Martin Wells: A Giant in Its Time – By Neil Forbes*

In this Blog we look back at some of the iconic history of our industry –

Spectacle-frame manufacturer Martin Wells Pty Ltd was established in 1954 by Eric Hurst, originally from Czechoslovakia, and Dino Zingarelli, originally from Italy, with Sidney Sinclair, formerly from England, as chairman of the company. Annotation 2020-05-14 085708

Eric Hurst was a great salesman, Dino Zingarelli a technical whizz and Sidney Sinclair a hard-nosed businessman, who was a joint founder of men’s-suit manufacturer Anthony Squires. They made a powerful team.

The company was located at St Marys, a far-western suburb of Sydney, in what was formerly a group of factories that were part of a large complex where ammunition was manufactured and stored during World War II.

The reason for selecting those premises was the plastic material used then for the manufacture of spectacle frames was cellulose nitrate, which was highly flammable. The material was later changed to cellulose acetate.

The concept was that if there was a fire, the ‘blast’ in a storage building some way from the manufacturing facility, would go up through the relatively weak structure of the roof because the walls were very thick and capable of resisting the blast…

There was a major setback early on when the factory was burnt to the ground; however, there was a benefit in the form of the not-so-young plant being replaced under insurance policies.

At the time Martin Wells was founded, the frame-manufacturing industry in Australia was not renowned as a leader, with basic frames, limited colour selections and traditional overseas suppliers, having recovered from the war. Messrs Hurst and Zingarelli, who had come here after the war to work for a local manufacturer, soon saw their opportunity.

Before long, they had opened for business, quickly gaining recognition among wholesalers and practitioners for what their business was producing; the company had distributors in each state, competing against each other, often with the same styles.

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In those pre-Trade-Practices-Act days, disregarding ex-wholesale prices set by the manufacturer to practices was frowned upon, with the threat of being sacked as a distributor ever-present, but in the case of Martin Wells and other frame manufacturers that was never pursued.

By the time the company listed on the stock exchange, it had built outstanding goodwill and the listing was a success.

Part of the reason for that was the addition of marcasite stones to its plastic frames, which gained considerable publicity, then ‘anodised’ frames, consisting of a plastic front with anodised aluminium sides and brow pieces in almost any combination of colour and engraving, with finishes that others could not match.

Over time, the company produced some big sellers, including Super Ambassador, Envoy, 727, 747 and Mustang for gents and Amorette, Spellbound and a host of others for ladies.

In 1968, the company bought its largest wholesale distributor in Australia, Optical Products, followed soon after by its United Kingdom distributor, M Bender Northern, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Later the company bought its distributor in the United States, which turned out to be an expensive mistake.

Apart from its substantial prescription-lens business, Optical Products brought to the table the Rodenstock agency, which from then on was tenuous, given that the new owner of OPs was a rival frame manufacturer.

Meantime the company’s export business continued to grow, reaching just over 50 per cent of total ex-factory sales and covering over 50 countries, with markets in Asia and South Africa being particularly successful.

As a measure of its export success, Martin Wells won a Hoover Award for its efforts, written up as ‘Beating the Giants’, which set out its strategies and tactics to take on European manufacturers. Three export awards were won in later years.

All was well until the advent of sudden and substantial demand for metal frames, commencing in the early 1970s.

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Martin Wells tried to resist that, but the tide had turned and the plastic frames that had been popular after World War II were suddenly largely on the way out, and metal frames were in!

That was a turning point for the company, which attempted to resist the advent of metal frames, but before long realised it had to become a metal-frame manufacturer too or continue to lose market share to overseas manufacturers, particularly those in Europe. It did that.

Curiously, later on its metal-manufacturing plant was sold to smaller, rival company Engelhardt in Adelaide, which eventually closed it down and concentrated on importing components and assembling them.

Viewing the success of branded sunglasses, Martin Wells joined the fray, launching its Passport sunglasses brand in 1969, however it did not invest sufficient marketing funds to seriously take on market leaders Polaroid and Sunoroid and eventually the Passport brand was sold to another company.

By the mid-1980s, the whole Martin Wells group had been sold to the Adelaide Steamship consortium, which in turn on-sold it to the Hancock & Gore organisation (now HGL), which in turn on-sold the Martin Wells name to Diane and Mike Quaife’s OPs Optical Products.

The name has now been sold to Van Staveren Eyewear, based in Victoria.

Martin Wells was a giant in its time; no doubt about that. At its peak, it employed 620 staff at its St Marys facility.

*Neil Forbes was marketing manager at Martin Wells from 1967 to 1975, before becoming editor of Insight for just over 40 years – from 1975 to 2016.

Article supplied by John Van Staveren from VS Eyewear Australia click here for website

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