in front of the TV and clean their shoes and get a lot of satisfaction out of polishing them up. It even surprised me to learn that.” She explains that customers “do not fully understand the chemistry of the products that we manufacture. There has been a huge problem in trying to communicate this in the number of words people are prepared to read when they look at the label. So it is a problem for us to work out how to educate people to use our products.”

Waproo runs a program for shoe retailers to teach consumers how to care for their shoes. Company sales representatives lead in-store demonstrations, backed up by detailed information sheets. Shoe repairers – Meryl mentions the Mister Minit chain as an example of shops that stock a comprehensive range of Waproo products – are also experts. There are some particularly tricky materials, Meryl says. “For example with suede and nubuck, which are very popular nowadays especially with young women and are not quite so straightforward to care for.” Meryl suggests treatment with a pigmented cleaner to restore colour, followed by waterproofing spray.

In 1965, Waproo acquired Joseph Lyddy Horse Care products. These products are for horses and equipment such as saddles and harnesses. Now a new website is being introduced for the brand, so that customers can buy direct from the warehouse. “This will be a good thing because many people have a problem finding exactly what they want, or they live in rural areas and have difficulty getting to a distributor,” says Meryl. Joseph Lyddy is a tried and true brand, well known by anyone who has ever had horses. Recently, the brand launched a range of products specially branded for Black Caviar, the Australian thoroughbred racehorse with a success record unsurpassed for more than 150 years. This horse is generally considered the best sprinter in the world.

The range of products is the result of an exclusive agreement with the owners of the horse in Australia and in the UK. “It comes in a gorgeous salmon pink and black, Black Caviar’s racing colours. The interest in the horse has been huge and for us to be a small part of that – making the shampoo and conditioner and grooming aids – has been really good fun,” Meryl says. The products are already available through Horseland and soon through a variety of other distributors. They can also be found online via the Black Caviar and Joseph Lyddy websites.

Private label manufacture also accounts for a substantial part of Waproo’s business. The company works with these clients to develop and manufacture product ranges to provide top quality care for the latest colours in fashion, just in time for the shoemaker to launch them. Meryl mentions that the manufacturing process is complex. The headquarters in Dandenong South, Victoria is better equipped than ever, with improved processes and efficiencies to ensure compliance with all current and planned legislation.

“Almost every one of our chemical products is made at our Australian factory and we will carry on doing that for as long as we possibly can,” says Meryl. “When it comes to the kind of chemicals we deal with – basically soaps, waxes and fats – the chemistry is complicated, getting it right is not easy and it is important to have the right environmental conditions and proper ongoing quality control.” Regulations in Australia are stricter than is many other countries, she says, which helps local manufacturing to maintain high quality. It is also more economical to locally manufacture small quantities of products (such as colour variants). Larger quantities are needed to make imports efficient. “We are very proud to be an Australian manufacturer,” Meryl adds.

Waproo does some exporting, primarily to Asia and the US. Though she lives overseas, Meryl is not looking to grow markets in new countries. “Historically our business has been in Australia and that is what we are very good at,” she says. “As a company, we are a very nice size to do what we are doing, distributing in Australia and New Zealand, and we are real experts in those markets and their conditions. But if we spread ourselves too thinly we would end up with all the problems that multinational companies have.” Bigger is not necessarily better. The strength of the company and its brands remains in its ability to select premium ingredients and raw materials, creating products that are clearly superior in performance to cheaper alternatives.

It is evident that Meryl enjoys running this business; her enthusiasm is clear all the way from London. “You know, it’s really good fun. There’s something almost magical about the chemicals involved because they can do tricks,” she says, referring to the transformation that takes place with shoes. “And there is something about that I find really enjoyable. It’s relatively easy, for a very modest price, for people to get the benefit of these first rate products and there are not many things in life that are like that!”

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?

December 19, 2018, 5:14 AM AEDT