From backyard to big-time: a manufacturer's story
For Garry Long, Managing Director of ABGAL Liners and Covers, business is personal. Long has been involved in the pool industry for virtually his whole life, helping the company grow from a backyard family business to Australasia’s largest manufacturer of pool liners and covers. He talked to Pool+Spa about his journey and inspirations.
Garry Long has been taking his work home since he was a child. After purchasing their first above-ground pool in 1969, his parents went on to sell the product from their Melbourne backyard, dispensing pool chemicals from the garage. Long started out helping with the business at home, then began working in the liner factory for a dollar an hour during school holidays. In 1976, the family relocated to Brisbane and founded the ABGAL business, with Long officially joining the company after completing school in 1978.
Despite its humble origins, the company has embraced cutting-edge technology to improve its productivity, profitability and product quality. Long implemented the company’s first computer accounting system in 1984, followed by a computer for word processing in 1987. He then commissioned a program that calculated a cutting plan for vinyl pool liners. This transformed the business: it improved efficiency, reduced wastage and sped up the production process.
The next step was to automate the cutting process. In 1988, Long picked up a magazine featuring an America’s Cup yacht on the cover. Inside, an article profiled a Sydney-based company that used new laser-cutting technology to accurately cut the complex, highly technical sails for these racing yachts.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is what we need. We’ve got the design front end of our software program, but we’re still using a pair of scissors to cut it all to shape’,” Long recalled.
Long researched the technology and by 1990, ABGAL installed its first robotic cutting machine to cut pool liners.
“It meant that we could cut the panels of the liners out to shape automatically, super accurately, very quickly and reduce a lot more wastage of material as well. That was the really big game changer for us, because it eliminated errors, saved a lot of raw material because we could nest all the pieces together and [find] the best fit to minimise wastage, and it was much faster than doing it all by hand,” he said.
Not content to rest on his laurels, in 1993 Long developed a laser measurement system that accurately measures the complex curves and angles in concrete and fibreglass pools to enable them to be renovated with a vinyl finish. This was a world first for the pool industry, and the CAD process was featured in Multi-CAD magazine in 1994.
Long is constantly looking for the next great invention that will further improve the business, but rather than mimicking what the pool industry is doing, he looks to other industries for ideas.
“One thing that really changed how I looked at things was a best-practice tour of the US where I went to Federal Express and spent a couple of days learning how they ran their business. One of the things I learnt from them was that if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. It’s important to have steps in place to measure how you’re going now so that you can make improvements and see those improvements in the future,” he said.
Inspired by the experience, Long added time stamps into the company’s systems to measure each step of the process, from order through to delivery.
“By focusing on setting targets and focusing on all those time stamps, we were able to improve our productivity, but also improve our customer service and know exactly what was going on in our business, where the bottlenecks were, so we knew where to focus to increase our output,” he said.
Competing with cheap manufacturing labour from Asia has been challenging. While an Australian company couldn’t compete on price, by investing in technology, ABGAL has carved out a niche in high-quality, custom-made products with a swift turnaround — a niche that has seen the company weather the flood of cheap imports.
“I think you’ve always got to be improving; you can’t sit still. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards, and so you need to look for opportunities. Look for new markets. Don’t be frightened to invest in a good idea and follow it through,” Long said.
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