Since 1946, the Tumut Broom Factory on the doorstep of the New South Wales Snowy Mountains has held fast against the winds of globalisation and the challenges of agricultural industry restructuring.
Just inside the door, co-owner Geoff Wortes is sewing twine across the partly-made brooms. The machine he’s using was built in the 1940s and requires manual loading as well as deft footwork on the pedals. It was made to last, and is still going strong. “Good brooms are about good ingredients and human hands,” he says, quoting his late father, Cliff, who bought the business about 40 years ago.
The factory’s story is one of endurance and nimble adaptation. The region once grew around 75 per cent of Australia’s millet and supplied 14 broom factories across the country. At its height, the demand for millet at the factory delivered an income to more than 120 local families. But from a peak of 15 factories in the 1960s, the broom factory is the last sizeable operation of its kind in Australia. Several seismic forces put most out of business.
Firstly, the brooms were made from millet straw. Many of the dairy farmers who’d once supplemented their income with millet switched to corn, which could be machine-harvested. Then vacuum cleaners arrived, followed by cheap Chinese brooms. Then nylon began to undercut them on price. Eventually, most broom production moved offshore.
Cliff Wortes never accepted that the game was up for domestic production. He had worked his way up from millet sorter to manager in the heyday, when the factory was run as a farmer’s cooperative. When the place went up for sale in the 1970s, he bought it.
His son Geoff had worked as a hydrologist and then a builder. In 1986, at the age of 33, he was drawn into the family business.
“A good broom will last you 10 years, but you’d be lucky to get six months out of the cheap ones,” he says. “Nylon is a tenth the price, but the static electricity attracts dirt, which stays on the brush.”
After his father died in 2002, Geoff went into partnership with Robert Richards, who’d worked at the factory for many years. They decided a partnership was the best way to go as the costs are minimal. A partnership is not a separate legal entity and each partner is liable for business debts.
Richards is working at the sturdy old broom- making machine in another part of the shed. He picks up a handful of millet straw and lashes it to the Tasmanian ash handle with pliable wire. A shift and a twirl, another swatch added, and the broom takes shape. The “shoulders” of the broom and its overall presentation are important. It can take a few years to acquire the level of skill required to make 12 brooms in an hour. “It doesn’t matter about the numbers you make if you can’t sell them,” says Robert. “Quality is what sells them.”
About 15 years ago, with local millet still requiring hand harvesting and supplies dwindling, Geoff and Robert started sourcing the durable straw from Mexico — at a cost of $500 a bale. They can churn through some five tonnes of imported millet each year. Other expenses have also squeezed profits, such as the requirement by courier companies for standardised boxes. “It costs us $5 per box,” says Geoff. “We used to bundle them with a sack over the top, which cost 50 cents.”
Still, they press on. Robert’s son Brad is in a back room sorting. About 10 per cent of the millet isn't up to scratch and is discarded. “We’re making Rolls- Royces, not Holdens,” says Geoff. Brad, a qualified diesel mechanic, has joined the business — as has Geoff’s son Andrew. A trained musician, Andrew has taken to broom-making with alacrity. “It’s a good business,” he says.
“It doesn’t matter about the numbers you make if you can’t sell them. Quality is what sells them.”
As the fame of Tumut Broom Factory spreads, more visitors call in to buy a broom and hear a bit of country philosophy. The factory brings tourists tothe area and is an indelible part of the community. “We’re determined for China not to take over everything,” says Geoff. “I’m proud to live in a great country called Australia, and I’d just like to keep production here.”
He points to the recent COVID-19 lockdowns and the vulnerability of being so dependent on imports. “We had a hold-up on the docks and couldn’t get the millet for weeks. It only just got here and we’ve got a lot of back orders to fill.”
Constantly on the lookout for ways to innovate, they’re experimenting with growing a new short variety of millet locally. This variety would allow machine harvesting. “I reckon we might be able to adapt a wheat harvester and then we could grow and harvest it here economically,” says Geoff.
Brad and Andrew are preparing to take over the business when Geoff and Robert retire next year. Like all new brooms, they have new ideas such as online accounting and a fresh business plan.
Broom-making has certainly not proved a path to a glittering fortune, but the business has given Geoff and Robert a rich life. “Dad said the hearse doesn’t go past the bank on the way to the cemetery,” laughs Geoff.
Their social responsibility policy consists of “being polite and honest” and there’s little in the way of KPIs and bonuses — unless you count the Christmas party. But the business has repaid them tenfold. “There’s a pride in knowing you’re making an excellent product,” says Geoff.