If you meet a man on a plane or in a store who keeps glancing down at your watch, chances are it is Grant Menzies of Adina Watches.
Grant and his father Bob (pictured together, below right) are the owner-operators of Adina Watches, which they say is the last remaining watchmaking business anywhere in Australia. Theirs is a great Aussie success story of innovation, forging relationships, and doggedly focusing on quality above all else.
Adina Watches was founded back in 1971, as Robert “Bob” Menzies looked to take advantage of an opportunity he came upon while on a trip overseas.
“When mum was pregnant with me – he’s a watchmaker by trade – he got talked into it by a mate as a bit of a challenge, or a business opportunity. He went away overseas, stopped in a factory that were making cases and dials,” explains Grant.
“Dad got talked into doing some production. It was a hundred cases. He thought, “Wow, that’s a real lot of watches. I put my life savings on the line.” He did it. He brought in these hundred cases, and he would put them together at night time, and then he’d sell them in the daytime.
“If he couldn’t quite make his bills, he’d go back to one of the retailers and say, ‘If you pay me today, I’ll give you an extra 10 per cent.’ Someone would write him out a check, and he’d just go to the bank and cash that one, and then pay somebody else. It was a hand-to-mouth situation for quite a while for the first few years.”
At that time, the business was called Rolma, however when Bob’s initial partnership dissolved, he decided to change the name and take a more growth-focused approach. The new name – Adina Watches – came about entirely by accident, says Grant.
“He was looking for a word that he was nicely balanced. He was flying back from Switzerland and was reading the Reader’s Digest...it had a very, probably, random article about Australian Aboriginal people. There was a word there, Adina; it meant ‘very good’. He said, ‘There’s the word’ and bang, off we went.”
Creating a market niche
Competing against the likes of Swiss watchmaking giants is by no means an easy feat. In order to get his fledgling business going, Bob looked for a niche he could make his own, particularly one with a strong Australian context. That led him to waterproof watches.
“After the Vietnam War, a lot of the soldiers were coming home to regional Queensland, or all around Australia. I’m sure, and there hasn't been the continuity of supply that there is now.
The soldiers were coming home with their army pay via Japan, and doing their R&R, or doing their decommissioning there. Any of the real entrepreneurial ones would take their army pay into Japan and go buy a hundred watches, let’s say. A hundred Seikos or a hundred Citizens. Good quality, reliable automatics,” says Grant.
“Then come back to their hometowns around wherever, go to retailers and tell them, 'I’m home from the war. Do you want to buy these hundred watches?' This was before computer reordering and all that sort of thing. All the retailers kept a huge stock of watches on hand. Trying to leverage into that men’s automatic market, we couldn’t give away a gent’s watch.
“[So] he thought, ‘What else can I make that nobody else is really making?’ It was waterproof watches for the ladies, with a screw crown.”
Grant admits that while the Adina range has grown considerably since those early days, waterproof watches remain the company’s pedigree.
“Why have we kept it here in Australia? So we can control the quality.”
Manufacturing when it’s supposed to be dead in Australia
“The watch industry is not unlike the car industry, in a lot of ways,” says Grant.
“As Aussies, we’re weird about watches. Everybody’s got one in their top drawer, whether you wear one or you don’t. Your mum and dad have given you one for finishing school, or your 21st birthday. It means something to you. We are, honestly, almost strange about our watches. We have a very powerful attachment to it.
“We always wanted to have a watch that, if someone chose for their 21st birthday, or a wedding anniversary, or something like that, they were always going to have it years down the track.
"It’s been a big part of the success of our brand to be able to service our watches for as long as people want to have them serviced.”
While much of Australia’s manufacturing has now moved offshore, or is in the process of doing so, Grant says there are two key factors which have enabled Adina Watches to keep manufacturing locally – the demand for Australian-made products, and the company’s ability to service its watches in-house on Australian soil.
“Why have we kept it here in Australia? So we can control the quality. It would be very easy to still use the different component makers but have it all shipped to an assembly house in China that would chop out all those Australian guys from this end,” Grant says emphatically.
“Whatever we would send there, they’d put together, and then they’d just send it to Australia. Whether it works or not, it doesn’t matter. That’s what we’ve sent to them.”
According to Grant, remaining Australian-made has been a key factor in the longevity of the business.
“We have a massive following in regional Australia. We make the Toyota Land Cruiser of work watches. If you’re a farmer and you own a Toyota Land Cruiser, you own an Adina Countrymaster. We’ve developed this reputation for making bulletproof, tough work watches off our waterproof pedigree. We apply the same principles that we've applied in our early days to these work watches,” he says.
“People have a real passion for watches. When they’re finding out about us as being an Australian manufacturer, they’re becoming more interested in our story.
“Watches aren’t something, it’s not like a cup of coffee, where you go and buy one every day. When people become interested in a brand, they find out about you. They’re interested in how we do things, the quality that that would produce, and what it can do longer term. When that purchasing decision comes around, I’d like to consider Adina as in that conversation.”
“For us, as a manufacturer and designer, we’ve taken our pedigree of making waterproof watches...and now we activate quite strongly in the fashion space, but in a waterproof idea.”
Changing with the times
Many modern businesses struggle to keep up with changing pace of consumer demand, as product trends and user preferences seemingly change by the day.
As Grant points out, businesses have always had to adapt to change, and the ones that not only survive but thrive are the ones that see change as an opportunity to produce new goods or services rather than a challenge to their existing lines.
“I’ve been working for Dad now for 21 years. When I first started, there were a lot of rules in place about what people wore. If you were a gold girl, you wore a gold watch, with your gold bracelet, and your gold earrings, and that was it,” he says.
“All those rules, they are gone. Now, you can wear a stainless steel-looking watch with a rose gold bracelet, with leather, with pearl earrings. Everyone’s style is completely attainable now.”
Grant says by understanding this change in the nature of fashion accessories has allowed Adina to maintain a place at the fashion table.
“For us, as a manufacturer and designer, we’ve taken our pedigree of making waterproof watches, that have always been supremely practical and always looked good, and now we activate quite strongly in the fashion space, but in a waterproof idea.”
Finding good people is a common challenge for many businesses. When you’re the last of your kind in the country, the challenge becomes far more acutely felt.
As Grant previously pointed out, being the sole Australian watchmaking business has its commercial advantages, but the downside is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find skilled staff.
“That’s becoming one of the biggest challenges – the watchmakers,” explains Grant.
“There is an antiquated view on watchmaking at the moment. The govie looks at the newspaper and goes, ‘How many ads are in the paper, or on Seek.com.au for a watchmaker? None. We don’t have to put any budget for it.’ Actually, the reverse is true because there are so many opportunities for watchmakers. We don’t actually need to put ads in the paper.
“If a watchmaker went into a jeweller’s shop and said, ‘I’m a watchmaker, I’m looking for a job. Got one for me?’ [the response would be] ‘There’s the bench, you start tomorrow.’ Having a watchmaker and a jeweller on the premises is becoming a very powerful thing for the independent retailer. It’s that old-fashioned service again.”
“My wife, she says, ‘You’re the only guy in Australia who could just walk into any country town in Australia and borrow a hundred bucks on a handshake.’ I could. That’s the strength of the partnership that we have with our retailers.”
Boots on the ground
It is for this reason that Grant explains bricks and mortar retailing produces the vast majority of their revenues.
“Our primary focus for the distribution of our watches is through bricks and mortar. We do have an online channel, but our traditional bricks and mortar is still our strongest offering,” he says.
“Our online offering is growing, for sure, absolutely, but still less than 1 per cent of our turnover.”
As such, Grant spends a great deal of his time on planes crisscrossing the country to visit retailers and maintain strong relationships with those stocking his products, as well as those supplying components.
“All those 300-odd retailers that we’ve got nationally that sell our product, I know them all personally. My wife, she says, ‘You’re the only guy in Australia who could just walk into any country town in Australia and borrow a hundred bucks on a handshake.’ I could. That’s the strength of the partnership that we have with our retailers,” Grants says.
“[And] we have some very long-term suppliers: some for over 40 years.
“I’m on planes all time the time. You’d see me sitting there, and you’d see someone, and you’d start talking away. You can tell I want to have a chat. I’m like, “Good. How’s your watch going?” Then we start talk about it.”
Fast facts: Adina Watches
Location: Brisbane, Queensland
No. of employees: 18
Customer base: Predominantly Australian-based retailers