Apart from a short stint selling shirts, Bob Fletcher has spent his entire working life in the flooring industry. Early next year he turns 76 but remains busy with the family business, Designer Flake. His philosophy now is, “Work smarter, not harder.”
Bob Fletcher was born in 1945 in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell. His father was a butcher and his mother kept busy with home duties. It was a typical post-war family when, as Bob says, “The soldiers came home to have war babies.” Families had anywhere between four and twelve children back then. Bob had one sister and three brothers. Other famous personalities born that year included Holden racing legend Peter Brock; boxer Johnny Famechon and AFL legend Alex Jesualenko.
Bob went to Jordanville State School and followed this at Syndal Technical School. Back then you chose either a high school or technical school, depending on what you thought you wanted to do for the rest of your life. Of course, the technical schools are all gone now, and this has led to a shortage of people going into the trades, to the detriment of most industries…but that’s another story. Bob tells us, “I liked working with my hands; woodwork; sheet metal, that sort of thing.”
Bob has been active all his life and at school played AFL football until as he says, “I was knocked out for about ten hours, so I had to give that up.” He caddied for a while but was so short, “The golf bag would be dragging on the ground.” He sold food at the MCG during AFL match days and at the Olympic Games in 1956 sold programmes to the patrons lucky enough to have tickets. Bob never got inside the ground. He was both busy and resourceful, so much that he was one of very few people able to pay cash for his first car, a green FJ Holden, an ex-taxi still with a handrail across the back of the front seats.
Bob left school at fourteen and a half, typical for the time when you just went out and got a job. Bob landed a position with a haberdashery selling shirts. He said, “I grabbed any job I could and ended up getting a train into the city every day wearing a suit and tie. I still wanted to work with my hands so one day I went to the local employment centre and asked if there was a job where I could have tools in my hands, so they sent me to a floor sanding company. The boss was concerned I couldn’t handle the equipment, being a small fellow but I assured him there would be no problem.”
And so, over the next four years Bob worked first for a boss, then a second company where he became foreman after only six months. He learned everything, first about parquetry floors and over the next few years, every other type of flooring you could imagine. He laid some big vinyl jobs in hospitals and later, went into epoxy floors. During this time, he also got married to his wife Laraine who he married at twenty years of age. They are still happily married after all these years.
In 1966 and still only 22 years old, Bob started Fletcher Floors that he operated up until 1994, concentrating on more of the commercial markets with vinyl, timber flooring and epoxy coatings. It was during this period that Laraine and Bob moved to Queensland, taking their business with them. The hard work continued and Bob recalls, “I had two jobs back then, Fletcher Floors and some other jobs. I would come home from work and then leave for work again.” There was a time when he had three jobs and Bob recalls working as a general cleaner in a Surfers Paradise Arcade at three in the morning! You could say he’s given all he had and at one time in the recession of the early 1980’s Bob even had to sell their home.
One of the things Bob was doing at the time was laying epoxy floors with ‘paint flakes’ from China or the USA. This was a technology that had been around since the 1940’s. After a few years working with the product he thought he could make it in Australia and so, Designer Flake was formed. Bob can be credited with making Epoxy Seamless Flake Flooring popular in Australia. It wasn’t easy because of the labour advantages the importers had in China and Mexico, but Bob kept at it, even making his own equipment to produce the flake product.
Designer Flake is the biggest supplier in Australia, and they produce about a third of the product laid here. They have a wide range of colours, some of which overseas competitors have tried to copy unsuccessfully. Bob remarks on their marble tones and concrete stone products as examples of their expertise in this product. Bob still works in the factory and on new products and equipment that he still often repairs himself. In their 2,000m2 premises at Yatala mid-way between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, fifteen people contribute to the success of the company, ten of these family members including his wife, Laraine and Warren, their son.
With his unique designer product Bob had no one to turn to for advice and learned the business by doing everything himself. He said, “I had to do everything on a shoestring. I couldn’t afford colour or marketing consultants. The business told me what I needed to do; to grow, I learnt mostly from experience.” Designer Flake is widely commended for their service. Bob says, “Service is a big part of our success.” You won’t often get an email from Bob; he prefers old-school methods like a phone call where he can get to understand what you really mean and how you feel. It’s a personal touch his customers appreciate.
Bob isn’t thinking much about retiring and even when the day finally comes, he “Can always come in and man the phones if someone is away.” He used to follow South Melbourne in the AFL when they lived in Melbourne but now follows any sports team as long as it’s a Queensland team. He calls himself, “A real Queenslander now.” Like his parents, Bob and Laraine have five children and a number of grandchildren. Bob is looking forward to spending more time with the family. His business is built on family and they are possibly the most important part of his life.
Laraine and Bob now live on a few acres where they have started growing vegetables for their extended family. They like caravanning and get away as often as they can. They’re not grey nomads, they will only be gone a week or two and sometimes just the weekend. You will often find them caravanning at Hervey Bay, a location Bob and Laraine particularly enjoy. Bob is remembered as a good father and a hard worker but also as a bit of a practical joker as well. These days though he works smarter, not harder, but after 60 years is still as much a part of the flooring industry as anyone.