Welcome to this issue’s Icon. John Millard from the aptly-named Icon Carpets out of Perth, Western Australia delves into his career in the flooring business. We take a look back at John’s early days in the industry and look at his life early-on and into the present-day and profile Icon Carpets: a powerhouse company that has covered floors from Perth to Melbourne and beyond…
Welcome to ICONS. As you are this issue’s ICON, in some detail what do you feel have been the career highlights for you looking back?
Whoah! Big question. My immediate reaction is that the outstanding highlight is the fabulous people I have met and the lasting relationships that have evolved.
In practical terms I guess the dominating highlight which influenced the rest of my career was the 3 years I spent in the UK working for Crossley Carpets. I was fortunate, as a 23 year old Aussie, to be offered the opportunity to develop the Crossley commercial business throughout the country. Luckily for me, this coincided with the government deciding, due to lack of hotel accommodation, to provide subsidies to hotel developers to build new properties. This policy was so successful that hotels started popping up everywhere and carpet salesmen with production capacity were in great demand! Specifiers would beg you to come and see them!
Crossley Carpets were the leading weavers of carpet at the time and the tufted market was a fledgling business, though our associated company, Kosset, were making ground in this area. Crossley were a truly vertical operation with spinning, dyeing, Wilton weaving, Axminster weaving, Karaloc and ribbed bonded products. It had an outstanding team of designers, both in the Head Office in Halifax and London. A wonderful place to learn the industry from hugely experienced sales and production people.
Tell us about your long association with Icon Carpets in WA, and how long have you been in the flooring business?
I established Icon Carpets in 2004, so a relative recent era of my career. I started in the flooring business in 1964. Having part completed an Applied Chemistry Diploma, I started working in a Colour Film Processing Laboratory (remember colour film?). I hated it, and left after a year to go surfing.
When my money ran out, I applied for a job as a Cadet Sales Trainee with Marley Reliance Industries – a leading importer of vinyl tiles and sheet flooring at the time with a strong commercial focus. About 12 months on, Marley decided to pull out of the commercial market themselves and leave it to the contractor base.
As a result, I joined J & FL Bramwell in their business at Chapel Street Prahran. It subsequently moved to Glenferrie Road Malvern and was the leading company at the time in the floorcovering business. I learnt a lot from Jack & Frank and they were most supportive and influential in my business thinking.
My fascination for motor sport in general and Formula 1 in particular, triggered the move to London in 1969. Hence the Crossley experience.
Come 1972, I returned to Australia and re-joined the Bramwell organisation.
Several years on, after a failed attempt at my own business and some time with Frank Ricco Carpets, I returned to the Bramwell group, which had now been purchased by Electrolux. Along with other acquisitions, this became the Electrolux Carpet Group around the middle 80’s. We moved to South Yarra and focussed on the commercial market with a high degree of success including the original installation of the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne and early marketing of the new generation of carpet tiles.
This time was a particularly fruitful era for the industry and there were strong associations and relationships developed, some through necessity in combating union pressure, others in response to outstanding marketing programs from the likes of DuPont and Feltex Modular.
In the late 80’s Electrolux decided to focus on their electrical appliance business and withdraw from the carpet market. The carpet management group were offered the business and the result was Carrington Carpets.
Unfortunately, the financial difficulties of the early 90’s led to a string of bad debts from collapsed builders and my part of Carrington went down the gurgler. It was not a pleasant situation.
In 1994, a fortuitous lunch with an old mate, Emmett Barrett, saw me on my way to Perth. A whole new era of my life began – new city, new wife, a great new organisation to work with. That all became a starting point for a new existence which ended with the closure of Barretts Carpets a few years later. Further opportunities arose with a consulting role followed by the WA agency for a leading Australian woven carpet manufacturer.
During that period I was approached by a Chinese factory to represent them in Australia. I declined the offer due to my commitment to the local mill. However, that situation changed when I had a disagreement with the mill over their marketing plans for WA and I established Icon Carpets with a view to importing custom made products from my new Chinese friends.
The rest, as they say is history.
What’s the history of Icon Carpets and tell our readers about your long association in the business?
Icon Carpets evolved from a desire to maintain my relationships with the commercial hospitality market and capitalise on the experience I had gained producing custom made products, particularly in appropriate qualities and special designs. The ability of Axminster weavers to do outstanding design work had been dramatically enhanced with the advent of new techniques. This enabled Icon Carpets to offer the market a level of sophistication not available locally, at prices that were competitive. Along with other importers doing similar work, this led to the demise of the local weaving industry as we knew it. Sad, but a reality of living in a “global village”
How easy or difficult was it back then to get started in the industry? Surely, it must have been less competitive and cut-throat compared to today?
I have been through phases when the industry has been ultra-competitive, and times when it was much less so. My recollections of the “good old days” being less “cut throat” still apply in some market segments, where service and quality transcend pricing considerations to a large degree. In my opinion, one of the lost opportunities in the current market is the price focussed carpet tile market, where some suppliers only reaction to competition is price, resulting in lack of opportunity to present quality products that attract premiums. It seems to me there is a race to the bottom!
Please discuss two or three issues important to the flooring industry in Australia today.
In talking to my contractor colleagues it seems the difficulty in getting qualified, reliable installers is the paramount issue.
Equally, I am informed that the standard of sales representation has declined – it seems that an attitude of “get the order” overcomes the concept of providing qualified service and information which, I believe, results in greater sales success on an ongoing basis. It seems only the “elders” in our industry subscribe to this philosophy.
The third, and probably most important issue from a sales perspective, is the decline in product training provided by suppliers/manufacturers to their own staff and retailer/contractor staff. When I was learning, the range of training programs was extensive and attendance was not only encouraged, but compulsory.
John, as our Icon for this edition, are there any aspects you particularly miss most about the business today compared to say, 20 years’ ago?
Not really – looking back over a longer period, I have embraced and enjoyed the evolution of technology and design. I congratulate those that have driven those ideas and concepts, both here and overseas. Our ability to provide high quality products and respond to cutting edge design requirements is better now than it ever was. I like to think I was part of this process.
Do you have any tips and industry suggestions for those starting out?
From a sales and marketing perspective – know your product. Product knowledge is king!
- Listen to your clients!
- Provide expert, qualified advice!
- Set goals and do not take the easy option. This can be tough at times but hindsight will confirm this attitude.
Any lowlights you care to mention?
Apart from the recessions, financial meltdowns etc., that we have all suffered over the years, probably the price driven reduction in quality is something we, as an industry, can be least proud of.
Has there been a mentor whom you looked up to – either from overseas or Australia?
Many! Jack & Frank Bramwell who constantly, by their example, encouraged me to achieve excellence.
- My Sales Directors at Crossley Carpets who provided the opportunity for me to understand the woven carpet industry
- Warren Liddle, Noel Kiely and Frank Ricco – I considered this trio to be the pre-eminent marketers of their time
- Barry Coveney, Len Donegar, Chris Hoyle, Tony Skinner, Emmett Barrett – competitors, but contractor mates from the 80’s
How do you feel Icon Carpets stands out from your competitors?
Our philosophy is simple – provide the best service and quality.
We actually walk away from projects where we believe the specified product is not correct. Interestingly, this is quite an effective marketing tool with some specifiers – quite often they accept our recommendations!
Do you see the flooring industry as a united force in Australia or more as a series of individuals simply striving for the best to serve their customers?
There are some obvious examples of united efforts – the growth of the retail chains is evidence of that.
At a commercial contractor level, I see some outstanding examples individual companies servicing their market very effectively.
Lastly, John, what are you mostly looking forward to in the years’ ahead?