Clark Rubber has been a fixture in the Australian retail landscape for 75 years, starting as a rubber merchant and, today, a franchise business with 60 stores nationwide. Its 75th anniversary offers a perfect opportunity to talk with CEO Anthony Grice about the next 75 years.
But first, how is the anniversary being marked? "We’re planning a pretty big celebration for our brand across Australia this year," Anthony confirms. "It is about celebrating the legacy, but also setting Clark Rubber’s position in the marketplace into the future. Today, our business has the mission to provide Australians with home and recreation solutions that allow people to enjoy their environment with their family and friends."
Those solutions centre on three key areas: pool, foam and rubber. "In pools, we provide end-to-end maintenance and service solutions, including a mobile service business," Anthony says. "You want to enjoy your pool, not be a slave to having to service and maintain it, or be an expert on water chemistry." That’s important in a country with 1.2 million domestic pools. But pools aren’t the whole market, as Anthony explains. "We also specialise in rubber products, from flooring and recycled rubber products through to matting and foam mattresses, overlays and a number of other foam products."
However, current successes do not make the CEO complacent. "We certainly have competitors head-to-head in the particular categories that we play in," Anthony explains. "For us, it’s about being market leaders around expertise and service. We pride ourselves on giving our customers solutions to problems that they might have, and expertise is front and centre in that."
Last year saw a significant move when, after more than 25 years under the ownership of Chris Malcolm, the business was bought by three Melbourne businessmen
Graeme Goldman, Edward Plowman and John Weste to become part of CRG Operations. "It has been a fantastic turn of events," Anthony shares. "The business performed exceptionally well through COVID-19, demonstrating the strength in our brand. As CEO, I was delighted to work with Chris through that sale process and then welcomed three very astute businessmen to take on the business. We have significant plans for our future."
For us, it’s about being market leaders around expertise and service.
Those ambitious growth plans aim to double store coverage in the next three years, focusing on markets where Clark Rubber can increase its presence. "We’re well-represented in some markets like Victoria, particularly in Melbourne, but there are parts of Australia where we’re under-represented," Anthony explains. "In south-east Queensland, we’ve got a number of stores, but with that part of Australia expanding rapidly, we see plenty of opportunity to grow. We opened a new store in Tweed Heads, northern New South Wales, in December last year, so we also want to grow that part of the country."
Growth plans are not limited to the store network. "We are continuously adding to our product range with plans to add other businesses to our three pillar categories," Anthony says. "We are heavily investing in digital and, with last year being a challenge for everyone through the COVID period, that investment in 2019 really paid dividends."
With 11 Melbourne stores not trading during 2020 lockdowns, the company’s digital presence enabled it to pivot very quickly into providing online services through click and collect and home delivery services. "That kept our Melbourne stores trading, and kept our customers served," Anthony says. "We’re going to continue to develop and invest heavily in digital with a couple of big initiatives coming to fruition in the next couple of months. We’ll be adding dropshipping and marketplace facilities to our online store, which will see our range substantially increase and will provide a great proving ground as we work through the range expansion in our bricks-and-mortar stores."
But it’s not just in consumer retail that the dynamic company is making moves; Anthony says Clark Rubber is also renewing its focus in the business-to-business market. "I think there’s a big opportunity for us with B2B, not only at a local level but taking on more coordinated tenders at a national level, working with big business as well as government, particularly in the areas where we specialise," he shares.
The company is also planning to develop its own supply chain. "A business of our size needs its own independent supply chain to import directly from overseas markets," Anthony explains. "That will be quite transformational for the business and allow us the scope to participate efficiently and effectively in those big B2B contracts."
As with many businesses navigating COVID-19 in the past year, Anthony says there’s "no question" about whether the company’s supply and demand have been affected. Thankfully, for Clark Rubber, it experienced a mostly positive shift. "We’ve been working very closely with our suppliers, particularly out of North America, on the trends that they were seeing through their summer," he says. "They have seen a summer like no other, so we knew we were also in for a very big season, which it was. We’re now getting the message out that pools were the hot commodity for the year. We couldn’t keep up with demand and we’re expecting that demand to stay in place for the coming season."
We’ve really embraced a learning culture, something that I’m very proud of.
Another interesting development for Clark Rubber during the pandemic was a shift to manufacturing personal protective equipment. "We saw that there was an opportunity for our business to pivot into making face shields; there was a real lack of PPE fit for purpose, and so we started making face shields for a number of hospitals and healthcare providers. We had the products that actually make the shields and were pleased to help out."
A new addition to the business has been a partnership with Clark Rubber’s foam supplier, Dunlop Foams, who are part of the Australian Comfort Group and Warwick Fabrics, to establish a fully customised covering service for our customers. "Whether that be cushions for home or your luxury yacht or your caravan, you name it, we can produce it at a very high quality," Anthony says.
With previous posts at Woolworths, Toys R Us and Babies R Us, Anthony has a rich history across all facets of retailing. "I’m a retailer through and through," he says. "I’ve been at Clark Rubber for six years now, two of those I’ve been CEO. Prior to this appointment, I was the General Manager of Merchandise, which held me in great stead to take on the CEO role."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Anthony believes his greatest achievement has been "navigating the business through COVID-19". "We’ve been through a pretty tumultuous period over the past year and our business, fortunately, is in a very strong position," he says. "I take great pride in the fact that we were able to navigate it and steer the ship through those choppy waters in a safe fashion.
"The business today is very much focused on its digital appearance, the way in which we act and interact with customers. The business is performing strongly. We’ve really embraced a learning culture, something that I’m very proud of, and we’ve further developed the culture in the business, our vision and values."
Looking at that culture, possession of a strong brand has been very valuable for Clark Rubber and, in its 75th year, a proud legacy. On top of that, valuing customers, franchisees, people walking into the stores and visitors to digital channels is very important. That service ethic is natural to the team.
The other hot topic of the day is sustainability and, again, Anthony and Clark Rubber are taking it seriously. "A significant amount of rubber that we sell is recycled," he points out. One example of this is the recycled rubber tiles that the company has developed using 100 per cent recycled car tyres.
In bolstering its learning and growth initiatives, Clark Rubber plans to build on an already strong relationship with the Swimming Pool and Spa Association (SPASA) through the development of an apprenticeship program in spa and swimming pool maintenance. This program feeds into a new division, Clark Pools and Spas, launched at the beginning of 2020, which will be built on small franchises starting as small as one person and one van.
"It’s an independent van operator that specialises in that in-home or in-backyard pool and spa service in their own territory, not attached to a store," Anthony explains. "We’ve had a fantastic response and are in the process of signing a number of new franchisees in that space, with the plan to commence a three-week training program that we’ve developed in partnership with SPASA."
With 75 successful years already notched up for Clark Rubber, the future looks even more exciting.