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Great Australian Companies: The story of ARB

It’s a story with humble beginnings: one man with a penchant for backyard fabrication that steadily grew into a publicly listed giant with a huge international footprint.

Today, ARB is massive. With more than $1.5 billion in market capital and a presence in every corner of the globe, this specialist 4X4 brand has become a household name. The company wasn’t born this way, however. And how it has grown over the years is a fascinating story.

It begins in 1975, before the boom of recreational 4WDing in Australia. One bloke by the name of Tony Brown was travelling from Melbourne to Cape York in his Series 1 Land Rover, and he made a few observations: conditions were pretty bloody arduous on the rough, corrugated and dusty outback tracks of Australia; lots of folks he met along the way were having trouble with their gear; and he was spending a fair chunk of his own time helping out.

Fast-forward to Tony returning back from the Top End to suburban Melbourne: his old Land Rover is still intact, and he has a few ideas rattling around in his head. A skilled welder and fabricator, Tony gets to work building bullbars and roof racks in his driveway, initially, for word-of-mouth customers.

Roger Brown, Tony’s brother, had this to say: “Tony, Andy (Brown) and I have always been very good with our hands. I’ve renovated several houses and built a lot of furniture over the years and Andy’s highly skilled in metal fabrication. But Tony was just in a league of his own. He was an incredibly good welder, which is why his bars and racks were in such high demand.”

It isn't just the family who likes Tony’s work, apparently. The initial enterprise outgrows the suburban shed in just 12 months, and he acquires a 93-square-metre workshop in Ringwood, Victoria. He hires his first off-sider, and registers the name business ARB (after his initials, Anthony Robert Brown).

The growth does not stop, spurred along by a burgeoning reputation for quality and durability. By 1981, ARB is forced to move to larger premises, only to relocate again in 1986. The new Croydon workshop is a 5110-square-metre space, 55 times larger than the original 1976 shed.

Recreational 4WDing is booming at this point, as vehicles start to become more and more compliant and capable. Compared to the choices of rough-and-tumble Land Rovers, LandCruisers, Suzukis and Nissan Patrols (which weren’t far off being tractors with an indicator stalk), options like Range Rovers, Toyota HiLuxes and 60 Series LandCruisers are making a big difference.

Fast-forward once again to the present day, and ARB has now positioned itself as the premier global manufacturer of aftermarket gear for 4WDs. One major driver of growth was ARB diversifying from its core products of bars and racks.

Buying the rights to the ‘Roberts Diff Lock’ in 1987 was a big jump for the company, which they marketed as the Air Locker in Australia and America. By 2004, they clock up 100,000 sales of the now ubiquitous traction aid.

Old Man Emu Suspension is acquired in 1988, further growing the product range. As dual-cab utes start to gain popularity, canopies join the fray in 1998. And ARB doesn’t just stick to bolt-on gear: 12V fridges are added to the portfolio in 2008, joining all kinds of other camping accessories.

It’s not just the ARB brand that stocks the shelves. Brands like Warn, IPF, Hi-Lift and Thule are sequestered from around the world to turn ARB into a one-stop 4X4 shop.

Bullbars are still a bread-and-butter product, but now have evolved to suit the requirements of safety systems like airbags, stability control, autonomous emergency braking and radar cruise control. Along with steel, they’re made from aluminium alloy and polymer these days.

ARB’s Matt Frost tells us: “I remember back in the mid '90s when 4WDs started coming with airbags as standard. The first vehicle that hit the market was the XJ Cherokee, followed closely by the Land Rover Discovery. They both had very different triggering mechanisms on their airbags as well, and that presented us with a real challenge of how 'can we do this?'

“We still want to offer a product that still allows a significant amount of vehicle protection, but at the same time be fully compliant with vehicle safety systems. We’ve always had engineers, but that was when we really started to beef up the in-house engineering. And we’ve had that right through our history.”

Australian manufacturing is taken care of at Kilsyth, with 16,723 square metres of floor space. That’s 180 times the size of the original shop. This is supplemented by a 16,000-square-metre warehouse and a separate manufacturing plant in Rayong, Thailand.

And that first employee, John Van Eynden, is still working for ARB, and is the man who established operations in Thailand in 2006, 31 years after his first day on the job.

ARB currently employs over 1500 staff, with more than 60 engineers on the books, and 60 stores in Australia. Internationally, ARB sells into over 100 countries around the world.

Considering it was literally once a one-man backyard operation, ARB is the epitome of an Australian success story.

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