On this episode of TALKS, we chat to Peter Witney; Founder and Managing Director of Bambi Enterprises. Running a successful Australian manufacturing business for over 35 years, Peter knows a thing or two about business. We chat all about where he got started, how he kept his business going, the importance of Australian manufacturing, and knowledge he wishes he knew back when he started.

What is Bambi, where did it all start and where are you now?

Well, we portray ourselves as the natural bedding company and we specialize in natural products. We started the company here on the Central Coast some 37 years ago, and we started it in the garage at home in Tascott. We had the opportunity to make lamb’s wool car seat covers to replace various child car seats or to add some comfort to the child car seats. I started doing it part time. It was a hobby and I started doing it on the weekends and it grew.

It grew from the garage. There was a there was an opportunity and I think if you’re going to start a business, you need to look around for an opportunity – there are opportunities everywhere. So, 37 years ago, I started cutting these lamb’s wool car seat covers and we sold them to all the baby shops. Now, to kick off a business, I think you have to really like what you’re doing. You have to almost love the challenge and love what you’re doing because you need to spend a lot of time on it.

It’s hard work. When I started off, I was fortunate to have a very supportive wife and she helped me get going. My father helped us with school funds, and it became a fully family business with both at times. Both my father and my father in law helping in the factory and of course, for children. That was a big challenge for my wife. Big challenge for her. We had four kids and she supported me, and it was a big job for her.

So within about 18 months, we had a nice, hard time business. Supplying these child car seat covers to baby shops all over Australia. It was hard, hard work because I was working in Sydney through the week and I would come home and I would do the cutting of the child car seat covers on the weekend, and then my wife would take then out to outside sewers. So, we were in the rag trade.

So that was a that was a business you were running alongside a day job at the time?

I’m a qualified accountant. A fellow of the Institute of Public Accountants, which and a report said that that training in especially cost accounting has helped me in the business. So, yes, I was I was a commercial accountant through the week, and I was a cutter, an entrepreneur on the weekend.

Man, that’s a heavy workload. Commuting to Sydney, running the business, that’s pretty intense. It’s an intense way to start.

So then so then after about eight or nine months, we had quite a good quite a good part time business. And then we had. That gave us the opportunity to build up some capital but was hard work. At this time, people started to show an interest in lamb’s wool under blankets or lamb’s wool woollen overlays for beds; so, we started making those. Then my wife went down to Melbourne and saw the big buyers down there – Kmart, Target, Myer, etc… and she built up a contact with the buyer at Target. My wife was a big, big asset to the business. She’d been a housewife for many years, and she turned out to be a very good salesperson out to be very good salesperson. The whole thing about business is that it’s a learning curve and it’s changing all the time. People often do business because they trust you.
That’s something that we certainly agree with here TALK. I guess you mentioned there. I was super interested in is just this journey of starting a business. So, Bambi’s obviously been on a pretty very long journey and you’ve sort of had a little twist in the road that I’m sure we’ll get it shortly. But in terms of those early days you mentioned, there are opportunities everywhere.

How do people looking to start businesses or kick businesses off? How do they identify that opportunity? Or in your instance, what was the methodology behind identifying it?

I was working for this company that was making adult car seat covers. Lamb’s wool car seat covers for cars, and they had a lot of offcuts which they used to throw out. I had a friend who was the general manager at the time of Safe and Sound, who made those child seats and they had lamb’s wool covers on them, and over time the covers wore out and people needed new ones

So, I thought, well if I can buy these offcuts from the company that I’m working for, they’ll be happy. I can take them; I can cut them up into pieces for the child seats and I can make a little bit of money on the side. The company I’m working for will be happy because they’ll get some funds for the offcuts and so on. I saw the opportunity.

Through that journey, obviously you started in that children’s car seat market, but now you are heavily into bedding. Can you explain how that migration happened?

Yes, and that’s another thing. When you’re in business, you have to you have to grow and you have to be on the lookout for opportunities. See with us, we’re in the rag trade. You have to look for something, something special. We were in wool, and it just happens to be that the best wool comes from Australia. We used to ride on the sheep’s back, but then we forgot about it.

We had a raw material, wool, which is the best in the world. Australian wool is the best in the world. So we built our expansion on that terrific product. From there will we were doing the woollen under blankets and we’ve always aimed for quality, quality, quality. We were competing against some huge companies, very big companies and basically, we just tried to do things a little bit better and offer terrific service.

Australian wool has a very, very high reputation. People overseas love Australian wool. So that’s been our hub or our core. Australian wool has been at the core of our product and product range for many, many years. Recently, we’ve expanded into other natural products such as Tencel, Ingeo Corn, various temperature regulating products. We look to the future with a lot of optimism because Australians now seem to want Australian products.

There seems to be a bit of a push, particularly in younger age demographic consumers, for bespoke artisan, high quality, handmade Australian quality product and materials. People are seeking that out more, which is perfectly dovetails into one of Bambi’s core unique selling points around quality.

Do you think that is something that’s going to continue, or do you think it will come off the boil?

I feel like back in, say, 2000 or 1999, around the turn of the millennium, it was very price driven. Now, I think I think people are after more information, they want to know about the product. Australians like wool quilts. I don’t think there’s any country in the world that that has such a keen interest and desire for wool, quilts and us. Now what we say to people, here is our product manufactured here, made from Australian wool, fair dinkum Australian wool and we can tell you where it comes from. So, do you want to do what you want to sleep with an Australian manufactured woollen product? Or do you want to get something from overseas? You don’t know who’s made overseas, or how the fill is being processed.

Australian made – it’s a big trust thing. Trust. Trust. Australians do trust Australian manufacturers. Mind you, mind you, there’s is not very many of us left. Things do seem too soon to be looking out for us.

Just on that, as an Australian manufacturer making in Australia, how do you make that work? What is the strategy? I assume there might be a secret source that you don’t want to share, and I totally understand that, but what is the overarching strategy or approach that you need to take if you want to be an Australian manufacturer?

Well, you need some good machinery, good machinery. Years ago, we were helped by Australian governments to get some good machinery. It’s also a big help if you can’t find a niche.

We have aimed for natural products; natural pillow’s, natural mattress protectors. People like that sort of thing – they like sleeping naturally.

So, finding a niche is key. Good machinery, good people. Obviously, you’ve got a really like a family-based culture at Bambi. Do you feel like that’s something that helps an Australian manufacturer to stay alive or even to thrive?

People. Yes, over the last thirty-seven years, there have been some Australian retailers who have been very supportive of Australian manufacturers. Some of them haven’t been very supportive and I must say, the ones that have been more supportive of us are still around.

In terms of pricing, so quality and service are the focus areas for Bambi, what is your opinion on pricing for Bambi products? Is it a higher price, higher perceived value? Is it a lowest possible price while still being able to make a profit? What do you believe is the best approach to pricing in this day and age?

Pricing is always a challenge. Over the last 37 years, my approach has been to continually search for something new, a new a new product, a new idea, something that that you can generate a demand for. Of course, you can get and support a higher price if you’re if you’re continually researching, innovating and bringing out new products, you can ask for a higher price. If you’re stagnating, you’re just fighting for the same market that your competitors – that’s a struggle.

There will always be there will always be the lower end retailers. We try not to get too involved with the lower end market because it’s too difficult. The margins are too thin. There’s too much competition, especially as an Australian manufacturer. It’s almost like if you’re an Australian manufacturer, ergo, you are a premium product that you need to compete in those mid and upper tier price points.

One of the continual challenges that we have is to sell these new products, new ideas. For example, now we’re just releasing temperature regulating products. One of the problems with the bedding is that the beds get too hot. So, we are now releasing some natural products, which will change with the weather, like when the weather’s hot, these products will keep it cooler when it’s cold in winter time, these will keep you warmer so you don’t have to have two quilts. There has been a pretty good response to that.

So that really lends itself to the push the consumers pushing to wanting to know more about their product, more about the source materials in their product. Something that you have spoken to me a lot about over the last 12 months is that as a business, you really need to focus on trying to trade on quality and service. Do you feel like that’s the right model to operate in quality and service?

Training these days is becoming more and more important and that’s something that we’ve concentrated on over the years. For example, if you run training in the stores and the company happens to be a national retailer, those people that you train in the stores, say in New South Wales who have travelled over to Western Australia, they’ve been to Tasmania, they’ve been to Queensland and gradually, gradually over the years, these people have been trained. When they think of a quilt or a mattress protector or pillow, they think the Bambi because this this guy, Peter Whitley, told us all about these products 15 years ago when I was in Fishwick. He looks a lot older now, but he’s still giving the same message. He’s still using the same message. Yep, consistency of message is very, very important. Training is something we were really concentrating on.

Awesome. That really give us the good insight into an Australian manufacturer. From my understanding, business is doing pretty well at the moment?

Yes, business is just fabulous. I have to pinch myself every morning, Cooper, to make sure it’s still going well – we’ve actually put on six new staff recently.

That’s so fantastic. To hear that in the middle of a pandemic that’s unprecedented from an Australian manufacturer is really good news. That’s the definition of the good news that the country is working to try and assess.