People enjoy visiting and shopping in Berwick, in Melbourne’s south-east suburbs, for its tree-lined boulevards, heritage buildings, boutique shops and cafe culture. But nestled in the heart of this quaint village resides an unlikely tenant: an electronics and embedded software development business quietly making a big impact on the world manufacturing stage.

With a brand promise of “We make electronics work”, and 16 major technology and business awards under its belt in the past six years, Successful Endeavours is both the company’s name and its nature. Since being named City of Casey Business of the Year in 2010, Successful Endeavours has won a succession of regional, state and national awards, with two of its products recognised at the 2015 state and national iAwards for leading-edge technological innovation.

While the high-quality and innovative products that Successful Endeavours makes are driving increased profits for its client manufacturers, the “exponential” mindset of its entrepreneurial owner Ray Keefe is just as important in fuelling the success of this growing business in an industry where others are downsizing, going offshore or closing their doors.

“Contrary to what many believe, electronics design and product development in Australia is both practical and profitable,” says Keefe. “This is reality despite the progressive erosion of manufacturing over the past half century, in part caused by the economic restructuring policies of successive Federal Governments in favour of the emerging services sector and to the detriment of industrial-based sectors.

“In 1946, 90% of all manufactured products used in Australia were made in Australia but in 2006, this figure had plummeted to just 10%. It doesn’t make sense to ship raw material overseas then import the finished goods back here. Most of the income and profit is happening for someone else, somewhere else.”

According to Keefe, this makes even less economic sense in the context of Australia’s distinct advantages when it comes to manufacturing. Australia has the most cost-effective technical workforce of all member countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), while manufacturing generates more indirect jobs per direct job than any other area of commercial activity (the Victorian Government puts this figure at five extra jobs per direct job). Moreover our geographical location means we are well placed to export to Asia.

In particular, Keefe believes there is a huge opportunity for electronics manufacturing to flourish in Australia. It is the most scalable, given the relative ease with which capacity can be added to products through existing local manufacturers.

“The key to low-cost electronics manufacturing is to design a product to be efficiently and flawlessly made so that it continues to work correctly well past its warranty period,” Keefe explains. “This is one of the secrets of our success and the strategy we have used to ensure electronics products manufactured in Australia by our clients are indeed competitive and profitable when compared with Asian imports.”

Keefe adds that the key decision-makers in government need to realise that this can become the norm for manufacturing, rather than the exception. One area where he believes the Federal Government can make a significant difference to the survival, growth and ultimate resilience of Australian manufacturing is through greater incentives.

“Intel wanted to establish its next semiconductor facility in Australia but the government of the day offered no incentives,” says Keefe. “The Irish Government made Intel an offer it couldn’t refuse. So now Intel is in Ireland when it really wanted to be in Australia. As another example, Malaysia offers a ten-year tax holiday to a new industry setting up there.”

Belief is the key

While governments can help breathe new life back into Australian manufacturing, Keefe believes individual business owners also have a key role to play, particularly in the way they think about developing solutions to manufacturing problems, which are really “opportunities in disguise”.

“Belief is a powerful thing – enabling beliefs enable and limiting beliefs limit,” he says. “We have been involved in many projects that break through the limiting belief barrier.”

A case in point was the company’s work in developing the child location tracking device, which won the Merit Award in the New Product category at the 2015 Victorian iAwards and was a finalist in the recent national iAwards. Two other companies tried to build the electronics platform for the device and gave up before Successful Endeavours got involved and came up with a world-first solution. The combination of Bluetooth Smart, Qi Wireless Charging, 3G communications and GPS tracking in a device the surface area of a business card was a big technical challenge. However, by thinking differently, Successful Endeavours got a different result than what had been previously thought possible.

“As Albert Einstein famously said ‘We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,’” says Keefe. “This is how manufacturers need to approach business. The traditional manufacturing business model has been transactional in nature, where the manufacturer gets paid for the component parts it makes. This type of thinking is holding the manufacturing industry back. What’s needed is thinking that focuses on leverage; a systems-based approach that gives a greater outcome for effort rather than a component-based approach where the income stream ends once the part leaves the factory.

Keefe cites businesses such as Apple, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle, which are highly profitable and grow rapidly in part because of the leveraged income they derive by offering an entire system to consumers rather than just supplying the component parts of a system. For an electronics product such as a phone or computer, it is possible to increase its value by adding new features and updates over time, with a deployment cost very close to zero. Software upgrades, for example, arrive on your mobile phone or computer over the internet rather than having to be manually installed in the shop or even back at the factory.

“This approach is equally applicable to utility services,” adds Keefe. “For example, the tank stand water meter reading device that is used by rural councils. One of these devices sits on a water tank stand in outback New South Wales, some 892km away from Berwick. The device identifies the driver and measures the amount of water used to fill their water tanker, replacing the previous honour system which relied on truck drivers to accurately record their water consumption in a log book. The operation and maintenance of this device can be updated and changed remotely and the water records sent back via a web service thereby alleviating the travel, inconvenience and labour costs associated with a manual system.”

Successful Endeavours also developed a smart power controller for ABB for the international smart grid market. Sitting atop a power pole, the operation of the controller can be changed by making adjustments on a SCADA system that messages the device over the internet or via a dedicated communications link.

“These examples demonstrate that a systems approach to product development can dramatically change a manufacturer’s capacity to deliver value to its customers,” says Keefe. “No longer does the value exchange stop once the product leaves the manufacturer’s factory. The manufacturer can capture a greater percentage of the value stream by adding income-generating features to the base product while at the same time providing increased benefits to the client through a reduction in their operating costs.”

From humble beginnings

Although Keefe has been developing market-leading electronics products in Australia for 30 years, Successful Endeavours started from humble beginnings with one full-time and one part-time staff in 2008, to today when it boasts nine employees and an ecosystem of sub-contractors and other technically-based businesses. It develops a new product for local manufacture every two weeks. This growth in business is a direct result of Keefe honing his business acumen with the guidance of a business mentor and dedicating himself to becoming a more effective leader of self and others.

“As a small business owner, I made a great engineer,” he recounts. “Once I addressed the weakness in my business skillset, I was able to build a successful business that has allowed me to make the difference to local manufacturers that was part of my original vision in starting Successful Endeavours. If you are a small business owner, it is likely that you will have gaps in your understanding of business and how to take your business to the next level. So my advice is to find a business mentor you can trust and let them help you. You don’t know what you don’t know!”

Keefe’s message about Australian manufacturing is a positive one, and he is a strong advocate of the industry through memberships with AMTIL, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), South East Melbourne Manufacturers Alliance (SEMMA), the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VECCI) and the Casey Cardinia Business Group. Keefe also shares his knowledge and experience as a guest presenter for Monash University’s MBA program and contributes regular articles to industry magazines. He also writes a thought-provoking weekly blog, speaking frankly about such topics as the future of manufacturing, leadership and business excellence.

Keefe’s advice to manufacturers and small business owners in general is encapsulated in his favourite business quote, Aristotle back in 380BC: “The purpose of the organisation is so that ordinary men and women can come together, and in co-operation with each other, do the extraordinary.”

Successful Endeavours is certainly achieving extraordinary outcomes, not only in carving an exciting future for Australian electronics manufacturing, but helping build a stronger Australian economy by helping small to medium manufacturing businesses to grow.