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Proud to be productive: Alan and Margot Spalding, owners of Jimmy Possum Arsineh Houspian
Customers stepping into the Jimmy Possum Bendigo store feel more like they are entering a friend’s home – albeit a very trendy one – than a furniture store. That is exactly the feeling the company’s founders, Margot and Alan Spalding, aim to create when shoppers pay them a visit.
As the coffee brews, the sales assistant is telling a customer about the origins of a beautiful Boardwalk dining table. “It’s handmade here in Bendigo, of course,” she says. “From Alan’s personal timber collection. This was the timber from the old boardwalk around Lake Weeroona. Few have been made.”
One can’t help but wonder if the 150-plus Jimmy Possum staff are relatives or friends of the Spaldings, who are known for having their tribe of children and extended family working for the company. It’s not too much of a stretch, according to Margot, a former winner of the Telstra Business Woman of the Year award.
Having such a close-knit team with manufacturing taking place in Bendigo means staff know the brand inside out – down to the individual designers and carpenters that make each piece. In hindsight, Spalding says the trend for furniture manufacturing to be outsourced to China has benefited the Jimmy Possum brand, which has nine stores in Australia.
When the business started in 1995 it sold its recycled timber products through other furniture stores. However, she says Australian retailers deserted local manufacturers in favour of “cheap, Chinese imported product”, forcing the company to open its own stores.
“We are fortunate we had the skills within Jimmy Possum to do both retailing and manufacturing . . . and the knowledge and skills required is very different,” she says.
As a result, its prices are higher than some of the mainstream retailers but it is not a market in which Jimmy Possum is competing, Spalding says.
Although some of the brand’s rattan products and fabrics come from overseas, its furniture, soft furnishings and paintings (which are made by daughter Jessica) are all made in Bendigo. And its slogan: “Designed and created in Bendigo, Victoria, Australia” – is a large part of the brand. “It tells a story,” Spalding says. “We say in our stores “if it can be made in Australia we make it. People like the local angle, even people in Brisbane are fascinated by it.”
Self-described as “make it kind of people”, Spalding says she and her husband like to be hands-on in the business in every sense. It is partially about pride – creating an artistic, quality product – and also keeping skills in Australia. Manufacturing most products locally allows the Spaldings to have absolute control over the finished product; from the sketches and the design process to the type of timber or fabrics used and the stains applied to the furniture. This gives the brand a “strong flavour” and identity, which is one of the business’s greatest selling points, Spalding says.
“Alan and I always liked making things,” she says. “We are a creative pair, we have a very creative family and now we have a very creative team. We like to think at the end of every day we have ben productive . . . we have physically produced something. Would we be as proud if we just imported product? I doubt it.”
Jimmy Possum also has a strong focus on training. In 17 years of operation, the business has had up to 70 apprentices who are expertly trained in everything from furniture making to upholstery, which is a dying trade in Australia.
By manufacturing in Bendigo, Spalding says her company’s ability to adapt to its customer’s needs is far greater. Customised orders are a part of the service the company offers, something big retailers can not replicate.
Quality control is also an important factor, according to Spalding. Quality, she says, is more than just product, it is about recruiting, training and retaining the best people, creating the best designs and having the best service.
“If something goes wrong with any product we are here … the people who built the product are here to fix or replace it,” she says.
“That couldn’t happen if we manufactured in China.”