Cutting its way into niche/niche market – Tuatahi

By Peter Kerr 21/06/2012

Tuatahi’s R&D maintains its edge over the competition

If to prove the late Sir Paul Callaghan’s dictum that New Zealand companies are best playing in niche/niche fields, then Tuatahi Racing Axes & Sawsare a case in point.

The Masterton-based, globally focused company produces exactly what its name says, with world champions in both event types using its specialised products. Tuatahi has the edge over its competition, and intends maintaining that position says its office manager, Jo Fawcett.

The seven-person team may be (re)creating products that have been in use for centuries, but there’s no shortage of R&D into making them better (and faster for their users).

Much of their production is hand-crafted, and Tuatahi recently spent $200,000 developing a machine that would help automate sawmaking.

“We were trying to improve production, and that’s not an easy thing to do,” says Fawcett. “We wanted to take away some of the hand work, a lot of the hand-filing for our racing saws and work saws. It was a bit heartbreaking when it didn’t work as we wanted, so we’ve had to go back to the drawing board.” Tuatahi (which means number one or the best) made a manual machine instead, and this is working well she says.

In the meantime, Tuatahi had to maintain its current production of 25 – 30 axes a week, each one of which takes about two weeks to move through the system from a block of steel to the (hand-sharpened) finished product. It also produces a number of saws a week, though this varies depending on demand.

“We can’t get axes out the door quickly enough,” Fawcett says. There’s a 12 month waiting list for its saws and a three month delay for its racing axes.

Automation of some of the process would cut down this lead time and also allow Tuatahi to have work axes in stock.

The constant demand for its products is one reason Tuatahi has never had to advertise its wares, word of mouth and competition success being its best marketer. As it is too, buyers demonstrate a remarkable faith in the company, as money is required upfront before leaving the factory for its $500-$600 racing axes – though there is often quite an amount of backwards and forwards discussion via email in particular.

“But we really do work with our customers,” she says. “Different timbers require a different edge and finish, and our job is to produce exactly what they need.” Up to 30 precision variations around length, width and finish of the axe are possible.

And while many New Zealanders may be used to woodchopping competitions as seen at A&P Shows and the like, overseas such events can be much larger scale.

One event attended by Jo’s brother Grant (who is Tuatahi’s axe forger, as well as chief saw filer) in Austria had 10,000 people watching. Woodchopping and sawing is also big in the USA, with TV programmes on the competition, and Fawcett’s expecting further demand for their products when a television series AusAxe starts screening soon.

It means that the market size is difficult to determine. Fawcett reckoned there used to be about 2500 competitive axemen and women worldwide, but that this number is growing. Compounding this is that often one overseas person will be ordering for 10 or so others, with up to a dozen axes being ordered at once through this contact.

“Sometimes we really don’t know where they’re going to go,” she says.

But even with such strong relationships, “we still have to work hard to be the best,” says Fawcett.

“You’d like to think that competitors using our axes and saws would be loyal. If it’s a high paying competition, they want the best….and they don’t care where they come from. We keep that in the back of our minds all the time.”