Craig Gibbens, James Gibbens & Samantha Swain
As a leading Australian manufacturer and supplier to the fencing and wire mesh markets in the Asia Pacific region, the Protective Group, which today is led by fourth generation Gibbens family members, has thrived over the past 44 years in an industry fraught with challenges, most notably the constant battle to find innovative ways to compete against cheaper imports.
Their success and continual growth are the result of numerous factors, including a strong leadership team, exceptional workplace morale, an unwavering commitment to their customers, diversification, quality Australian made products, end-to-end production and distribution control, and the strategic decision to focus on a niche market that gives them a distinct competitive advantage.
As leaders in the high security fencing industry, the Protective Group has set the benchmark high and is now steering the way forward in the development of new Australian standards that will strengthen our nation’s security.
This is a story of family succession and business triumph in Australian manufacturing.
While the Protective Group began its journey in 1975, the Gibbens family history in the Australian wire based manufacturing industry dates back much further.
Craig Gibbens, who led the first arm of the Protective Group, Protective Fencing, is the grandson of Matthew George Gibbens, who, in 1907, was an apprentice at Australia’s first wire spring making factory and later started a spring manufacturing business at Camperdown.
George (Craig’s father) joined the business and within a few years had begun producing his own machines. He then started his own business to export machines, which began to attract a global market.
In 1968, George purchased five acres of land in West Gosford on the back of the state government’s business decentralisation incentive scheme and relocated to his newly built premises the following year.
Craig joined the family business in 1974 (his older brother, Greg, was already onboard) and commenced his fitting and machining apprenticeship.
A year later, Protective Fencing Pty Ltd was formed with Craig at the helm.
He said, “I decided to go into wire mesh production because it was something new and, as the family had been in the wire manufacturing business for more than a generation,
I knew we had the knowledge and experience to take it on at a time when demand was high and few were doing it.”
Protective Fencing began with one chain link wire making machine, two employees and Craig working the machine, quoting, taking orders, manufacturing the product, delivering the rolls of wire fencing and even erecting the fences until he had sufficient work to subcontract out the installation process.
Building an easy rapport with customers, Craig quickly identified a need to offer the complete fencing package. So he began manufacturing the posts, gates and other accessories to accompany the wire mesh.
Reputation of Craig’s quality products and service grew rapidly and soon he was asked to supply fencing companies throughout NSW as well as direct to consumers.
A key milestone in the evolution of the company occurred in 1991 when Craig purchased Protective Fencing from his father’s holding company and by 1995, the company had grown eight-fold.
At a time when many Australian manufacturers were moving their operations overseas, Craig saw no reason to leave the Central Coast.
Having outgrown the West Gosford premises by 2001, he purchased land in the Somersby Industrial Estate and in 2006, after numerous construction approval delays and lengthy negotiations with Gosford Council and Energy Australia, Craig and his team of 32 finally moved into their new state-of-the-art 3,500sqm manufacturing facility and headquarters.
The move cemented the company’s position as the largest manufacturer of chain wire fencing products in NSW. It also marked a change of direction for the company with a new sole focus on manufacturing and distribution to the broader fencing industry.
As part of their mission to continually add more value to customers they installed a new powder coating plant and extended the product range of industrial and security fencing products.
This enabled them to manufacture and deliver orders with a much shorter lead time to meet customer demand, something they knew competitors importing from Asia could not do.
In fact to date no one else in their industry manufactures Australian made products with Australian raw materials like the Protective Group.
While this has been a challenge for the business, particularly in more recent years with the low Australian dollar, one of the strategies instilled from generations past was to maintain a strong, local supplier relationship and this has given them the edge over others who sought to cut costs by purchasing overseas.
Another strong point of difference is the company’s niche target market of installers rather than consumers. The Group’s General Manager Sales, Ben Gregson said,
“The installers prefer to source their products from us because we purposely separate ourselves from the consumers. So rather than limiting ourselves to how much our team can install, we are unlimited because every installer can use us as a supplier.
They also know we are not going to be competing against them for the installation like other suppliers with installers on staff or subcontractors do.”
With Craig now semi-retired, the Group is led by his son, James, who joined the company in 1999 as an apprentice mechanical engineer, and his daughter, Samantha Swain, who came on board last year after several years in construction management.
As fourth generation Gibbens family members, neither James nor Samantha (like their father before them) felt any pressure to join the family business.
With their own unique skillsets, each plays a different role in the Group. James leads the production, logistics and warehousing teams while Samantha leads the administrative, accounts management and sales teams.
“James has the hands on experience in our business over the last twenty years and I have experience in a number of other companies. So coming together we have a really good balance.”
Confirming the complimentary skillsets James and Samantha bring to the company, Ben also spoke highly of the culture within the organization, which has a very high staff retention rate.
Knowing that diversification is crucial for success in Australian manufacturing in the 21st century, the Group has also moved beyond fencing into other markets, including wire mesh for the mining sector and government infrastructure projects.
They are constantly working on product development and are currently working with an external team to develop Australia’s first high security standard, an initiative driven by the Protective Group.
Quality and timeliness to market are key to the company’s success. Samantha said,
“Craig had great foresight in setting the business up with the number of machines we have to ensure we have the capabilities to meet demand.”
Samantha and James also credit their father and the generations before him for instilling strong values and ethics in them and the staff.
“When Craig comes in he’s out on the factory floor and everybody here knows him. He taught James and I to muck in and do whatever is needed to get the job done, just as he was taught from generations past.
It’s about mutual respect. It takes a team of people to manufacture a product in order to make a sale. Everybody on our team has a valuable role to play in that process,”
said Samantha. Craig himself takes great pride knowing the future of the company he built from the ground up is in very capable hands.