How Blundstone gained a firm foothold in the market
An opportunity to learn about this major Australian company with a 150-year history and pride in its Tasmanian heritage.
While the forces of nature often play a role in the development of communities, they can also on occasions affect the direction of a company. That was the case with Blundstone – one of Australia’s best-known footwear producers – when in 1853 brothers James and Thomas Cuthbertson boarded a ship sailing from England with the intention of landing and settling in Melbourne. However, gale force winds called the ‘Roaring Forties’ blew the vessel off course and they landed in the Tasmanian city of Hobart instead. Having decided to stay rather than try to reach their original destination, James established a shoemaking and importing business in Hobart.
The next part of the story involved two other English emigrants – John and Eliza Blundstone – who arrived in Hobart in October 1855 following a 93-day voyage. John worked as a coachbuilder until 1870, when he founded John Blundstone and Sons, initially to import boots from England and then to manufacture his own range of footwear in the city from locally-sourced leather.
A defining moment for Blundstone came at the 1894 International Exhibition in Hobart, when its footwear was deemed ‘exceptional’, ‘exceedingly well made’, and ‘second to none’. In the 1900s, a footwear factory was built in central Hobart, producing 2,000 pairs of boots and shoes per week. Then, when World War I broke out in 1914, Blundstone was one of 20 manufacturers contracted to produce boots for Australian troops.
Two into one
Australia was not immune to the effects of the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s and, like many businesses, Blundstone experienced a significant downturn in its profits. This led to the company being purchased in 1932 by James and Thomas Cuthbertson, two brothers who were grandsons of the very same James Cuthbertson whose ship had been blown into Hobart several decades earlier. They amalgamated the manufacturing operations of their two companies under the Blundstone name, and the Cuthbertsons remain the owners to this day.
During the Second World War, Blundstone supplied half a million pairs of boots to the Australian army, including footwear with jungle cleats. These boots were said to have been so coveted that American soldiers endeavoured to swap them for their own whenever possible. This army boot design thereafter created the foundation for Blundstone’s range of work boots.
In the fifties, the Campbell Street factory in Hobart was inundated with requests for made-to-order work boots that could withstand the most extreme conditions, including the 350°C temperature experienced in smelting plants. Near the end of the decade, Blundstone was producing up to 200 pairs of boots a day under the stewardship of the company's managing director, Harold Cuthbertson.
By the 1960s – more than 90 years after Blundstone was founded – the company had become Tasmania’s major footwear manufacturer. This was when its now iconic #500 series was created. While the sole design has evolved over time to incorporate new technology, the overall design of these pull-up tab Chelsea boots has continued to define Blundstone. According to the company, the #500 has so far sold more than 25 million pairs globally, to workers, adventurers and ‘creative types’ alike.
In the late seventies, Blundstone boots were worn on the feet of an Australian expedition to Everest, with the Nepalese sherpas loving them so much they requested (and received) them as parting gifts. An Australian Design Award was presented for the company’s ‘Armourtread’ range of safety boots – the first ever that had been bestowed upon a footwear manufacturer.
Managing director Harold Cuthbertson was knighted for services to industry and community in the 1980s. Demand for factory space saw Blundstone relocating to the Hobart suburb of Moonah, and a factory was also established in Auckland, New Zealand. In the mid-1980s, exports into Europe opened up for the first time, and in 1986 the company received another accolade – an Australian Export Award in particular recognition of business relationships with Pacific nations and New Zealand. Three years later, Blundstone began to manufacture waterproof injection moulded footwear – known as ‘gumboots’.
The nineties saw Blundstone spreading its artistic wings by collaborating with the Sydney Dance Company to produce special footwear for its ‘Tap Dogs’ team. The new Millennium started with a bang when the Tap Dogs showcased Australia to the world at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games opening ceremony while they were wearing Blundstone shoes.
During the 1990s, the company launched its first lace-up range of hiking boots and by the mid-2000s, Blundstone was producing one million pairs of boots annually in its Hobart factory. The collection expanded to include boots for kids and its first range of safety footwear designed specifically for women.
In 2015, Blundstone won a second coveted Australian Design Award, this time for the #980 mining boot. The company believes that this product proves that good design and supreme workwear are not mutually exclusive, and #980 were credited with fundamentally changing the way mining boots are made.
Since its early days, Blundstone has made what the company describes as the ‘toughest, no-nonsense footwear for work and play’, and has grown to become one of the most recognisable boot brands in the world. Blundstone boots and accessories are now distributed in over 70 countries as part of a value chain that includes more than 300 suppliers and 17 licensed distributors selling from approximately 10,000 shopfronts. Manufacturing operations are located in Tasmania and other key sites on four continents.
In addition to having put boots on soldiers and Everest climbers, Blundstone products have been worn by footballers, factory workers, farmers, police officers and children who may want to jump into puddles on rainy afternoons.
At Blundstone, every component – from sole technology through to stitching, laces, leather and linings – is carefully considered and tested to ensure that the product will stand the test of time. Such processes as hand-picking the leather to over-engineering the double stitching are utilised to ensure that the company’s products are great to wear as well as being robust and fit for purpose.
Working with SATRA
Blundstone is said to invest heavily in research and collaborates with its partners to access the best and latest technologies available. “We have looked to SATRA as a source of knowledge and information for more than 25 years, allowing us to keep up-to-date with innovating testing and industry developments,” says Blundstone joint chief executive Darryl Wilkes. “This relationship has been strengthened in the past seven years through our partnership with SATRA as our chemical compliance testing service provider for our REACH, CPISA and CP65 test programme. Prior to that, SATRA was primarily used as a source of knowledge and information.”
Blundstone and SATRA are currently collaborating to produce a co-branded and bespoke restricted substances list – something for which Blundstone has seen increasing demand. “To provide a bespoke Blundstone RSL produced by SATRA with the product and market knowledge SATRA has built up from partnership with this testing programme is a great step forward,” says Wilkes.
The company has made good use of live SATRA webinars that are then made available as recordings for viewing at a more convenient time by members on the other side of the world. Before this provision became available, Blundstone team members regularly attended the training and education workshops in SATRA’s Dongguan office.
Personnel within Blundstone’s technical and design team use SATRA product test services, and particularly utilise specialised comparative testing that is not widely available. In addition, the company looks to take advantage of SATRA’s expertise and advice when leathers need to be re-tested.
The company’s philosophy
Even after more than 150 years, Hobart is still Blundstone’s home, and its development team is said to remain dedicated to innovation in design and production. As a consequence of this commitment, the company now oversees a global supply chain which reportedly brings together the best ideas, components and designs in the creation of its product range, from iconic elastic-sided boots to safety footwear and women’s heeled boots. With a declared drive towards ethical and responsible business management, Blundstone claims to maximise the use of recycled and recyclable materials in its manufacturing processes, and minimise the use of raw materials, chemicals and fossil fuels.
Pride in a long history combined with confidence in its footwear brand is evident throughout the company. “What we manufacture are more than just boots,” concludes Darryl Wilkes. “They are Blundstones.”
This article was originally published on page 20 of the May 2022 issue of SATRA Bulletin.