FOR a branded lamb and beef company supplying the top end of the market, 2020's pandemic woes might easily have sparked the start of the end.
But Western Australia's Dorper Lamb had in place the foundations long ago that provided a built-in resilience - agility, a finger on the pulse when it comes to emerging consumer preferences and morphing markets and a philosophy of carving out all value-add opportunities.
Despite the fact sales dropped by 50 per cent overnight when COVID-19 hit, the family-owned paddock-to-plate business is today in a strong position, with a range of innovative new products and distribution channels.
Leading the charge is Dorper lamb leather boots, with orders from as far afield as London, Switzerland and Canada, and a range of ladies boots about to be launched.
Dorper Lamb was established by Graeme and Nina Howie in 2005 in Perth and from humble beginnings feeding family and friends, it grew into supplying both lamb and Wagyu beef to food retailers, restaurateurs and home cooks around the world.
More than 25 family farms, most from WA but some from Victoria and NSW, supply the brand.
Dorper Lamb has its own domestic distribution business - three vans on the road supplying home delivery and restaurants - and also a small retail shop.
But the main business is export, with product sent predominantly into Asia, a little bit into the United States and there are now a few orders to fill for Europe late this year.
Mr Howie said the business effectively had to reinvent itself when COVID hit and find new ways to sell meat.
Recognising the new ways of lockdown, the Howies focused on home delivery, introducing freezer filler packs and niche products to suit the channel, such as lamb mince and burger packs.
It launched thermoform packaging for backstraps - easier for retail and home delivery customers to use - and now it has done the same for rumps.
Mr Howie said many of Dorper Lamb's exports markets were still shut down, and airfreight remained a cost barrier to many markets.
"But we've been very conscious of continuing to engage our customers overseas - brand ambassadors continue to do supermarket tastings of our products," he said.
"Another area we've gone into is utilising social media to get our brand and our products to as many customers as we can.
"We've taken onboard digital branding experts and we've brought out ranges of different packs - a spring and winter pack for example - to suit this channel."
Perhaps the area of the business Mr Howie is most excited about is the lambskin boots.
It was in the pipeline before COVID-19, driven by the need to utilise the entire carcase and value-add skins. The hide and skins markets has hit rock bottom in recent years.
"We were exporting our skins to a business in Spain, so we went over to follow the supply chain through in the hopes of learning why they weren't of any value," Mr Howie explained.
"We discovered lamb leather, especially from the Dorper, was used in the top end leather handbag industry but also in shoe manufacturing."
Mr Howie figured he'd make himself a pair of typical elastic-side Aussie stockman-styled boots from lambskin and had a Fremantle bootmaker do the honours.
The result was impressive - particularly in terms of durability and the soft, stylish finish - and so began the investment in research and development to come up with the range launched this year.
The three styles are named after well-known WA rivers: Gibb, Murchison and Blackwood.
The boots are handmade in Spain to create an artisan style. Mr Howie said he'd love to make them in Australia but the machinery and skill set is not here.
Still, the process of their production provides employment for a swag of family-owned businesses.
"We send the skins over, they are drum salted and turned into wet blue by one business then sent onto a dying company then onto the boot factory," he said.
Domestic demand, along with international demand, is growing fast and Dorper Lamb is already sourcing additional Dorper skins from abattoirs around Australia.
Mr Howie said sustainability, of the entire value chain, was important to Dorper Lamb and the lambskin boot range fit in perfectly with that philosophy.
Effectively, they have turned a $5 lambskin into a $495 boot.
Meanwhile, 2021 is expected to be challenging as well but already work on increasing brand exposure is underway to position Dorper Lamb to capitalise on a resurging hospitality and food service sector.
Sales have lifted another 20pc from the original COVID losses but the Howies believe the diversification they now have will set them up well for the future.