Running interior finishes company Baresque has now passed to the third generation of Blaiklocks. Rachael Bernstone meets Angus and JJ and discovers a brave new world.
June 24th, 2014
Think of the imaginary landscape of Alice in Wonderland and you might conjure up images of gardeners painting white roses red, or a curious croquet-ground with balls of live hedgehogs and mallets of live flamingoes. Or there is the hall of locked doors, where “a little three-legged table, all made of solid glass” is home to the key that unlocks a tiny door hidden behind a curtain. It’s a visual feast with myriad colours, patterns, textures and surfaces to delight in.
Walking through the three showrooms and factories that comprise Baresque headquarters in Sydney’s Artarmon, it’s hard not to get a sense of being inside Alice’s Wonderland. Leave the main showroom, cross the road, enter an unmarked door, go up two flights and stairs, and wow, we’re in the Architectural Finishes manufacturing space, with pallets of resins and acrylic films on the floor, next to the “spray room” where all the colours of the rainbow can be applied to products. Moving on, taking what Angus Blaiklock calls “the 25-cent tour”, go out to another street, enter the building next door, and presto, it’s the Jarvis Tubular Products factory, which Baresque acquired in 2011.
From its humble beginnings in 1975 when John Blaiklock, his son Richard Blaiklock and daughter Gay Bell acquired a bankrupt wallpaper import and distribution business, Baresque has grown to become Australia’s only importer, local manufacturer and supplier of fabrics, wall coverings, wall papers, architectural finishes, and more recently chairs, tables and upholstery. With showrooms in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and sales offices in Adelaide and Perth, it truly is a one-stop destination for interior designers looking for everything from resins to stone veneers, innovative paint and film applications – think IdeaPaint, which turns any wall into a whiteboard – or custom-cut panels and moulded steel products.
Initially operating from a former warehouse in Sydney’s Broadway, the company moved to its present headquarters in Artarmon in 2002, by which time both John and Gay had retired. Richard’s son Angus – who had just completed his architecture degree – assisted with the move and then officially joined the company to establish the Baresque Architectural Finishes division. His older brother JJ – who had completed a commerce degree while working in retail at David Jones, and was at that time a national buyer of menswear for the department store – joined Baresque in 2004 as “the third vote”, and was initially tasked with revitalising the Wallcovering and Fabrics division. As children, both brothers remember Baresque as a strong presence in their lives – business was discussed over dinner and at family gatherings,
Angus recalls that presents were always gift-wrapped in discontinued vinyl coverings, never wrapping paper – but the brothers had different ideas about whether they would join the family firm. Angus says: “I can’t recall ever dreaming of being in the business”, but concedes he didn’t see himself as a practicing architect either, while JJ says: “I have memories of being in the warehouse as a child, and I always knew I’d get into the business at some stage, but it was always our call”. As if to demonstrate their freedom of choice in the matter, they explain that they have another brother and younger sister, neither of whom work in the family business.
Following the deaths of Gay in 2004 and John in 2005, Richard became chairman of the company in 2006, and JJ and Angus took the reins as Managing Director and Executive Director respectively. “Dad is extremely giving and trusting of what we do, and it’s still Dad’s company, although we run on the principle of one person, one vote,” Angus explains. “Yes, Dad will argue his point, but if we choose a different path to the one he suggests, he will throw his weight behind our cause,” JJ adds.
Richard meets with Angus and JJ every Monday morning to discuss strategy and direction, and the brothers still seek his counsel frequently. “Because of his significant business acumen – he’s done a lot of property development work after stepping back from Baresque, so he’s added a lot of value in relation to property management –he has forced us to be so much more diligent about business processes,” Angus says.
It was under the brothers’ stewardship that Baresque underwent a process to unify its separate divisions – previously Wallcoverings and Fabrics was represented by four sales people, and Architectural Finishes by another four – and to acquire Jarvis Tubular Products, so that now the company’s ten sales representatives sell the entire range of thousands of products, which are available in multiple configurations and permutations.
As MD, JJ takes care of customer service, marketing and finance. “One of the biggest changes that took place during the amalgamation phase was streamlining the website and back-end processes,” he says. “When we started, for example, the Architectural Finishes website was a portal to our suppliers, which was OK when we had only three or four sales reps, because Angus was on hand to answer questions. But when you ramp that up to 10 reps, you need better systems in place. My job is being done well if I am not being asked any questions by our customer service staff, or if I can direct them to the answers at their fingertips.”
“It’s imperative in a range as big as ours that we have that level of detail available to both our customers and our sales team,” Angus adds. As ED, he is responsible for sales, production and product development, and works closely with clients, having built strong relationships with many interior designers over the years. One of the major challenges the company has faced in recent years is the economised aesthetic that has emerged from the tighter budgets and frugal necessity of the global financial crisis.
“We have seen a shift towards open plan – which means there are fewer walls that require coverings – and there has also been the ‘subtracted’ design trend which has been going for the last two years – mainly driven by GFC – of not using a designer but sourcing recycled and second-hand materials to produce a fitout,” Angus says. “
That requires a whole different level of detail,” he adds, “which we’ve responded to by introducing plywood tables with lightblocks resin tops, for example – a cost effective, refinishable, solution that taps into that natural feel that is popular at the moment.”
Recently, in response to this shift in the marketplace, the company introduced Slate Lite – a 2mm thick slate veneer that can be used for wall and joinery cladding. “It means that a natural stone finish is no longer a difficult product that requires a lot of support to install and maintain – it is now essentially just a laminate,” Angus says. “Effectively we can still offer premium materials and exceptional quality, but rather than costing $1,000m2, it costs about $60m2. It’s also better from an environmental point of view because it uses less material for the same effect.”
JJ says that the GFC forced the company to alter the way it pitches its products to designers, by switching focus away from low volume custom-design to a standardised selection process within a range of pre-set parameters, which streamlines ordering, manufacturing and delivery to provide more costeffective solutions.
“Take the Baresque screens,” JJ says. “We offer multiple patterns, multiple core materials, thickness and finishes – including block colours, patterned acrylics – and we’ve just expanded the range to include architectural films – so the possibilities are practically limitless. The screens can be ordered to tie in with or match other finishes, colours and surfaces in our range, and don’t cost as much to produce as a purely custom-made product would.”
“We are continually trying to develop niche products into volume products and to stay ahead of the trends,” JJ adds. “As the recent wallcovering trend starts to plateau, we are planning to take new products – like the Lightblocks resins – forward and make them mainstream, to grow at the same kind of levels we saw in wallcoverings a few years ago.”
“Custom projects are gone: it’s a good time for us to move towards augmentation and to increase the volumes we are producing,” Angus adds.
While both brothers agree there are challenges ahead, they don’t see the recent shift towards offshore manufacturing as being a great threat to their business. “I don’t think manufacturing in Australia will continue to decrease at the same rate as it has done in the past,” Angus says. “There is still a drive for good quality Australian-made product, partially because of the short lead times we can offer, but also because the cost of freight to import, and the increasing cost of manufacturing offshore, so we think there is a pretty good balance between local and offshore product now.”
“There is certainly a good balance in our business – where we offer high quality products manufactured both in Australia and overseas,” JJ continues. “Our position in the market means we aim to release a significant amount of new product on a continual basis, to ensure we continue to be perceived as the interior designers’ single destination.”
Angus believes that the unique nature of the Australian market – which he says is heavily influenced by trends emanating from Asia, Europe and the United States – places Baresque in good stead for the future.
“Many designers know who we are – we’ve been around for that long – so it’s not just a matter of increasing our database,” Angus says. “It’s making sure designers know about what we produce. We are at the infant stage of where this business can go.” JJ says the company’s key competitors are “no-one and everyone”. “There are a lot of suppliers with great fabrics, wallcoverings, and benchtops, and yes, we are all competing for the same dollars,” he says. “But where Baresque is different is that we bring all those products under one roof. You can use the same surface in a screen and a benchtop, with a lot of flexibility in colour and finish, and while it has taken us a few years to establish that total concept with designers, they are starting to understand the depth of our offering.”
“We see our sales team as providing an empathetic approach,” Angus adds. “They are saying to designers: ‘How can we use Baresque materials to solve those design problems you are facing?’.” “The process of uniting all of our divisions under the one banner is only three years old, and our business cycle takes longer than that to develop,” JJ says. “We have now positioned ourselves as a resource for designers to utilise, and we see that as a huge opportunity. We are seen as a product leader in so many areas, so the prospects are infinitesimal at the moment.”
With innovative products in every conceivable colour, finish, texture and pattern for walls, screens, countertops and benches, seating and tables, and much more, Baresque really does bring “the dream of Wonderland” to life.
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