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Australian to the bootstraps
R.M.Williams is back in Australian hands following its purchase by Andrew and Nicola Forrest’s private investment group, Tattarang.
Story: Mark Muller
There’s always been something archetypally Australian about R.M.Williams – whether it’s the famous one-piece-of-leather boots, the classic 15-ounce moleskins, the meticulous craftsmanship of the thousands of highly skilled people who have spent their working lives making these fine products, or the poignant and inspiring story of company founder Reginald Murray Williams himself.
A fresh chapter in the story of this great Australian business has now begun with its recent purchase by Andrew and Nicola Forrest. The Forrests, well-known for establishing mining giant Fortescue Metals Group and for the far-reaching philanthropic endeavours of their Minderoo Foundation, are delighted to be the new custodians of the iconic outfitter, parent company to OUTBACK magazine.
'We’re quite emotional about it,' Andrew says. 'We’ve given each other boots since a very early age for many generations in my family and my kids prize their first pair of R.M.Williams boots. It always kind of rankled a bit that this great Australian RM Williams kicked off this fantastic organisation that employs so many people and that it then had to go to overseas hands to keep on growing. I’m just so glad it’s now back and I’d have to say the family has a big solid lump in its throat about returning R.M.Williams back to Australia.'
R.M.Williams, established in the South Australian outback by Reg Williams in 1932, was sold to Tattarang by L Catterton – the largest consumer-focused private equity firm in the world. It had been bought outright in 2014 by L Catterton antecedent L Capital (backed by the international LVMH group) in conjunction with minority stakeholders IFM Investors (owned by 30 Australian not-for-profit pension funds) and actor Hugh Jackman. Previously, R.M.Williams was owned by RM’s dear friend Ken Cowley, who had seen the business thrive under his family’s committed stewardship, which began in 1993. Tattarang itself is a diverse operation, with significant investments in the pastoral sector, aquaculture, renewable energy, mining, hospitality, sport, marine maintenance and more.
The Forrests are grateful for the guidance and commitment afforded R.M.Williams by L Catterton, which invested millions of dollars in production capability and brand evolution, and encouraged the company’s expansion into new markets.
'The R.M.Williams brand is the strongest it has ever been in its 88-year history,' says CEO Raju Vuppalapati, who took over the reins from Ken Cowley’s chief executive, Hamish Turner. 'Our 2019 decision to invest in the second boot-line and recruiting and training 100 additional employees in our Adelaide workshop, was an important milestone to enable us to continue the growth momentum,' Raju says.
'We have an incredible team here at R.M.Williams that personifies undeniable character – grit, tenacity and that pioneering spirit that drives mateship and innovation. 2020 has seen a fair share of challenges for family, friends, and businesses across the world. R.M.Williams continues to demonstrate the strength and resilience of the brand and our team.'
Andrew and Nicola Forrest are both Officers of the Order of Australia, and Andrew last year completed a PhD in marine ecology at the University of Western Australia. Both grew up in the bush – Andrew on his family’s Minderoo Station in the Pilbara of WA, and Nicola on a property in the Central West of NSW.
'I was about 15 or 16 when I first thought, "Look, I’d just love to own a pair of RMs",' Andrew says. 'I saved up about, I think, $80 and I told Mum and Dad proudly that if they’d lend me a couple of shekels then I’d buy my own boots. They said, "Don’t be silly son, just concentrate on school", but lo and behold, Christmas that year I received a pair of R.M.Williams boots. I was completely stoked. I’ve had those boots now ever since. They’ve actually got a bit of a barbwire scar cutting through ’em – I went a bit close to a fence and the boot saved both the horse and my foot and, y’know, now I wear them at treasured family occasions. They’re almost as old as I am – as old as Methuselah – but they’re going strong, like me!'
Similarly, Nicola feels a deep affinity with the brand. 'Well, my father always wore R.M.Williams boots,' she says. 'Growing up on a farm, people had workboots and they have their dress boots, and always the R.M.Williams were the dress boots, and always looked after beautifully. Whereas for us kids, if we ended up with a pair of R.M.Williams we were lucky because they were very special, but by the time I got them they were still looked after and polished, so they were your good boots.'
The Forrest family is looking forward to supporting the continued growth of R.M.Williams, and ensuring the livelihoods of their new employees. 'I love the fact that over 800 Australians are employed by R.M.Williams making this fantastic product that we can wear and be proud of wherever we go in our lives,' Andrew says. 'We just want to build on that, we want to build on that legacy, we want to build on that quality … I just want to see this organisation grow and grow with Australian craftsmanship, Australian quality, Australian reputation, and back in Australian hands.'
Nicola reinforces this sentiment. 'I think for our family to bring R.M.Williams back into being an Australian-owned company is a bit like buying back the family farm,' she says. 'I think it’s such a great Australian company: high-quality products, beautiful boots that people wear in the country and the city – you can wear them anywhere – and to know that it was started by a great Australian, that it’s now back in Australian hands, I think it’s just a fantastic story that we’re really proud to be connected with.'
Kieran Tonks stitches the sole onto a Craftsman boot, one of more than 80 hand-held processes that go into every boot made in R.M.Williams’ Adelaide workshop.
This story is from Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2021 Issue #134