Setting Sail

Ronstan Australia

When the new material began to gain popularity in the early 1960s, the team realised they needed to revaluate the business. The new technology – combined with a credit squeeze and the seasonal nature of the industry – eventually urged Ronstan in a new direction. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to the fledgling company.

The company’s focus has been exclusively on designing and manufacturing sailboat hardware since that fateful decision over 45 years ago, and the brand is now instantly recognisable to sailors everywhere. In fact, Ronstan is widely acknowledged as one of the top three sailboat hardware brands in the world. The company’s success doesn’t end there; the team has also found surprising new architectural applications for its sailing products – from pedestrian bridges to zoo enclosures.

Managing Director Alistair Murray believes that Ronstan’s emphasis on exports has been integral to its success from day one. “I think what has set us apart has been our international orientation,” he says. The company began to make a name for itself overseas as early as the 1960s, a legacy that endures to this day – and continues to grow. Currently, the company exports to 40 different countries and has its head office, state-of-the-art design facilities, primary manufacturing plant, and advanced warehousing and distribution system located in Melbourne. The business also boasts sales offices in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, as well as warehouses and offices in the United States and Denmark.

Ronstan’s exporting success has been recognised with a large number of federal, state, and industry awards, and the company has been inducted into the Manufacturing Hall of Fame, an honour that Mr Murray describes as “quite an accolade for the leading manufacturers in Australia.”

One reason that Ronstan has gained such popularity as an export brand is the high quality of its products. This quality can actually be traced back to the company’s Aussie roots, Mr Murray explains. “Typically, in sailing competitions, you look at Europe [where] they tend to have a lot of light weather and light breezes. Whereas, here in Australia, we have a very rugged coastline with very demanding conditions. And I guess our product has grown up to be robust and efficient and designed to handle good strong [Australian conditions].”

Mr Murray also credits a strong commitment to people for the company’s long lasting success. “We have always placed a great deal of importance on the culture within the company,” he says. “We really do a lot to foster close relationships between the people here and to make this a fabulous place to work.” Mr Murray’s career, in fact, is evidence that the strategy has worked; he himself has been on the team since 1976 – a whopping 36 years of company loyalty.

Ronstan is also dedicated to supporting and developing its team around the world. “Our customers are our friends and relationships with them are long term.”

Ronstan certainly has a lot going for it, but even this industry giant hasn’t been able to avoid current global challenges. “It is very challenging at present with the global financial crisis, particularly in Europe,” Mr Murray says. “Boat sails worldwide have slumped and, in fact, in the U.S. there has been a long term decline in boat sails for many years. The sailing market has not been a healthy one, and the current economic situation is making it very, very difficult for all of us in the industry.” Add to this the pressures of manufacturing in Australia and selling product in Australian dollars. “Australian currency has really appreciated in the last couple of years, and it has made us more expensive in world markets,” Mr Murray points out. “So it has been challenging times.”

The team isn’t letting the challenges slow them down, however. “We are continuing to concentrate on the things that are important,” Mr Murray reports. “We are continuing with innovation, with new products and with marketing even though times are difficult, because we obviously believe that there will be better times ahead again.”

Sailing, Mr Murray adds, is simply too good a thing to stay down for long. “Ultimately, I think it is a leisure activity that will flourish in years to come. Economies will bounce back and sailing has so much going for it.” The sport is both environmentally and family friendly, he points out, and can be enjoyed as a serious competitive sport or as a casual recreational activity. “I like to think that it has a very broad future.”

For now, however, the team has been able to fall back on a somewhat ironic, and steadily growing, non-marine market for its sailing hardware. “We have prospered by diversifying,” Mr Murray explains. “We found some wonderful applications for products outside of the traditional marine areas.” Non-traditional applications, particularly in modern architecture, now account for 40 per cent of the company’s annual sales – and that number is rising every year. “That has been a pretty exciting thing for us,” Mr Murray says.

For example, Ronstan designed and installed the chimpanzee enclosure for Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. “These chimpanzees are climbing all over structures that have been designed and put together by a company in the sailing industry. So that is pretty wonderful,” Mr Murray remarks. The chimpanzee enclosure is constructed out of poles, cables and mesh – materials which, “if you use your imagination, can be used in many different fields.” The team has also put up several pedestrian bridges around the world – from Adelaide to the United States’ city of Baltimore. Ronstan has also been employed on numerous Olympic sites, and the 2000 Sydney games featured stadiums constructed with Ronstan stainless steel cables. Even Melbourne’s famous cricket ground has a façade supported by the company’s rods and cables.

Ronstan also made a major acquisition recently that has helped bolster international sales and demonstrate the company’s still considerable financial muscle. Two years ago the team purchased Andersen, a Denmark based winch manufacturer. “That was a very significant diversification for us,” Mr Murray points out. “And [it] has made us very much stronger in the market.” An equally significant accomplishment has been the company’s recent growth in America. “Our U.S. team has been performing extraordinarily well. We continue to grow in the U.S. and are very proud of what we have achieved there.”

Ronstan also enjoys a very special status as the official supplier to the Australian Sailing Team. “We were very thrilled in the most recent Olympics,” Mr Murray remembers. “Australia was the most successful sailing nation in the world. We won three gold medals and a silver just in sailing.” The company has been supporting the Australian Sailing Team for almost 30 years. “We are very close friends with all of the sailors,” Mr Murray says. “We are very proud of their fantastic results.”

Mr Murray also hopes that the recent Olympic victories will inspire more people to take up sailing. “It has certainly done great things for the profile of the sport and I hope that it flows through into increasing participation for young people.” In fact, he hopes that people of all ages and backgrounds begin to take note of sailing – a sport that he says can appeal to just about anybody. “You can participate from the age of eight to 80. You can sail with your friends, you can sail with your kids, you can sail with your parents, you can sail with your spouse. It’s a wonderful sport.”

Young or old, advanced or beginner, the activity has a place for everyone. It can even be a way of life. “You can cruise the oceans and see the world, Mr Murray suggests. “Use it as a way of having a lifelong adventure if you like.”

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 16, 2018, 6:41 AM AEDT