While many small businesses have unfortunately succumbed to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Linzner family drew on their 50 years of experience in running their manufacturing business – Abacon Products – to adapt and offer other small-business owners a glimmer of hope with their story of endurance.
Following an apprenticeship in working with wire back in 1949, Jakob Linzner honed his hands-on manufacturing skills. In 1970 Jakob teamed up with his son Jake to take the plunge and launch their own manufacturing business, located in Fitzroy, Melbourne.
Father and son worked tirelessly together in their single-story brick factory sandwiched between a laneway and residential houses. They specialised in manufacturing deep-fryer baskets, trays, racks, animal traps and other wire products, supplying large wholesalers and also selling direct to stores. From the outset they focused on manufacturing premium quality products combined with personal and attentive service to their customers, earning respect and a good reputation within the community.
A decade later, they sought larger premises and relocated to Keilor East, which allowed for expansion into manufacturing chain. The next 20 years saw them outgrow their space and move three more times, further diversifying their range of chain and wire products.
“It became very advantageous to be an Australian manufacturer who can supply high-quality products.”
Jake’s son Michael officially joined the family business in 2010. Learning that diversity of products was integral to keeping afloat, they took the calculated risk of purchasing additional warehouse space and expanded their range to include concrete reinforcing, balustrading, marine fittings, load restraint equipment and general hardware.
As the industry was deemed essential, the family were able to continue operations when COVID-19 struck. “We had to close our direct counter sales to the general public, but were allowed to serve trade and businesses,” Michael explains. “This changed affected approximately 10 per cent of our sales.”
Installing safety screens, implementing contactless trading and adopting PPE and sanitizer, Michael reached out individually to regular customers to reassure them that they would remain open.
With the pandemic seeing an increased shift to online purchasing, the family were fortunate in that they were already in the process of upgrading their outdated e-commerce website. “Our fresh mobile-friendly website was conveniently launched in March of this year, just as the pandemic began taking hold,” Michael says. “The results from this technology upgrade were immediate – April sales increased over 50 per cent on the previous year and online sales quickly went from about two per cent of total sales to around 11 per cent.”
Abacon Products also benefitted from the fact that they manufacture their products here in Australia.
“We find that the majority of people assume that all chain and wire products sold in Australia are made in China,” Michael says. “In April, we heard reports of businesses selling competing products having difficulty importing their regular products from China due to COVID-19 restrictions and shutdowns. It became very advantageous to be an Australian manufacturer who can supply high-quality products in large volumes with a fast turnaround.”
Michael says that COVID-19 has shown how fragile global supply chains can be, and how vital it is for a country to have its own solid base of manufacturing. A few large companies who import their products from China have approached Abacon as they are now looking to bring manufacturing back home to Australia. “We see the real possibility of a renaissance in Australian manufacturing.”
Technology and innovation are not a new thing for the family, forced upon them by a pandemic. Unable to compete with China’s ultra-low wages and state subsidies, the only advantage available to the Linzners has been in-house engineered systems that give them an edge by streamlining production.
“It is time-consuming, but it’s imperative to have systematically analysed every aspect of the manufacturing process and then addressed every area where we could design and implement better technology,” Michael explains. “We regularly review our current technology and systems with the goal of cutting out labour and reducing operating costs.”
This story first appeared in issue 31 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine