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past and future
Last month saw the end of an era, with one of Australia’s oldest
companies pulling out of manufacturing after nearly 160 years.
Founded in 1856, Stokes Limited was perhaps best known for the badges it made, including
the ‘Rising Sun’ for the Australian Army. It also made electrical heating elements at its factory
in Ringwood, Victoria. However, in the decades since its 1980s heyday, when it had more
than 800 employees, the company had scaled down operations significantly, with much of its
manufacturing outsourced to China.
Finally, in mid-June the company announced the sale of its appliance spare parts division for
$5m. The Stokes brand will continue as a commercial supplier of lighting and audio-visual
equipment. But its manufacturing operations – reportedly operating at a loss for more than 12
months – are scheduled to cease by the end of the year. The closure of the Ringwood plant will
see ten employees laid off, some of whom had been with Stokes since the 1960s.
The announcement is of course unwelcome news for the staff who will lose their jobs, and it’s
always sad when such a longstanding player announces its exit. But the coverage in some
parts of the media conformed to a narrative that has taken hold lately in much of the reporting
on Australian manufacturing today. The Stokes announcement was presented as
venerable Australian manufacturer, resulting in
evidence of manufacturing’s inexorable decline. That narrative of decline
has started to feel repetitive. More importantly, it’s a narrative that’s become misleading.
It’s misleading because alongside the Stokes announcement came a slew of good news about
manufacturing in Australia, much of it covered in the pages of this magazine. For example,
the ACCI-Westpac Survey of Industrial Trends has revealed improving conditions across the
sector for the third quarter running. SEEK, meanwhile, reports an increase in the number of job
advertisements for the sector (along with transport and logistics) in non-mining states.
Even the Australian Performance of Manufacturing Index from the Ai Group saw Australian
manufacturing expand for the first time in six months in May (June’s PMI will have come out
after this edition of AMT goes to print, but let’s hope for good news). Around the industry
there’s a feeling that things seem to be looking up.
That feeling was in evidence at Austech in May, where the vast majority of exhibitors I spoke
to reported a perceptible uplift in sentiment among visitors, and an increased willingness
to invest. DMG MORI alone sold ten machines during the exhibition, including one that
went to Lovitt Technologies. Stokes made its name supplying badges to the Australian Army.
Today, Lovitt manufactures components for aircraft that will be flown by defence forces all
over the world.
The Stokes announcement is unquestionably sad news. But framing the news in that overall
narrative of decline is just too easy, and it overlooks the extraordinary work being done
throughout our industry. Stokes was a great, iconic Australian manufacturer. But so is Lovitt.
So too are Quickstep (see page 52). So are Australian Precision Technologies, GP Graders
and Hickory Group (page 24). And the list goes on. The Stokes story forms part of a broader
narrative of Australian manufacturing that continues today with companies like these.