Brisbane, Queensland

It is night time on Friday 21 February 2014 in southwest Brisbane and the rain is lashing down so hard that guests standing at the back of Andrew Barton Laundry’s state-of-art, one-week-old warehouse cannot hear managing director David Braatvedt’s speech. The public address system is struggling to project his optimism and encouragement through the high-ceilinged delivery centre — the open roller door isn’t helping — and the hundreds of washing machines and dryers, stacked high in their cardboard boxes, leave plenty of nooks and crannies for Braatvedt’s words to disappear into.

As the guests, mostly commercial laundry customers, current and prospective retail dealers and visiting dignitaries, creep forward, they begin appreciating the struggle that Braatvedt and his team have endured to reach this point. As it turns out, overcoming a snap storm hammering the company’s Seventeen Mile Rocks locale to launch Speed Queen’s new retail initiative is mightily appropriate.

“Three years ago, when we had the flood, we lost everything; 800 machines gone,” Braatvedt said in his speech. Later he recalled canoeing around the old premises attempting to salvage whatever he could but, for the one-time chopper pilot in the South African Air Force, there was little left to save.

He called Jeffrey Hopkin, the Las Vegas based director of sales for the Asia Pacific region and explained the situation. “Can you action 8 containers to be sent out?” he asked, and four days later Speed Queen’s manufacturing parent company, Alliance Laundry Systems, delivered.

“There were no questions asked about finance — that’s where it’s a true partnership between Andrew Barton and Alliance — because for a company of that magnitude to just send out those containers without thinking of the expense, that was a very rewarding and comforting thing.”

Andrew Barton Laundry has been around since the early 1950s. Following the post-War patriotic fashion of the day, it was named not for its owner but for a celebrated and recently deceased Australian: Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson. That the nation was celebrating Banjo’s 150th birthday in the same week as this celebration was a point noted by the attending guests.

Described by colleagues as a “visionary”, Braavedt immigrated to Australia in mid-1980s after becoming disillusioned with life in Apartheid South Africa. An adventurous man by nature, the walls of Braavedt’s office are adorned with model planes he has flown and black and white portraits of him yachting and hunting; his desk is made from the wing of a plane he once piloted.

Braavedt has been the managing director of Andrew Barton Laundry since 2002. When he joined, the company was “needing some repairs”, he said, but within five years commercial sales were booming and within 10 years, this antediluvian period had registered three times as many sales as the previous years combined.

Considering how much product and momentum Andrew Barton Laundry lost in that natural disaster, it was unsurprising that Braavedt joked that the new premises were on a hilltop at the highest point in suburban Brisbane.

“Since the flood we have grown, our next move and the future for us is retail. We’ve had the mining boom but we’ve now geared ourselves for the future, with retail,” he said.

“It’s exciting but it’s just the beginning: new facilities, ready for retail training, ready for an exciting dream.”

The Speed Queen brand is no stranger to the Australian market, though its recent history is blighted by the collapse of a previous distributor/retailer, the old Kleenmaid. The Young brothers, currently facing fraud charges in a Gold Coast court, sold Speed Queen appliances as a laundry companion to Kleenmaid’s eponymous kitchen brand. The new Kleenmaid, operated by Compass Capital Partners out of a South Sydney showroom, report that they still receive regular enquiries for Speed Queen washers and dryers from customers that simply do not want any other products in their home.

The brand is owned by Alliance Laundry Systems, a 106-year-old Wisconsin-based company that is currently owned by a Canadian teachers’ union retirement fund. Alliance only manufactures laundry appliances, for Speed Queen and other commercial labels, in American factories and several others dotted around the world.

Alliance has historically had three commercial distributors in Australia: Speed Queen Equipment Sales for Victoria, FL Costello and Co for New South Wales and Western Australia and Andrew Barton Laundry for Queensland and, soon, the Northern Territory. For Speed Queen to properly relaunch into consumer-facing sales, the feedback from the major retailers — Harvey Norman was specifically mentioned — was that the brand needed unified sales representation. To that end, these three distributors have formed a joint venture called 1300 WASHER, which will soon go live to wholesale Speed Queen into retail Australia-wide.

Looking at the most recent sales data available and taking into account all the various types of washing machines and dryers on the retail market, Australians spent just over $710 million on 1,132,641 laundry appliances for the 12 months to February 2012. Sources say the average sales price for a top loader is around $700 while consumers are paying slightly more, around $900, for a front load machine.

Alliance’s point of difference with its Speed Queen machines is that they are commercial machines being sold for residential use. The only difference is that the machines being shipped to laundromats have coin slots, according to vice president of international sales, Rick Pyle. Being made to withstand abuse in a commercial setting — years and years of operation without too much love — is what has endeared consumers to the brand and why Speed Queen commands a hefty premium: upwards of $1,000 on the ASP for some units in the range. It also explains why 1300 WASHER is rolling out a pro forma or agency model for the brand.

Michael Schoeb, the president and CEO of Alliance, officially declared the brand ready for retail in his short speech at the launch event, in addition to praising the work of David Braatvedt and the Andrew Barton team.

“I am delighted to be here,” he said. “There are very few people in the world I would fly 36 hours or 10,000 miles to see and David is one of those. I am really awed by this place. It is a fabulous location and I think it represents our brand in a phenomenal way.

“Alliance has over 1,000 distributors in 105 countries and I can tell you that David and his organisation really is at the top of the top and have set a new benchmark.

“Speed Queen really represents a lot of the things David and his team are about. It represents reliability, it represents commitment, it represents doing things that you say you’re going to do. All those things that our brand and product are about, you and your organisation are also about.”

Schoeb concluded by saying to the retailers and dealers in the audience, “If you’re choosing Speed Queen, you’ve made a great decision and I thank you for that”.

With the speeches done, the crowd moved outside and edged under the awning that surrounds Andrew Barton Laundy’s new warehouse and head office facility. As the driving rain continued to lash down on us, like we ourselves were stuck in a commercial-grade washing machine at full power, bright sparks popped and the familiar crackle of fireworks filled the air. Just as Andrew Barton Laundry survived the flooding that destroyed everything, the pyrotechnics to celebrate this new venture refused to give up their flight and wonder, rejecting a damp squib’s existence, and flying higher, higher and higher.