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Advance Australian Manufacturing... with Maton Guitars

Advance Australian Manufacturing... with Maton Guitars

Situated in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, Maton (pronounced 'May-tone') Guitars has been lovingly handcrafting guitars since musician, woodwork teacher and luthier Bill May started the business in the 1940s.

Their passion for what they do, and their reputation for excellence, has seen them become the guitar of choice for some of the industry’s most-renowned virtuosos including Tommy Emmanuel, Neil Finn, Keith Urban, Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Courtney Barnett, Archie Roach, Colin Hay, Paul Kelly, Diesel and Phil Palmer (Dire Straits), among many others.

With live music indefinitely on hold, we caught up with Patrick Evans who heads Research & Development/Projects at Maton Guitars to see how manufacturing life at Maton has changed with the COVID-19 shutdowns.

What were some of your plans for 2020 before the pandemic took hold?

Patrick Evans: “We were doing very well overseas – our export performance was growing rapidly. We'd finally got a really good network of distributors and so forth in various international markets. That had been probably growing for three or four years as we learned to do business overseas better. So, that was our focus, really."

"This had changed our way of scheduling production because, within Australia, we're not only a manufacturer but a distributor too. So, rather than making X number of guitars per day and sending them off to shops, we would have to coordinate a lot further ahead and bring large orders together to go into containers, for example, to head offshore at the same time. We were looking at exporting nearly 50% of our annual production, (which is around 7,000 per year), when the pandemic first hit.”

And what's the reality been like?

“What happened initially was that overseas trade fell away completely. Next was that we were receiving all sorts of messages from supply chain partners overseas, re-scheduling delivery or having to shut down and that kind of thing. Because, within Australia, we were fairly late in the first rollout of infection, our supply partners had been impacted long before we were. So, we were getting concerns over supply chain issues – whether that be cases or raw materials for products that were made by local suppliers, particularly in the case of steel and various metals.”

“Once the pandemic reached Australia and the first wave of restrictions happened, we saw the domestic trade which had been a little soft anyway – plummet. In late March/early April, it was looking pretty awful and we had to stand down roughly a third of our labour [force] on the floor. That happened just as JobKeeper came on. Fortunately, they were able to keep going with the assistance of JobKeeper, so [JobKeeper] was a very, very important thing for us.”

“Fairly soon after that, we started seeing rapid increases in demand from the domestic market. And that turnaround happened pretty quickly, to the extent that – by five or six weeks in – from standing people down, we'd brought everybody back and, yeah, we were going hard trying to keep up with domestic supply. The retailers that had a good online presence were doing really well, and then others that were perhaps a bit softer on that actually got it together and started doing that business online. So, our retail presence online was a massive contributor and, by the time we got to June, we were actually flying. It was a bizarre situation.”

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Did you experience any staff morale or wellbeing problems?

“In general, there was a bit of a pall over the place in April and early May but we were coming to work, and we were glad to be working. Almost everyone here is here because they have a passion for this, and they love doing it, and I think there was a relief in doing that while the news was so bad elsewhere.”

“Of course, we got belted with absenteeism as people went off to get tested, and there were significant delays in results before coming back, and that impacted us a bit in being able to meet demand. But people were happy to be at work. Apart from the COVID-19 testing thing, I think we had probably a higher attendance rate than average, and I don't recall specific instances of people not coping. I think most people saw work as a bit of a refuge and, because they're able to come day after day, it helped keep some of those potential mental health problems at bay, I think.”

What do you think was behind the uptake in online sales?

“It surprised us, and I don't know that I can definitively say why [sales increased] except to say that online guitar lessons have never been busier. People have been taking the opportunity while they've had downtime – and I'm not just talking about while they're not working; I’m talking about all that extra time you would usually be using to socialise or for sport or whatever – they've taken that time to learn new things or perhaps improve something they've been ticking away at, and maybe saw the opportunity to really nail it.”

What have been among the biggest hurdles that you've needed to overcome?

“Oh, without a doubt the eight-week close down. We've been in business continually since 1946 and we've never had anything like that. So, in terms of opportunity lost – in terms of every aspect of the business – that has been massive.”

“What [the shutdown did], however, was soften the potential problems with the supply chain because it provided an eight-week buffer. So, where we may have been running into, perhaps, material and supply chain issues, we weren't, because the suppliers have had that eight weeks to catch up and we've not used a single thing. But yeah, just the downtime and the missed opportunity in terms of revenue has certainly had a significant impact. We’ll be fine but it's certainly belted us.”

Have there been any fundamental changes to the way Maton operates?

“Firstly, as far as the physically distancing goes, we're fine because the factory's spread out, and likewise with the offices. Certainly, keeping clean and being a bit more courteous of each other's space and that kind of thing is not necessarily a bad thing.”

“The mask wearing people have taken to in large part, even though we already wear dust masks when we're creating dust or spraying or whatever we might be doing. The wearing of masks all the time, while a bit irritating at first, has actually resulted in us, I think, all sleeping better and having better lungs because we're not breathing in this fine ambient dust through the factory. So, because we're wearing masks, we're probably a little better off on that front!”

“We have had to split our workplace breaks into smaller groups. We've got staggered breaks, which is fine once you get used to it. And, of course, we've got hand sanitiser all over the place and reminders of proper protocol. That's been the case since March.”

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Has there been anything that you’ve learned that might not have occurred to you prior to this experience?

“One of the things that really stood up – and it was clear pretty quickly – was the leadership group in dealing with this. I've never seen us work as cohesively, and as selflessly if you like, as we have through this period, particularly from the first announcements and then into and through the lockdown. I think we've learned to work really well together.”

“Our communication lines are better. We’ve learned to use electronic communications and to document decisions better through necessity. So, our information flow not that it was bad certainly got tighter. And the necessity to include all sorts of decision-makers in whatever we were doing, rather than just wandering down and having a chat, that improved.”

“The other thing has been the spirit of the staff and their ‘want’ to work, and their ‘want’ to keep doing this. It's been remarkable, actually. We knew we had a good crew but I don't know that we knew quite how good a crew we had.”

“I think everybody here is conscious that we're in a good place. Our industry in general is in a good place, and that helps us appreciate what we do and want to do it better. So yeah, I think we've actually been pretty lucky through this. I think the strength of our history, and the strength of our brand and our products has really stood up too.”

How are you using 2020 as an opportunity to emerge stronger?

“Part of that earlier phase, when we slowed down and cleared out a bit, we got into a mindset of 'what can we do here to improve things for when it picks up again’? So, we're embarking on, for example, greatly improving our dust collection extraction throughout the factory and re-laying it out so that it's cleaner. That will have positive impacts on air quality and, consequently, health and wellbeing. It will also have positive impacts on workflow."

"As I said before, having seen how we were able to work together to get through the very trying period has given us an insight as to how we can work better, particularly as leaders – how we can work better to achieve better outcomes for everyone."

Find out more about Maton Guitars at www.maton.com.au

The Maton Guitars story is part of Integra Systems' Advance Australian Manufacturing (#AAM) initiative. Read all about it and see how you can participate

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Published in Blog
K2_WRITTEN_ON November 08 2020
Written by Erika Hughes