True Blue Trailblazer
True to the Australian spirit, it began with sport – a kick-about on the footy field.
As three blokes were enjoying a game at the Swan District Football Club, they noted how sports shoes had made leaps and bounds in design and performance.
Imagine, they mused, if work boots had the same attention to detail, how much better would they be? They decided the question shouldn’t be left hanging in the oval and Steel Blue was born.
Garry Johnson is sitting at his desk in Malaga, Steel Blue’s HQ. Rewind 23 years ago, he says, you’d find that safety boots were pretty much the cheapest product on the Australian footwear market. “There was no such thing as a premium work boot.”
“We had the best leathers, the best linings and the best built-in patented Trisole® Comfort technology – all the features to improve comfort, body health and reduce shock,” said Garry. “That’s how it all started.” The boots now come in an impressive range of 36 ever-evolving styles for men and women and continue to walk off the shelves, creating roughly a 35% national market share. Not that the Malaga business is content to rest on any laurels.
"We had the best leathers, the best linings and the best built-in patented Trisole® Comfort technology – all the features to improve comfort, body health and reduce shock"
Steel Blue broke the mould and offered a boot that came in at 50% more expensive than the nearest competitor. Because of the price tag, they promised customers a 30-day money-back satisfaction guarantee. They didn’t get many returns.
Before Garry joined the company a decade ago, the former business banker and Vice-President of the Malaga Business Association said Steel Blue had just won a Telstra Small Business Award. Garry said his job was to build on their national reputation. Today he’s busy marching the Aussie boots overseas.
“For me, it all stems from an entrepreneurial spirit that’s been ingrained into our DNA. Where we see an opportunity, we don’t say no, we see what we can do.”
One opportunity knocked in an unusual form: an offer from a Dutchman who was touring and happened to visit a Ningaloo cattle station where he discovered Steel Blue boots. Impressed with the company’s profile, the Dutchman, Flavio de Haas, announced he wanted to be Steel Blue’s representative in The Netherlands. The company wasn’t slow to get a foot in Europe’s door – or some steel capped boots. That was 13 years ago. Today Steel Blue boots are sold across The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the UK.
“I saw a great sign years ago and it said: ‘If you want to stay number one, train like you’re number two’,” says Garry. “That’s always stuck with me my whole career.” That same ethos sees Steel Blue dedicating 1% of their $75 million annual turnover to research and development and innovation.
The company is working with CSIRO, The UWA Podiatry Clinic, the University of Canberra and ECU. They’re training like they’re number two, to collect firsts – like their “airport-friendly” boot.
WA’s mining boom produced an army of FIFO workers whose steel capped boots caused airport security headaches. Steel Blue created the first work boot with a composite toe that’s as tough but lighter than steel – and doesn’t trigger airport security. Everyone happy. Another first is Steel Blue’s waterproof boot for mines and then there’s a caustic chemical resistant boot. Then there’s a purple boot. And a pink one and a blue one.
Two phrases pop up regularly in Garry’s conversation: “family culture” is one, “giving back” the other. That’s where the coloured boots for charity come in.
The ladies purple and pink boots are kicking goals for breast cancer research and care. To date, sales have raised over $1.2 million. It’s money to find help for families affected by breast cancer, including those in remote areas who now have an online service to get the support they need.
Off the back of the pink and purple boot success, the men’s and ladies blue boot got a run, raising money for Beyond Blue. “We have had a huge success with FIFO workers wearing our boots but we were conscious of the strains it puts on families. We want to do our little bit to support people wearing our product.”
The company has also given to Homeless connect, the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia and community initiatives like Environmental Disaster support.
Steel Blue moved to Malaga in 2001 and Garry says the move has been a big bonus for business.
“Malaga has done exceptionally well for us because it has good transport links, access to nearby communities where a lot of our workers live, plus it’s approaching 3,000 businesses here now – we actually do a lot of business right here in Malaga.” Added to the proximity of Perth city, the Mitchell Freeway and three highways, is the welcomed addition of NorthLink.
“One thing we pride ourselves in is fast customer service and NorthLink has meant better service, less road congestion, higher productivity and obviously for us the big one – safety – ask our drivers.” Garry’s happy too because it makes the airport closer, a plus since the company’s latest market conquest: America.
“We bit the bullet and jumped into Texas,” he says. With a population of over 28 million, Texas is bigger than the entire Australian market, but, says Garry, it has a similar industry background to WA: gas, oil and petrochemical products. “The US is no easy market to break into, but it was a great opportunity.”
The move was a classic demonstration of the spirit that has fired Steel Blue’s business from the get-go, back when those founding company members were kicking a ball around Swan District Football Club and dreaming about the future.
Members still play on that footy field, only now it’s got a new name since the Malaga boot-makers helped them out in troubled times. Today the ground is called the Steel Blue Oval and thanks to their main business sponsor, the future is looking bright.
Source: City of Swan www.swan.wa.gov.au/News-Media/2018/Business/True-Blue-Trailblazer