Gilly’s Australia recently celebrated 40 years of business in 2023. Originally ‘Gilly Stephenson’s Old Fashioned Furniture Polish,’ it all began with Gilly Stephenson making the cream polish at home in the late 70s. Now, selling a range of over 20 products nationally and internationally, Gilly’s has become a prominent name in the hardware and antique trade.
Gilly, along with her husband, Chris, and their three children, migrated from Northern Essex to a sheep farm in Western Australia in 1968. Gilly’s French-polished Georgian antiques needed regular polishing to prevent drying out from the Australian heat, so she would always buy wax from the United Kingdom, to keep them looking in good condition.
In 1978 Gilly and her family made the move to Mundaring and the wax she was buying had always been hard work for polishing, so a friend shared a 150-year-old recipe to make a light and easy-to-apply cream polish. After perfecting the recipe, Gilly was soon making it for friends and by 1983 a business was born.
By 1992, manufacturing had moved from her kitchen to a factory unit in Mundaring and through the 1990s Gilly’s expanded into stores nationally, with retailers such as Bunnings and Mitre 10 stocking the range.
In 2009, six years after retirement, Gilly passed away at home, aged 68, leaving behind her husband, Christopher, her three children, eight grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. The following year Chris retired, leaving the running of the business to their daughter Alice, with the help of her cousin Sara.
In 2011 Alice’s son, Culver, began working at Gilly’s, and today he manages the day-to-day operations of Gilly’s, working alongside Alice, Sara, his sister Phoebe, and the production team who have come onboard through friends and family. Gilly’s today is a close-knit family business still, with the third generation now driving it forward.
The Australian Made journey
Interestingly, in the beginning, Culver says that being Australian Made went against the business.
“We were predominantly in the antique trade at this point, and the industry strongly leant towards imported polishes from the UK and Europe,” he said.
“There were few commercially made Australian polishes, and it took time for people to realise our quality was up there with the best in the world. At antique fairs, Gilly managed to establish great relationships with some of the most renowned antique dealers in the country, such as Lauder & Howard, Clive Brans Antiques, Valentine’s Antique Gallery, and Greene & Greene, and this helped her eventually get accepted by the trade and their customers.”
Through the 1990s and 2000s, Gilly’s expanded heavily into the hardware industry, through Bunnings and Mitre 10. This increased production requirements and provided opportunity for new product lines.
“The equipment and processes, however, remained very ‘hands-on’. Although this has now improved dramatically, it is still a challenge as we are not a mass-produced product and the cost of both labour and equipment is high – so we are always looking to strike that balance,” Culver says.
After 40 years of providing good quality products and services, customers have developed a preference for Gilly’s products.
“I think the last few years have also highlighted the importance of Australian Made, as supply issues rocked many importers, and retail shelves were left empty. Global trade is a necessity, but I think it was a good warning, not to be over-reliant on imports. We were able to meet orders throughout this time with minimal issues,” says Culver.
Supporting local Australian business is important to Gilly’s. Their raw materials, containers and packaging are sourced from local suppliers wherever possible; as well as their bottles and cardboard packaging being manufactured in Australia, mostly from recycled materials.
“Our labels and marketing materials are sourced locally here in Perth, and we also look to do the same even for general factory and office supplies.”
“We are especially pleased that our Beeswax is 100 per cent West Australian and has a beautiful honey aroma. This supports beekeepers all over the state. Some of the plant oils we use are also Australian-grown and processed, including our Orange Oil.”
With the need to always be competing on price or volume from overseas competitor products, quality was important from the beginning for Gilly’s.
“It was our point of difference then and still is today. There is certainly a particular level of dedication to our craft, given that we are both the brand and manufacturer. Our staff certainly feel this, and we all have pride in making the best products we can,” Culver says.
“Importantly, we are committed to sourcing the best and ideally most sustainable raw materials we can. This is vital to producing a great product and where quality begins.”
Remarkably, Culver says that despite technology upgrades, it is a hands-on process with batches checked at every stage, all the way through to the final product. Each product physically passes through multiple employees’ hands – there are no conveyor belts in their factory.
“Importantly, we are very against waste. If there is any batch excess or cosmetic issues, we can recycle this into another batch in most cases. Sometimes this might result in more labour than simply disposing of it, but we save on waste costs and know that we are not contributing perfectly good material to landfills unnecessarily,” Culver adds.
“There are always challenges when finding sustainable materials and alternatives, but we expect it of ourselves and, increasingly, so do our customers. We monitor new developments and are always on the lookout for safer and more sustainable materials, including renewable oleo chemicals coming to market. Despite looking at new technologies when expanding our range, at times we still use traditional concepts that do not require materials of synthetic or petrochemical origin.”
In 2023, Gilly’s Australia purchased the Mezzie + Frank brand, which has been a ‘go-to’ paint brand for furniture upcyclers since its inception in 2014 and was one of the first of its kind manufactured in Australia. A new core range was branded and released with 13 colours and a clear coat, all made in Western Australia. This marks a new and exciting chapter for Gilly’s and their expansion in DIY.
“Gilly loved colour and she often painted furniture and her home to her taste. If it could not be restored, she would paint it, antiques included. She would have loved to see today that Gilly’s Australia has its own range of furniture paint,” her grandson says.
“Gilly’s Australia’s focus is on delivering sustainable, premium products, and providing exceptional customer service. Using quality materials that are Australian-sourced wherever possible. Still Australian made and family-owned, here’s to another 40 years,” Culver concluded.