This month, Business Minds talks to Andrew Ross of Bluey Merino. Bluey Merino manufactures a range of Australian made active and outdoor apparel, sourcing their wool directly from selected growers in New England and Tasmania. Bluey Merino is in the process of purchasing an industrial block at the Armidale Airport Precinct to establish an advanced manufacturing facility.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Bluey Merino is a partnership with my wife Marita, who is also a Director of the company. Together, we have three children and live in the Southern Highlands of NSW. We launched Bluey Merino seven years ago as a part-time enterprise, essentially testing the waters to see if we could succeed in the Australian market. We source certified ethical merino wool direct from the farm and manufacture close to the source of production. Our product has significant export potential.
What led you to start Bluey Merino?
My father and stepmother live in Guyra, supporting and inspiring me down this path. I’ve worked in banking, technology and supply chain logistics, working with some of Australia’s largest companies. I reinvented myself every four or five years, giving me a breadth of experience based on technology and innovation. Wool production has been a source of income for the family since 1865. When I looked at the wool supply chain, there were lots of questions, particularly around provenance and why we couldn’t add value here in Australia.
It’s a great name …
The jolly swagman’s swag included a blue woollen blanket; it’s iconic and closely linked to Australia’s heritage. That fits with our ethos at Bluey Merino; our clothes are everyday wear, more about function than fashion.
Bluey Merino is known for its technology innovation; please explain.
We are investing in the future of design and use of high-tech production equipment for our garments. Our future is in smart textile development, where the garment becomes the sensor, able to sense specific body parameters and hopefully interact with the environment — useful, for example, in aged care, sports or defence forces.
We’re at the front of a global trend, incorporating merino wool in smart textiles – which is currently unheard of. And, we’re solving a number of problems like, how do you create a fabric that is conductive in nature, and how do you connect that fabric to technology?
We’ve partnered with the University of Wollongong, Intelligent Polymer Research Institute and are trialling our first garment which integrates with waterproof Near Field Communications (NFC tags), connecting the consumer to our product by waving their phone over the garment.
NFC technology allows us to build in anti-counterfeiting measures; thereby, in the first instance, building trust. The second one builds out traceability and provenance from the source to the garment. We pioneered this in Australia, and it’s
Why is traceability important?
Consumers around the world want to know where their fibre and food comes from and how it’s being produced. We’ve done this for five years, producing single source garments traceable back to the farm of origin. For example, many of our garments are created solely from Ed and Karen Bloomfield’s merino wool enterprise in Walcha, NSW. Single source is rarely heard of.
Our merino wool is grown in either New England or Tasmania. I grew up in Tamworth, and the business was founded from the sheep yards of our family farm at Guyra. I’ve subsequently built long-term relationships with growers within the region. Our wool is sourced directly from the grower at shearing, so we’ve built credibility with growers in New England. Along with the Armidale Airport Precinct development and the planned investment in the region, Armidale just made sense to us.
We will build in stages. Firstly, we will design and build the facility to operate our e-commerce business from, allowing us to import advanced manufacturing equipment and establish production lines over time. Then we will establish a co-working facility, where like-minded businesses focused on sustainability will work alongside us.
We are focused on sustainable, ethical sourcing, making locally, and hoping to empower and encourage lots of others on this journey. We have already started to attract potential tenants.
We started traceability when no one was doing it, and we’re now adding layers of technology to ensure we remain ahead of the game. Our Armidale facility will eventually have a capacity to produce up to 100,000 garments per year, as long as we have a market which is prepared to contract us – that is most likely not in Australia. But, our innovation and manufacturing home will be here, where it should be.
What was your biggest challenge?
There was no one to guide us or teach us in this space in Australia. We evolved through trial and error and learning from other’s mistakes.
Any advice for a business just starting out?
They need to be clear on where they want to go and be prepared to back themselves when others won’t. Then they need to have the resilience to keep at it because it will take longer than they expect.
What inspires you?
Innovative Australians who are prepared to chase their dreams and goals, but especially those who live in regional Australia, where there seems to be so much more of a challenge.