Over 28 years ago when Glenn Forbes founded his clothing brand Cannibal there were a host of Australian cycling and triathlon clothing manufacturers.
Today, despite the overall market having grown significantly, the vast majority of clothing manufacture has moved offshore and most other Australian manufacturers had fallen away, leaving Cannibal as one of the last Australian manufacturers left standing.
Bicycling Trade recently visited Glenn at his long established headquarters. Cannibal is located in Machinery Drive, Tweed Heads South, NSW. This is at the southern end of the Gold Coast region and only a stone’s throw south of the NSW/Queensland border. As the name suggests, Machinery Drive part of a light industrial area. There many years ago Glenn invested in two adjacent factory units that are set up to handle every step of the manufacturing process except sewing, which is outsourced to local contractors.
Cannibal has never strayed too far from its core markets of cycling and triathlon clothing. Broadly speaking the market divides into two segments, custom and stock. Customers for custom clothing designs include bicycle shops, clubs and corporate teams across Australia.
It is a high pressure, deadline driven business where customer service and attention to detail are critical.
Glenn took a break from a busy day fulfilling orders to start by recalling how Cannibal was born.
“We registered the name Cannibal in 1989,” he said. “We actually came up with the name in about 1986. I used to say to the boys when we were riding, ‘We should call ourselves cannibal because we’re always consuming athletes in front of us,’ and they said, ‘Oh, that’s a good name!’
Fast forward over 28 years and the brand Cannibal is still going strong in 2017 carrying a key point of difference that is close to Glenn’s heart.
“I think people are surprised that we’re still made in Australia,” Glen admitted. “We solely make all the Cannibal custom apparel in Australia. I might get T-shirts, hoodies, backpacks and caps made offshore, because no-one really makes them here. But I’d rather employ Australians and pay them a decent wage rather than pay someone in Asia $400 a month and feel like I’m going great.
“You keep poor people poor so they can do the work for you for poor money and then you monopolise their whole life. Everyone thinks, ‘I’m making a difference.’ But if you really want to make a difference then pay them more money! But that’s not going to be the case. “People want to go offshore because there’s no overheads and they get the product made more cheaply. But we employ roughly 13 people in Australia. Overall we’re not as big as we used to be, but the Cannibal brand itself is growing again. Because for years we supressed Cannibal branded clothing and did a lot of custom work.” Who knows how long we can keep manufacturing in Australia!!!
Glenn has seen a lot of changes during the past 28 years and if anything, the number of challenges and rate of change is accelerating.
“Now the major Chinese based people have really made the custom market difficult. They now take custom orders for as few as 10 items and it could be five different styles, where in Australia your sewers just won’t do that for you. You have to change your machine threads and it’s just too hard.
“So we decided to tailor back our custom business and only do larger orders. Larger means 20 or more garments per style and maybe 10 for a repeat order, which I think is so reasonable.
“People don’t understand that a custom cycling jersey is not the same as a ‘Best and Less’ T-shirt that you just print. There’s passion in it, where you design, print, press, cut, manufacture and then send out. There’s a lot of detailed work.”
In years gone by, many Cannibal garments predominantly featured the fearsome ‘cannibal man’ logo, but more recently Glenn has come up with a new look for much of his stock range.
“With our brand we’ve come up with ‘CANN’ which is half of Cannibal,” Glenn explained. “But it’s more visible from a distance. That has been a telling factor in the resurrection of Cannibal being seen more.
“There’s a lot of hipster gear out there, but a lot of them only want to make it for the super fit guys and the ones who want to sit at the coffee shops. That’s great because it promotes cycling. But Cannibal makes gear that fits people across the board.
“We do the ‘you beaut’ Aero Jersey which now weighs only 105 grams. Our nicks are unreal – the fit… people come up and tell me that they’re their favourite nicks. We buy Italian fabrics and pads, as stated earlier manufactured in Australia.
No-one can make fabric like the Italians, except perhaps the Swiss and places like that. It’s the way they’re knitting now… it used to be 20 to 30 gauge knitting, now it’s 40, sometimes 50 gauge knitting needles, which is awesome. The fabric is finer, less chance of catching.”
Meanwhile Glenn’s constant commercial battle is to compete against other brands that are manufactured in much lower wage countries, which then gives them huge margins between their cost of manufacture and the Australian retail prices that they charge.
“The new brands selling made in Asia kits (set of jerseys and knicks) for $300 to $400, it’s pretty rich,” Glenn said.
Despite these challenges, Glenn is still optimistic and has expansion plans.
“I think the brand Cannibal can keep going strong, but we’d love to start looking at America. We’ve been there before many years ago, but this time with the internet, I think we could make good inroads with the brand.”
Working With Australian Bicycle Dealers
Meanwhile part of our core market remains selling to Australian independent bicycle dealers.
“There’s bike shops like Turramurra, GCT, Coastal Cyclery, Fitzroy Cycles, Croydon Cycle Works, CBD Cycles, Pump n Pedals… there’s been shops around Australia that have been really loyal to us,” Glenn said.
“We mainly sell custom to bike shops. Some shops just want to sell their shop kits for what it cost them as a form of advertising, but customers may think their shop kit is not that good, because it’s cheap.
“Shops have different reps visiting them every day, promising the world.
“Those shops I mentioned and some others have been solid, at one time or another we were in most bike shop.
Speaking as a retailer, we own a bike shop (Gold Coast Triathlete). My Spin on this is, we need to offer a point of difference to get people’s attention. What Made in Australia itmes do shops sell these days? , Maybe a few Gels, or low price items. The well run Bike shops work well thers are a day to day proposition which is sad as they are employing staff plus paying GST and everything else the Government requires.. The Government has no balls in demanding offshore companies to pay at least gst on each item coming into our country.
“Our biggest issue is manufacturers selling to the mail order companies at distributor prices and the mail order companies sell to consumers at wholesale prices. I think the big bike companies could have prevented these mail order companies from becoming so big if they had wanted to control their distribution more tightly.”
Despite owning one shop, Glenn is not looking to emulate other manufacturers who are vertically integrating by opening or buying existing retail stores.
“We bought Gold Coast Triathlete because we had an emotional tie to it,” he explained. “We didn’t want it to close. But we can honestly say that we don’t make money from that shop. “The guys are fantastic, the bikes we sell, Cervelo, Focus, are awesome… but most of the bike shops have got good bikes.
“I don’t know how bike shops are going to travel with Decathlon coming into Australia, and now Amazon. The government is not protecting bike shops.
“Here’s a quick story about how this happens in other countries. If you invested in Blackmores (the Australian vitamin brand) back when it was $60/80 a share, it went up to $220/240. If you got out quick enough you would have made a lot of money. But when the Chinese realised that all this Western product was coming in with no tax, within a month they changed that.
“Now the shares in Blackmores are back to something like $110/120, which just shows you that governments can protect their industries if they want to.
“It’s just not us getting hurt. All the sales that we miss are going offshore. There’s no GST, no duty, no employment, no superannuation getting paid, nothing.
“When it comes to BAS time and super, shops are crucified. They have to pay or they get fined.
“So I’ve always been pro bike shops, but unfortunately only a handful of bike shops have been pro Cannibal. It’s not arrogance, but we don’t have reps. Other people have reps who walk in and promise the world. But I don’t promise anything that I can’t deliver. We’re consistently three to four week turn around on custom orders. There’s not too many others that can say that.”
Why Buy Australian?
Glenn thinks that Australian bicycle retailers should consider that selling Australian made products can be a key point of differentiation for them in what he predicts will be an increasingly globalised and competitive market place.
“It’s going to be interesting with all these new international retailers coming in, to see how the local bike shops survive,” he mused.
“When I go into bike shops I always ask them, ‘What do you buy that’s made in Australia?’
“Just like charity rides and clubs who want local companies to support them, but what do they buy locally?
“You need to have a reason for customers to come to you. I think there is only Cannibal & one other major Australian cycling clothing manufacturers left, plus perhaps a few part time ones. If you say you stock Australian made, your customers might take notice and support.
“I’ve avoided going offshore because I believe in Australian made. Even my automatic fabric cutting machine was made in Australia. It cost nearly $300,000. So I live by the sword and probably will die by it.
“Amazon and Decathlon won’t sponsor anything locally. They’re just price sensitive. I don’t see Chain Reaction or Wiggle having a local warehouse, paying GST and other taxes.”
Despite these daunting challenges, Glenn still sees a place for face to face retailing.
“The thing is, people still want to go into a shop and feel and touch,” he explained. “At exhibitions like the Ironman that we just exhibited at there were a lot of people there. We hold our own at events like that. Maybe 20% of the people there were wearing Cannibal.”
Here for the Long Haul
After 28 years of hard work, Glenn is showing no signs of slowing down or losing his trademark competitive spirit.
“I’ve learnt a lot about clothing manufacture over the years,” he said. “We’ve kept a lot of the same staff and been in the same building for a long time. I personally haven’t lost the passion.
One of my Motto’s, More people can ride a bike straight that hit a golf ball straight! That’s why Cycling stays popular.
“I’m a really loyal person. What you see is what you get and I’m not scared to roll my sleeves up. As you saw, I was in the art room when you arrived. I’ve been there all morning.
You have to be honest with yourself. You’ve got to look in the mirror before you look out the window and judge the world.
“I used to go to every bike shop but the overseas online just killed it. Shops don’t sell team race kits now. They’re best off just selling their own shop kit. Some shops do it really well.”
Glenn has no intention of slowing down too soon, but says that family succession for Cannibal is an unlikely prospect.
He revealed, “My son’s a third year aeronautical engineering student so I don’t think he’ll be coming in here! I’ve got a 13 year old at school and 24 year old daughter, who is in Mexico.
“I think it’s time to find a 2IC to work here at Cannibal and get a new perspective on the business. I’m 60 next year. Do you really want to see a grey haired old man walking the walk? Sooner or later you’ve got to take a step back.
“But I still have a creative mind and ideas. When you look at our brand, we haven’t copied anyone. That’s what I’m really stoked about. It’s so easy to copy.
“No one is telling me that I need to step back. It’s me. You know that point comes one day for everyone. I think you become more relaxed when you do.”
In the meantime, there are more urgent orders to manufacture and ship back to customers and a host of other challenges to attend to.
“I’m always on the front foot when I’m at work,” Glenn confessed. “We’ve fixed up our building. The showroom looks unreal. Everything’s tidy and clean and we know we’re paying our people good money. If you believe in buying Australian made, we’re here!”