An interview with Gavin Hill, CEO of Garth

An interview with Gavin Hill, CEO of Garth
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Gavin Hill is Garth’s Australian CEO. He has more than three decades of experience in his family business of designing and producing outdoor cooking products. Garth manufactured the first gas barbecues in the Australian market more than 40 years ago and this year it celebrates half a century of operations. Here Gavin talks about the origins of the business, how things have changed over the last 50 years and what the future holds for the industry.

Q: Garth was first set up in Melbourne in 1971, manufacturing domestic heating products. Why did your family make the decision to create a new business, and what were the early years like for trade?

A: My dad was a sheet metal worker for a company in Northcote, Melbourne, manufacturing electrical switchboards. In those days the company got a lot of business, and my dad watched his bosses turn down work because they already had too much. He seized the opportunity and asked the company if they would pass on the customers they were unable to take on, and allow my dad to do the work in his spare time. They agreed, and my dad and a couple of his cousins formed Garth (derived from the first letters of G after George my dad, Alan and Ron), leasing a small factory and some equipment from a friend, including a spot welder and a small guillotine. In the end Alan and Ron got cold feet and decided to stay where they were, but dad opted to ‘bite the bullet’ by leaving his job with the company and devoting himself full-time to the fledgling business.

Times were hard and I remember my parents struggling to make ends meet. With two children to bring up, they were forced to take out a second mortgage on their house. With the support of my mum who did the book-keeping and delivered the goods, the two of them managed to slowly grow Garth, and over the next few years they employed more people, borrowed money from my mum’s dad to purchase a brake press, and moved into larger premises. Their success was a real testament to commitment and determination.

Q: In 1980, Garth made some of the first gas barbecues in Australia for Rinnai. Why did your family decide to diversify, and how were the products first received?

A: In the early years, Garth had a customer called Rinnai, a Japanese company that manufactured gas appliances. At the time Rinnai made gas heaters, mostly for the home, and consequently their sales were concentrated during the colder winter months. In an attempt to level out sales throughout the year, Rinnai asked my dad for a summer product, and he suggested a gas barbecue.

Once designed and built, sales for the gas barbecue rocketed. In the first-year we produced 500 units. In the second- and third-years we produced 2,000 and 12,000 units respectively. I remember our small factory being crammed with barbecues. To have the space to work we first needed to move the barbecues outside along the street, always poised to drag a tarpaulin over the products should it start to rain!

The following year we were asked to produce 60,000 units, at which point dad had to choose between relocating to a bigger factory or changing the way the business operated. He chose the latter, getting another factory to make the barbecues while we focused on making the trolleys on which the barbecues sat.

At the time barbecue trolleys were made of timber. To compete with the huge Japanese demand for timber we had to estimate, a year in advance, how much timber we might need. At that time, since we were sheet metal manufacturers, it dawned on me that barbecue trolleys could instead be made of steel, negating some of the issues we had with the supply of timber. The first customer we approached laughed at the idea, so we approached the manager of a wholesale division who took the concept to one of his biggest customers, who ordered 1,000 units straight off. In no time at all word spread and we were famous for our steel barbecue trolleys.

Q: Over the last 50 years, Garth has gone from strength to strength in the outdoor cooking sector, creating innovative new features and products, and expanding into new geographical regions. What do you think is special about Garth that has resulted in it being so successful?

The people that make up Garth are its most important asset; without the team we couldn’t do the job. Carrying on with the mindset first adopted by my dad, I would also say that determination and having faith in our ideas are also critical factors – traits which are held by many members of our current team.

As a relatively small business we are less corporate and nimbler; our size and attitude mean we can react quickly to market trends, sometimes working over the weekend to get a sample ready in time, and not getting bogged down with the red tape plagued by bigger corporations.

Our global presence also gives us a competitive edge. Garth is unusual in this industry to have offices in different regions and sales in more than 30 countries. Our international network gives us a global reach and insight that is lacking in many of our competitors.

Q: The marketplace is continually evolving, and change is the only constant. If Garth is to continue to succeed as a global player, how must it adapt its business practices?

The global business environment is changing. The people who used to manufacture the goods for us are now much smarter and can imitate and improve other products immeasurably. These days, to keep ahead, we must continually innovate our products, our manufacturing processes and the way we do business.

When we made our first gas barbecue in 1980, Garth didn’t so much as change a screw in the following ten years of production. It is no longer possible to operate in that way; today fashions constantly change and high expectations for the next great design are omnipresent. We need to keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible in everything we do, whilst not losing perspective on what is necessary and important to the average consumer. Although some people may disagree, I have a blue-tooth washing machine in my kitchen and I am non-the-wiser as to why anyone would need it to be blue-tooth!

Q: Garth has created market-leading products including barbecues, grills, ovens, smokers, complete outdoor kitchens, cooking accessories and utensils, rubs and sauces, fuels and smoker chips. How do you see outdoor cooking evolving in the future? What will people be putting in their own backyards?

Covid-19 has shaped the way we want to live. Many of us who live in city-centre flats now seek a life that is more spacious and closer to nature. Equally, lots of us who used to spend hours each day commuting, now have the privilege of spending at least some of the time working from home. This new work-life balance buys us the time to cook for our friends and family on the weekdays as well as the weekends. Home-cooking has made a huge resurgence, and we have devoted our time to acquire the necessary skills to do it properly.

With this shift in lifestyle come opportunities for the sector. More people want to cook, including outside, and this type of cooking can often be slower and more deliberate. For example, when working from home it is possible for you to feed the smoker between meetings and to prepare a delicious mid-week feast for friends and family!

At Garth we will strive to adapt our products to suit the needs of the market and make sure our customers get what they want. If we can collectively put Covid-19 to bed, boarders will open, and people may well return to frequent travel and eating out. However, I think the sea change has happened, and I have no doubt that people will return to what they love best – eating outside with friends and family, on a balcony or terrace, or in a backyard or garden.

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