In today’s disposable society where anything you buy be it a lightbulb, fridge or mixer doesn’t last for more than a couple of years, you are forgiven if, when you hear of a multi-century warranty, you have a bit of a chuckle followed by disbelief and the question: are you serious?
However, this is exactly what Mark Henry, founder of cookware company Solidteknics promises when you purchase any of his products, and yes, he is serious. Launched in 2014, Henry knew he had to come up with something very special if he wanted to conquer the Australian and then the worldwide market.
“Our company vision, laid out clearly on the front page of our website since day one, is to leave a positive legacy by developing only products that are the first of their kind in the world, the best of their kind, healthy, sustainable, and multi-century durable,” he explains. “Add the challenge of making them in Australia at competitive prices, and you really know you’re alive as a designer!”
Henry, who also founded Furi Knives when he was still at university, says it would be too easy to rebrand and repackage a generic product ‘discovered’ at the Canton Fair, like most importers.
“For me, that would leave a negative legacy when those products are thrown in the landfill, particularly if they have toxic coatings and non-biodegradable parts. This is frightening―we estimate 1.2 million imported disposable, non-stick pans are thrown in Australia’s landfill every year.
“[This is ] easy to imagine when you think we’ve got eight million plus households in Oz—80 per cent of kitchens would have at least one, and these pans would last less than five years on average. Now imagine that scaled up to the US, UK and the rest of the world… and that’s just cookware! Something has to change for the sake of future generations.”
Henry was aware that he needed to develop cookware that would be considered the best of its kind in the world by the experts. “I knew that was the ‘make or break’ point, and that we would have zero success manufacturing in Australia unless our cookware had clear performance advantages over the cheap imports, and old brand imports. That drove me to develop the world’s only production seamless one-piece wrought iron cookware (AUS-ION), and then the even more difficult seamless one-piece nöni ferritic stainless steel pans.”
Also almost impossible was finding world-class manufacturing partners in Australia (where no production cookware manufacturing remained) and then convincing them that Solidteknics could compete on the world stage, even with high Australian labour costs. The next challenge was convincing the cooks of Australia that Australians really could lead the world in cookware.
“There’s still a lot of old ‘cultural cringe’, where Aussies often believe products need to be European or American to be of high quality,” says Henry. “That attitude is kept alive by importers making big margins from European brands. The traditional old brands certainly are good quality, in an old school way, but they simply can’t match our Australian cookware for innovation or performance.”
However, Henry says probably the hardest thing is battling against decades of consumer cookware habits.
“Importers of synthetic non-stick pans have convinced Australians that cookware should be a disposable consumable―thrown in the landfill as soon as the non-stick breaks down. A few generations ago everyone knew that seasoned iron pans were naturally non-stick (and non-toxic), and that they should last a whole lifetime… the importers and marketers just helped them forget it. We’re here to bring back that simple old knowledge, updated with new innovation for higher performance.”
Solidteknics is definitely not your average company, from the way it is run— Henry currently lives in France and has employees in all corners of the world—to its vision and management. In fact, Henry says he likes to think everything is different about Solidteknics.
“We are the only production cookware manufacturer in Australia. We have patents pending on the world’s only production seamless one-piece wrought cookware, where the pan and handle is formed in one monobloc from a single sheet of iron or stainless, not cast. We make the world’s most durable pans, being one seamless piece of very tough material. Our multi-century warranty is probably also a world-first.
“Weird also is that we will only make healthy products. For example, we refuse to use synthetic coatings, after all our research and the clear evidence from independent scientists. And we will only ever make products that last for multiple centuries. It’s automatic for us to put this vision for a healthier and more sustainable multi-generation legacy before profits. There’s no question where our priorities lie… We’re very popular with any stores that support health and sustainability, and a love for Australian-made products. They appreciate how difficult it is for us to compete against the imports, so they’re happy to recommend us to their customers.
“Another difference is we don’t flog consumer products in the traditional way with ‘push advertising’. We have built a tribe of followers who share our vision and love the performance of our products. Those followers are proud of what we’re achieving, against all the odds, and so they’re willing to build our brand through word-of-mouth, which is mostly on social media these days. They also walk into retailers and educate them about this new era in Australian cookware leadership. The marketers would call it ‘pull demand’. We call it mutual respect and faith in a worthy long-term vision.
“Our management is probably as ‘strange’ as our vision and products. I’ve built multinational businesses with revenues of tens of millions in the traditional way, and I’ll never do that again, for many reasons. One of the legacies I want to leave is a new style of business that is more ‘human’.
“In a practical sense, our employees have total flexibility in hours and in most activities during those hours. They decide what needs to be done to fulfil their role and advance the business. They are trusted to give their job responsibilities 100 per cent because they are inspired by our mission, not because there’s someone looking over their shoulder. When I hire I always hire the character, integrity, belief in our mission, and the potential to grow into and out of the role. I put a low weight on their experience. We’re so different that a lot of their industry experience doesn’t count anyway.”
Each new Solidteknics product is launched on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter and Henry says it is a great way to build demand and inspire the brand’s fans to share on social media.
“The ‘engagement’ levels we see on our Facebook page are huge compared to the rest of the industry because our followers are believers, not just shoppers… We want to build a movement, not primarily a bank balance and our supporters sense that, and the respect is mutual.”
Because the products are different and designed for chefs, they are preferred by commercial suppliers and independent or small chain gourmet kitchenware stores. They have the experience to understand Solidteknics products, and the ability to be well-trained and pass the knowledge on to their customers.
“For products like ours, particularly seasoned iron, [sharing knowledge] is essential. We are on very few internet retailers, and that is an intentional strategy. If we prostituted our products out to all the big online discounters for short term revenues, we would be just like all the other import brands, and it would be impossible for the independent kitchenware stores to make margins from our products.
“We need those expert stores, and they need products that are different to all the mass market generics that are discounted everywhere. We’re on Amazon USA, but we don’t sell to them direct, it is two of our key retailers there who have a store within Amazon. In that way we don’t get into a fast downward price spiral and destroy our retailers.”
With a strong vision―ethical, healthy, sustainable, world-first, world-best, multi-century durable―and a clear mission, which Henry says will never change in his lifetime, the company will keep growing steadily and then hopefully continue down the generations to make a real impact on the health and sustainability of the planet, across a number of industries. That’s the dream, and with the growing support of the public, that dream is starting to appear achievable.
“I’m also hoping to inspire other Australian designers to take on the big importers and brands with higher performance local products that are healthy and sustainable,” says Henry. “We’re proving it’s possible, but only if you can innovate and offer a clearly better product for the inevitably higher cost. Most will want cheap junk, but there will always be a proportion of consumers who want the best, and increasingly they also want healthy, sustainable, and local. The trick is to make that niche big enough so you’re viable enough to build a strong, multi-generation brand. And no, we’re not there yet, but we have to believe we see the light at the end of the tunnel, otherwise it’s just too hard!”