Entrepreneurs

How a focus on social responsibility helped a small Melbourne business strike deals with Google and Qantas

Dominic Powell /

Bellroy

Andy Fallshaw, co-founder and chief executive of Bellroy. Source: Supplied.

While Andrew Fallshaw’s company officially launched in 2010, he says its ‘unofficial’ launch was over a decade earlier when he was still a “dirt-poor” student in Scotland.

It was then, with some sailcloth, a yard of binding and a needle and thread, Fallshaw fashioned his first-ever slim-fit wallet, minus a bit of polish, which planted the seed for the founder launching premium leather goods brand Bellroy 11 years later.

A portmanteau of Fitzroy and Bells Beach, where the company has its two offices, Fallshaw started Bellroy alongside Hadrien Monloup, Lina Calabria and brother Matthew Fallshaw, spurred by the goal of doing social good while revolutionising how people carry their items.

“The way we move about the globe has been stuck in outdated paradigms, and so we wanted to rethink the products we use to carry our everyday things, eliminating many of the compromises that inhibit us,” Fallshaw tells SmartCompany.

“We also knew that business could be done better. A singular focus on ‘profit’ felt totally broken to us, and so we wanted to shape a business and brand that would be a force for good.”

Bellroy is a certified B Corporation, one of the few in Australia. This means the company has met a range of stringent social sustainability and environmental performance standards, such as ethical supply chains, sustainable business practices and diversity and inclusion commitments.

Fallshaw says social responsibility is “baked into the DNA” of Bellroy, and the company and its founders are always assessing how its actions positively affect people, animals and the environment.

“You’ll find social responsibility influences everything we do,” he says.

However, there’s “absolutely” an inherent difficulty in being an ethical and sustainable leather goods brand, says Fallshaw, with the vast majority of the company’s products being made from high-end leather.

“Leather comes from animals, and while the hide is only a tiny part of the value derived from a farmed animal, we’re always mindful of that starting point,” he says.

Source: Supplied.

The company overcomes this by working with gold-rated leather tanneries, meaning the leather is processed to the highest environmental standards possible. Bellroy has also played a role in uniting a group of major global leather brands to establish better animal welfare standards for leather products.

Friends in Hodor places

To date, the company has sold more than one million wallets in more than 160 countries, and has grown the team to more than 75 employees. Most notably, the company has also forged partnerships with some of the world’s largest companies, such as Huckberry, Qantas and Google.

Asked how a small Melbourne company managed to land such big names, Fallshaw says he wishes he could attribute them to some strategic program with “incredible outreach success”, but in reality, the companies have all reached out to Bellroy themselves.

These partnerships have spawned products such as a specialised Qantas Bellroy range, a notebook cover for Everyday Carry stalwart Field Notes, and a series of phone covers for the Google Pixel phones.

“For Google, they wanted a partner that knew leather intimately, yet could also understand the tech landscape and how to merge craft with technology. They did the work to find us,” he says.

“Every one of those partnerships has come together in a different way, but the common thread seems to be value alignment. Each of the brands we work with has a vision for how the world could be a better place, and when we come together, we hope to progress the parts of our visions that we share.”

These partnerships have helped Bellroy become a global name, with Fallshaw saying there are “countless” founders and celebrities who use Bellroy products, with Kristain Nairn, who plays Hodor in HBO’s Game Of Thrones series, being one who regularly sings the brand’s praises.

Australian businesses must compete globally

Looking forward, Fallshaw says while the company spent the last nine years completely bootstrapped, the company made the decision earlier this year to take on an undisclosed amount of investment from growth equity firm Silas Capital to help the company reach bigger markets and expand its product range.

“That’s a really exciting shift for us. Not only do our investors bring global expertise and experience, they also bring aligned values and sharp minds,” he says.

As part of the company’s growth, Fallshaw says the company has had to come to terms with competing on a global stage, with the co-founder noting the strategies Australian businesses used to build successful brands in the past will be different to the strategies necessary in the future.

“It used to be that the Australian market was neglected by global brands. This meant that many Australian businesses found success with a limited Australian focus, without having to compete against the world’s best,” he says.

“Our formulas for success must now consider the entire global market, and blaze a path that can compete with anyone from anywhere. That’s a totally different approach, that requires braver visions and deeper specialisation.”

And the wallet he made in 1999? Fallshaw says he passed it on to his brother and it remained in use for over a decade, long after Bellroy’s inception.

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Dominic Powell

Dominic is the former features and profiles editor at SmartCompany.