One emerging blue chip gaining traction

IT'S a retailer, manufactures in Australia and exports - surely it doesn't come harder than that. Except I forgot: it's up against competitors with cheaper labour, too.

IT'S a retailer, manufactures in Australia and exports - surely it doesn't come harder than that. Except I forgot: it's up against competitors with cheaper labour, too.

Yet the ARB Group, which makes accessories for four-wheel-drives, is cruising.

Its value has increased tenfold to about $600 million in eight years and earnings have jumped from 30? a share to 52? in three years.

The 29 per cent return on equity would be the envy of most blue-chip stocks, as would the lack of debt, and has caught the eye of the chief investment officer of Celeste Funds Management, Frank Villante.

"Small stocks need a unique differentiating point," he says. ARB's is in providing reliable accessories for 4WDs (the ones that go off the beaten track, rather than around the corner) such as bullbars, locking differentials (which give better traction, I gather, so probably suit Sydney drivers, too), replacement suspension and even car fridges.

It was started in 1975 by Tony Brown, who lent his initials to the company's name (incongruously the ASX code is ARP, surely a typo) and is now a farmer.

His two brothers are the major shareholders and sit on the board.

ARB owns three plants in Melbourne and one in Thailand, and imports the cheaper-end products from China.

But the high-quality, tough-as-nails stuff is made here, and half of it is exported.

The marketing manager, Matthew Frost, says: "We tossed up whether to produce here or overseas. But to maintain absolute control we wanted to manufacture here, under our very noses."

So how does ARB cope with the high dollar?

"Our products aren't cheap," he says. But then if you can afford a 4WD you're probably not going to skimp on accessories or buy something cheap and nasty.

"Performance is what it comes down to," Frost says. "They're very specialised products. There's no other viable alternative."

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