Australia’s much-loved bushman’s outfitter R.M. Williams is turning to swish city market opportunities overseas to spread its outback apparel appeal.
The 80-year old boots, belts and timeless bush-style clothing brand, is about to open a New York store in Manhattan Island’s trendy Soho precinct, a second London store, and its first two company outlets in New Zealand, in Wellington and Auckland.
NZ is already the biggest of R.M.Williams’ 15 offshore markets.
The new international stores will also provide bases for speedy distribution of products sold via a new online sales website, which currently posts orders overseas from the company’s factory in Adelaide.
“R.M. Williams is a very well-loved brand in Australia and we always have to be the best we can be in Australia,” said chief executive officer, Raju Vuppalapati.
“But there’s no reason the world can’t be seeing something of this great product range and the rich heritage which has made it so successful here.”
The brand was born in the depths of the 1930s Great Depression by itinerant, but entrepreneurial, South Australian farm worker and horseman, Reginald (RM) Williams, who teamed up with another stockman to make its trademark elastic sided boots.
Back in 1932 they sold for about 20 shillings a pair. Today the price is $495.
Within a short time Williams’ leather range extended to saddles, drovers’ coats and belts, then hardy moleskin cotton trousers.
Shirts, oilskin coats, and an increasingly broader range of other clothing choices now fill the 50 distinctively rural-styled retail outlets across Australia - about 40 per cent of which serve metropolitan shoppers.
R.M. Williams is opening an outlet in Sydney’s Bondi Junction and refurbishing its premises in the CBD this year, while a new flagship Sydney store site is planned to replace two which recently closed.
In regional Queensland outlets are opening in Toowoomba (in June) and on the Gold Coast.
“Of course, being relevant to the bush and outback Australia is fundamental to our business, but it is also important to be relevant in urban markets,” Mr Vuppalapati said.
“Consumers everywhere are seeking that consistency and commitment in our products that comes with a tradition of good quality and craftsmanship.”
“We are about taking the RM Williams tradition and bringing it to life in markets we see as complementary to what we do.”
Boots, particularly the 50-year-old Craftsman range, are still R.M. Williams’ mainstay product, generating about two thirds of its revenue.
Every week about 3800 pairs of “RMs” are made at its Salisbury factory, alongside selected apparel lines.
A new women’s boot, the Adelaide, and a new lace-up men’s boot launched in March are set to be joined by a women’s sandal and men’s sneaker range in the near future.
Meanwhile, out on the parade ground about 36,000 pairs of specially fitted R.M. Williams boots are now worn by Australian Army soldiers following a contract initiated two years ago.
Rugby Union players selected for the Wallabies and Australia’s Rugby Sevens men’s and women’s teams also wear Craftsman RMs as part of their corporate (off-field) uniform.
A recent sponsorship deal runs until 2019 and extends to the Australian Under-20s team.
Mr Vuppalapati said collaboration with the Wallabies was a natural and comfortable fit given “quite a few top names in Rugby have, for decades, had strong rural connections”.
“Many of today’s players including captain, Stephen Moore and Ben McCalman grew up wearing R.M. Williams boots,” he said.
Like the Wallabies, the “iconic R.M.Williams organisation and brand encapsulates that Aussie spirit of hard work and determination”, said Australian Rugby Union’s commercial general manager, John Nicholl.
Determination is an apt descriptor for the boot maker in an age when most of Australia’s footwear and clothing brands have given in to globalisation and moved offshore to find lower cost manufacturing bases.
R.M. Williams and its Adelaide compatriate Rossi Boots represent almost half of what’s left of Australia’s locally-made footwear output.
About 80pc of all R.M. Williams’ products are Australian-made (including all footwear).
However, the company’s “Aussie” ownership is now limited to a minority shareholding by another national icon, actor Hugh Jackman, and Australian-grown international pension fund manager IFM Investors.
Jackman, whose wardrobe featured R.M. Williams boots and clothing in various movie roles such as the big budget epic “Australia”, has also been a long-time off-screen fan of the brand and bought a stake in the business late last year.
Since 2014 majority ownership has been with Singapore-based L Capital Asia, an equity fund owned by French fashion and champagne giant LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton).
Jackman’s investment move came as former Australian test cricketer (and NSW Central West farm boy) Glenn McGrath joined R.M. Williams’ board of directors and former owner, Hunter Valley cattleman and media executive, Ken Cowley, retired as chairman, replaced by Louis Vuitton’s Oceania chief executive officer, Philip Corne.
A brand “everybody feels they own”
When South African-based clothing industry boss, Raju Vuppalapati, signed on to lead the R.M. Williams in late 2014, he knew the brand enjoyed a loyal local following.
He did not realise, however, just how much the trademark had become ingrained in the character of Australia in just 80 years.
“It’s a brand everybody feels they own,” said the former Levi Strauss and Company senior executive.
“Very few companies enjoy the phenomenal recognition or customer relationships with their brand that R.M. Williams has achieved.”
RMs boots alone rate among the nation’s most widely worn and long-wearing footwear, outside the sporting shoe and school shoe market.
They are not just routinely found on the feet of farmers and stock agents whose families have grown loyal to the brand over several generations, but widely favoured across regional and metropolitan Australia by those in jobs ranging from banking and teaching, to airline pilots and medicos.
Prime Ministers from John Howard to Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull have all regularly pulled on their Craftsman RMs – even in Parliament House.
It’s been an amazing 16 months for me,” said Mr Vuppalapati who moved to Australia to take up his new role after 19 years with Levi Strauss, most recently as managing director of Africa, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand.
“In particular, a very enriching experience when I’ve been in the bush and seen the sort of credentials the R.M. Williams name has with people at Goondiwindi or Dubbo, or further into the outback.”
Mr Vuppalapati, replaced former chief executive officer, turned board director, Hamish Turner, who spent 14 years leading R.M. Williams on a steady market diversification agenda.
He had been lured from the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW where he was general manager and a councillor.
While the business was now looking at “some quite exciting new opportunities and movement” in the next year, Mr Vuppalapati said it was “very important” to stay relevant and in touch with its “unique story and customer base” as much as satisfying demand from new demographics.