Last word when it comes to spinning a yarn
Boaz Herszfeld laughingly describes his family-owned company Creswick Woollen Mills as the best example of Darwinism in Australian textiles and, with a 65-year history behind it, nobody's arguing.
The company boasts Australia's last wool-spinning mill, a throwback to when the country rode on the sheep's back. While the mill still operates profitably, evolution has been in play.
The company, situated 130 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, was once one of hundreds of wool spinners in postwar Australia. It is now part mill, part purveyor of quality branded goods, with a strong retail presence in Victoria.
Herszfeld puts the company's survival down to the tenacity of his late grandfather Paul Ryzowy, a refugee from Poland, who was in charge of the business from 1947 until early this century.
Ryzowy was said to have escaped Russia by walking 300 kilometres across the country in the dead of winter, before stowing away in a ship and spending time in Japan, China and New York. He and a mate eventually bought four hectares in rural Victoria and built the mill. He remained active until his mid-90s.
Having survived a war and the challenges of being a new immigrant, Ryzowy also had to contend with the subsequent economic changes - the dismantling of tariff protections in the mid-1980s and the rise of textile conglomerates that were gobbling up smaller mills about the same time.
Arguably more difficult than all of these challenges has been the arrival of cheap imports that have all but destroyed the business in Australia.
While Creswick is the only coloured woollen spinning mill left, there are three other mills that still make carpet yarn.
"While he had reservations about making big changes, my grandfather understood implicitly that India and China would be able to produce products with their low-cost wages and raw materials," Herszfeld says.
"The only way to win was to increase the value of the raw material, not cheapen it. We went for alpaca fleece, 100 per cent merino wool, cashmere and cotton because we knew that a large proportion of society still hungered for quality natural fibre products."
Herszfeld believes Ryzowy's decision to stay upmarket saved it from annihilation.
"While everybody went one way - we went the other. Australian mills couldn't compete with cheap imports and one by one they closed down. It left a niche for a high-quality player and many people were getting sick of synthetics. We filled that gap."
Creswick's development of a luxury consumer product range is now its mainstay, but it has not lost its original function - about 30 per cent of materials are still woven at the mill. All the same, it has adapted. It acts as a wholesaler to other companies (it is David Jones' biggest supplier of blankets and throws) and a retailer (it has five shops in Victoria and an online shopping portal). It is not precious about everything being Australia-made or derived. It imports materials cotton and cashmere goods and outsources manufacturing of other items.
Herszfeld admits that since taking over in 2002, the general trend has been to decrease local manufacturing capacity and to step up its retailing presence. The changeover seems to have worked. He estimates a tripling of revenues over the past decade.