Sussex represents a rare success story in Australian manufacturing.
Not only does the company continue to make all of its products in Melbourne, it is also the only Australian tapware manufacturer operating its own foundry, where every step of the manufacturing process is still performed by local workers.
With ambitious plans for expansion in the next few years, Sussex has transformed the tactile pleasure of its founder’s jewellery business into a sustainable business carving a growing niche focused on design excellence and customisation.
The business is unique for making bespoke products machined from brass bars using state-of-the-art computer numerical control drilling machines at its manufacturing workshop, a number of which were acquired when Holden closed its Port Melbourne plant in 2008.
You might already know Sussex. Its Scala collection is a recognised Australian classic but now the company is looking to the future, particularly when it comes to design innovation and product customisation.
“We really care, and we are total perfectionists,” Sussex director Vanessa Katsanevakis says. “We put everything into making beautifully crafted, high performance tapware.”
“Our focus is on offering our customers what they want, supported by our strength in manufacturing, design, craftsmanship and customisation,” Vanessa says.
In the wake of the GFC, Sussex faced a choice. It could take its manufacturing offshore and compete on price along with other brands in the tapware space, or it could move towards the high end of the market, offering exceptionally designed and crafted products with unmatched options for customisation to a burgeoning segment of design-conscious consumers.
“We always compare our products to the best that Europe offers, and in the last 18 months we have rolled out new branding to support these values,” says Katsanevakis.
“At the time of the GFC we were quickly finding out that we were no longer going to be competitive if we did not change and rethink our position in the market. Almost all of our competitors were moving offshore to China, or partly offshore. Offshore was never a valid option for us,” she says.
The gradual remaking of Sussex began when Vanessa and her husband George Katsanevakis, who is the business’ managing director, started to govern Sussex Taps around six years ago. The directors streamlined internal processes and focused on a niche of customisation.
Sussex components can be combined to custom specifications. Beyond this, polishes, electroplating and paint finishes provide almost endless variation.
“Customisation and the expression of individual tastes are exciting motivators for continued innovation at Sussex. The 32 finishes that we offer are driving the most demand for our business,” George says.
The strategy has paid off, with the company now employing 60 workers and showing sustained growth of around eight to 15 per cent growth per annum.
“We were fortunate,” George says, “to have a very strong foundation. Our products are built with quality in mind, and we are able to rely on our vertical integration, where we are responsible for almost the entire manufacturing process, beginning with melting brass rods in our own foundry.”
Operating its own foundry allows Sussex to recycle precious brass shavings (the by-product of machining processes where taps are machined from solid brass rods) in a continuous cycle that makes Sussex one of the most environmentally sustainable manufacturers working in this area.
Sussex does its own research and design, creating the forms for new parts by hand on lathes operated by expert artisans right there in its Somerton manufacturing workshop.
A telling detail that speaks to Sussex’s recent growth, as well as its handcrafted traditions, is the pegboard components chart on the wall of its Melbourne manufacturing workshop. Vanessa’s late father Nicolaas Johannes van Putten handcrafted the first part when he diversified into tapware from an internationally successful jewellery business in the 1990s. Now holding 959 components, the chart presents a timeline of the business. Roughly half of those parts have been added in the last five years, as the business has scaled and product development picked up pace. There is still plenty of room left on the ‘timeline’ for new components but Sussex has bold plans for the future and innovation and new collections are sure to result in further development.