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The Rise of Ronstan - It started with a broach

by Helen Hopcroft on 10 Nov 2010
A Cats a flying Ronstan htttp://www.ronstan.com.au
On of the giants on the world stage in marine fittings is Australian company Ronstan. The genesis of the company dates back to an event that happened nearly 60 years ago when a spectacular broach cost the race leader the 12 Square Metre 1951 Victorian Championships.

Lindsay Gardiner was leading when he rounded the final windward mark and set the spinnaker. There was a sudden bang as the bronze rudder pintles snapped, the boat broached, quickly filled with water then over turned. Lindsay had the indignity of watching from the water as the rest of the fleet sailed past him.

It was one of those grey Melbourne days with a freezing wind howling in from the west. A dispirited Lindsay was towed back to shore. He was cold, dripping and very ‘cheesed’ off.

Stan LeNepveu was on the beach watching the race, taking one look at Lindsay’s mournful countenance he offered to help. ‘I’ll make you some stainless steel pintles’ he said, ‘they won’t crystallise and snap like bronze.’

Stan was a toolmaker and a member of the Black Rock Yacht Club. A keen sailor, he would make stainless steel fittings for other club members and these included a boat builder called Ron Allatt.

Ron had used his good mate Stan’s garage to build a 20-foot clinker style fishing vessel for Ron’s father. This project went so well that as a hobby, they started building boats together and fitting them out with the stainless steel fittings.

Both men raced competitively at a State and National Championship level and before long, other sailors started to notice the quality of the boats they were building and racing and winning. Defeat makes sailors very observant; when you get beaten by another boat, you always notice exactly what sort of advantages it has.

The hobby started to become a serious commercial venture and in 1951 they made the formal decision to go into business together. They purchased a block of land at Highett for 450 pounds and set about constructing a boat building factory.

[Sorry, this content could not be displayed]They poured the concrete foundations themselves using a hired concrete mixer and a bricklayer built the walls while Ron and Stan made the wooden roof trusses. Finally they nailed on the asbestos roof. In 1953 they finished the factory and registered the name Ronstan Marine Equipment Pty Ltd. A legend was born.

The factory facilities were primitive. The toilet was in a small tin shed that stunk and tended to overflow, the dirt road leading out to the factory was pockmarked with water-filled potholes and a bitter Melbourne wind would howl through the building.

The early years of business were extremely tough for both men. They worked incredibly long hours as until the business could generate enough income to support them and Stan continued his day job as a toolmaker. At the end of each week he would divide his salary in half and give half to Ron.

The hard work began to pay off, as more and more orders were received. The quality of their work and their attention to detail contributed to their growing reputation and they expanded the size of their factory and started taking orders for larger boats.

Their fittings became increasingly popular. Everything was hand made, but over time they started building machines to help with construction. Each time they brought a costly new piece of equipment it was a decision that they agonised over.

In the 1960’s a downturn in the economy caused a sharp decrease in production boat sales. Things became so grim that Ron and Stan considered getting out of the marine industry altogether. Incredibly, they thought about trying farming.

They made the hard decisions necessary to keep the business alive. They sold their wood working equipment and stopped nearly all boat construction, deciding to concentrate on production of the stainless steel hardware. They gambled on a future in mass manufactured boat fittings.

In the late 1960’s Ronstan made their first export sales to a Canadian airline pilot, Don Findlay, who took some fittings home with him in the cockpit of his DC-8 jet.

Don had a part time yacht hardware business. At that time, only cast brass and bronze shackles were available in the United States so Don was keen to see whether the innovative stainless steel fittings would sell. He quickly sold the stock and Ronstan’s first international distribution deal with Findlay Imports in Vancouver was signed.

This distribution deal quickly led to further international expansion. In 1966 the company participated in an Australian Trade Commission display in Los Angeles, which generated bulk orders for Ronstan and helped boost the company’s global profile.

Throughout the 1970’s the company continued to expand. Stan continued to design and develop new machines and tools, and Ron was responsible for product control. By 1977 Ronstan was exporting to 29 countries.

In 1977 Ron and Stan sold the business to ARC Industries. They had been in business for 26 years together and had built a hobby business started in Stan’s garage, into a thriving international company.

A photo taken about this time shows two older men, one holding a fitting and the other an oily rag. They are wearing heavy rimmed glasses and the wide collared shirts of the era. They look quietly happy, the photo showing their ‘clever hands’.

Ronstan continued to expand through the 1980’s and the company changed ownership a number of times. Ronstan became increasingly involved in the sponsorship of sailing events and in 1983 the company fitted out the America’s Cup winner Australia II.

The 1990’s were a time of expansion into non marine industries; the company started supplying stainless steel rigging components to the construction and architectural industries. The company’s first architectural project was the façade of the Member’s Stand at Caulfield Racecourse and one of their later projects included supplying architectural products to the Sydney Olympics.

The company also enjoyed experienced success on the water at the Olympics by supplying equipment to a number of the medal winning boats.

In 1991 the company was purchased by an Australian syndicate, which included current CEO Alistair Murray. Chemring, a UK listed company completed their purchase in 1995 but in 1999 the Ronstan management team brought the company from Chemring.

The 16 member team was chaired by Michael Hanlon. They said that it was ‘a decision driven by our desire to control our own destiny and our belief in the potential of the business.’

Effectively this means that Ronstan is owned by people who work in the business. By 2003 the company was exporting its products to 45 countries.

Ronstan attributes its success to lasting relationships with international distributors and staff. Long term relationships in a commercial context build loyalty and product knowledge and on a personal level they build friendships. A number of Ronstan’s distributor relationships have lasted twenty years or more. In a time of casual labour and short term contracts, the list of long term employees is admirable.

Ronstan is now one of the top three sailboat hardware companies in the world. Sail-world recently interviewed CEO Alistair Murray and he spoke about the company’s desire to increase participation in the sport.

‘I am an ISAF ambassador and they have a program called Connect to Sailing which is about grass root participation. We will be forming an ISAF national taskforce here in Australia whose task will be the whole connect to sailing thing. It is all about getting more people into the sport. It is something that I am very passionate about.’

Alistair stresses the importance of getting a wide range of people interested in sailing. His goal is to build sailing in the countries of Asia, Africa and South America and to generate more interest in the sport among teenagers and women. Although he loves elite level sailing, he is also committed to making sailing an inclusive and accessible sport.

For more information see www.sailing.org/connecttosailing

As well as supporting sailing programs, Ronstan continues it’s tradition of innovative product development.

Alistair’s enthusiasm for the company’s current and future product development is clear. ‘We are currently in the middle of our biggest ever product development program. We will let our competitors see what it is when it comes out. It is a real step forward and has some very innovative features. We will be releasing it early next year. It will be the most important thing we have done in a long time.’

‘We use plastics more and more when we can. It is very strong. The chase for lightweight, corrosion resistant, high strength, attractive materials is what really matters with yacht fittings. We are always after that.’

Ronstan believes that much of its success in product design is the result of a close relationship with elite sailing competitors. The demands of producing innovative, exceptional quality hardware for extreme racing conditions have lead to technical advances. These technical advances in turn drive improvements in mass manufactured products.

Alistair stresses the importance of sponsorship relationships to the company. ‘We associate ourselves with extreme sailing, high tech sailing, because we want to be known as a high quality, technical product. We’ve sponsored people like the Yellow Pages Endeavour, we sponsored Australia II, and we have a relationship with the Australian Sailing Team…We want to be associated with the opinion leaders, young people and the champions….We want to support them and they want to support us.’

Ronstan continues its proud tradition of building both innovative products and strong relationships with people. The future appears to be in good hands.









Fast forward to November 2010 Ron and Stan were on hand for the opening of the multi-million dollar new Ronstan factory in Park Way Victoria... but that is another story.....









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