Small Business

Living the dreamtime

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Painting a 747 jumbo is not everyone's idea of getting noticed, but for John and Ros Moriarty, it took their design business to the world.

The brainwave hit at two in the morning as Ros Moriarty lay awake in bed.

"We should paint a Qantas plane," she said to husband John. He was less than enthused. "Go back to sleep."

In the cold light of day the founders of Balarinji, the nation's leading indigenous art and contemporary design studio, thrashed out the idea.

"I thought [Qantas] were a public service organisation and they would not be able to grasp such a concept," John says. "I ended up being wrong - 18 months later the first design went on to a plane."

The concept put the Balarinji studio on the map and pushed the business into an unexpected stratum of success. The fanfare that greeted the first flight of the Qantas 747 Wunala (Kangaroo) Dreaming to Osaka in September 1994 took everyone by surprise. It became the most photographed plane in the world.

A family business

John and Ros Moriarty consider their business a "life's work". It is a fitting description given that Balarinji was born as part of the celebration of the birth of their first child. Yet it is also an appraisal that goes to the heart of what makes the company a success.

It is not just about making money out of a "flavour of the month" interest in everything indigenous. Rather, it is about a marriage and children that span two cultures - and a missionary-like zeal to show the contemporary relevance of an ancient civilisation.

As John, a member of the Yanyuwa people of Borroloola in Adelaide and an adviser to state and federal governments, explains: "A passion to celebrate the ancient and modern cultures that our baby son was born into was the driving force we brought to the table ... In these early years we grew a family and a business. We wanted to translate our personal philosophy of Australian identity for a local and international marketplace."

As the Moriarty family grew, so did the business. The screen-printed cot cover and blinds that marked the birth of son Tim Bundian (his bush name means 'cheeky brown snake') inspired a range of superfine wools, silks and cottons that the Australian Wool Corporation launched in September 1983, two days before their second son, James Djawarralwarral (dugong), was born. By the time their daughter, Julia Maraelu (mermaid), arrived in 1988 the company was well on its way, producing fashionwear and corporate branding, and making export inroads.

From humble beginnings

The implausibility that a kitchen table start-up in Melbourne in 1983 with a $12,000 capital base would one day be branding one of the world's best airlines is testament to the belief of the Moriartys that "passion is paramount".

"If your heart is not in it, tough times are more likely to be terminal," John says. The Moriarty patriarch is used to defying the odds: he was the first Aboriginal university graduate in South Australia and the first Aboriginal soccer player selected for Australia.

Although not trained in the commercial world, the Moriartys have an innate ability to know when to delegate and to keep good people around them. "Neither of us had business experience at start-up, so we have always been open to delegating appropriately," Ros reflects. "Over time we have become better at identifying the right expertise."

Accountants, lawyers and new design teams have helped the business expand through retail outlets and a core operation that concentrates on design consulting and licensing.

As for staff management, the couple say it comes with the territory. "The staff who stay with us generally share our passion for the company's philosophy and charter: to create inclusion of contemporary indigenous imagery in how Australians identify as a nation," John says.

The award-winning Balarinji model is based on a fluid business structure that allows it to access freelance designers and additional management resources as required.

"A slowdown in work occurs in cycles, and there can be periods of tough trading," Ros says. "The strategy to stay small at the core insulates us to an extent. We maintain extremely tight cost controls, whether in boom times or recession."

The Moriartys also work hard; very hard. "Working smart is no antidote for working hard," Ros says. "A business is a way of life, and the necessary commitment is unrelenting. Working smart is, however, mandatory in order to thrive."

Inherent in "working smart" is a disciplined approach to creating systems and processes across all areas of the business - from management through to marketing and creative. The Moriartys believe that little can be achieved alone and that success is often dependent on the quality of business relationships.

After more than two decades and an established international presence, John and Ros admit changes are afoot.

"We are moving towards an equity raising as part of an expansion-succession plan," Ros says. "We are growing up - maturing. We need a reinvigorated structure to grasp the new opportunities that are presenting."

Most recently, those "new opportunities" have included a chance to work with computer giant IBM designing covers for its ThinkPad computers in what Ros describes as the "coming together of the world's oldest and newest communication technologies". In a sense, it is exactly what Balarinji is all about.

It is little wonder that Ros finds inspiration in a quote from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. "There is no use trying," said Alice. "One can't believe impossible things." "I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
 
Still at the controls

With a stable company and grown children, you would expect the Moriartys to be ready to hand over the reins, yet the company remains privately owned and the couple are still very much hands-on.

Ask them why they still want to be in the driving seat and John and Ros admit to getting joy from seeing their designs branding Australia globally.

It goes further than that, however, as Ros explains: "The excitement of winning pitches, realising budgets, dreaming up projects. The opportunities we are able to create with, and for, indigenous people, to enhance their lives. The sense that we make a difference, change perceptions, challenge the stereotypes."

Part of the difference Balarinji makes is through its corporate citizenship platform that does pro bono work for groups as diverse as the Australian Council for Reconciliation and the Croc Eisteddfod. It also helps through sponsorships for indigenous sports figures such as Cathy Freeman and training and employment for indigenous staff and remote area artists.

There is still more to do, however. Among the goals to which the couple aspire is for Balarinji merchandise to be a top-of-mind design brand in markets around the globe.

John adds: "And of Australia - in the way that Marimekko signatures Finland, or Missoni signatures Italy."

Is it impossible? Not for the dreamers in the Moriarty household.

Tips

•    Learn to delegate the work
•    Be passionate about what you do
•    Don't be afraid to think big
 

Published on: Wednesday, September 02, 2009

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