Following an active period of strong business growth & acquisitions, we spoke with AL-KO’s Australia & New Zealand Managing Director Peter Mannfolk about his vision for the business, and the changes he sees in the Australasian market.
Words Antonio Mazzucchelli
Aboutcamp BtoB: What is the history and development of the AL-KO business in Australia & New Zealand?
Peter Mannfolk: AL-KO’s Australian story is one of growth & success – from a small Australian axle company, to its present-day position as a leader in highly engineered chassis and components for the caravan, trailer & motorhome segments. The company traces its roots back to 1946 with the establishment of Hornby Engineering in South Melbourne, Victoria – which produced axles and braking systems for the caravan industry. In the 1970s, Girling-Lockheed (Girlock) bought out Hornby, having previously been its source for brake parts. During this period, the business designed the first electric braking system for caravans in Australia, for what has now become the accepted standard in braking safety across the board. AL-KO established its presence in 1986, as a joint venture with New Zealand company Masport. But, within two years, AL-KO had bought out Masport’s share to form a dedicated local presence. In 2016 AL-KO commenced a new phase in its history when it became part of DexKo Global Inc. – formed as a global strategic alliance between AL-KO Vehicle Technology and U.S. market leader Dexter.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What difference did becoming part of DexKo make for the local business?
Peter Mannfolk: Becoming part of DexKo facilitated a period of rapid expansion for AL-KO in Australia & New Zealand. DexKo saw the growth potential and provided the investment we needed in order to focus on strategic acquisitions and new product development. We first made the acquisition of Melbourne Trailer & Caravan Supplies – a leading family owned parts & accessories supplier to the RV market and Dexter’s previous long-time distributor in Australia. This was followed by the acquisition of G&S Chassis and Hume Caravan & Camping Supplies in 2018 – this allowed us to expand our business footprint into chassis supply, and accessories. We then established a much-needed presence on the New Zealand South Island when we acquired New Zealand company CM Trailer Parts (also in 2018). As we continue to integrate these acquired businesses, it will support our strategic objective of becoming a vertically integrated systems supplier. This creates many business efficiencies and allows us to service our customer base with an even better level of service. Effectively now we can supply our customers with just about everything on the caravan – from chassis and suspension to doors, windows, cladding and water tanks. By taking these successful businesses and adding the additional support of AL-KO in Australia and the global chassis manufacturing expertise of the DexKo group, we believe we will be able to help take the Australian & New Zealand industry to new heights.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What has been AL-KO’s formula for success in the Australia & New Zealand markets?
Peter Mannfolk: AL-KO has established an extensive local manufacturing and R&D presence in Australia with strong investment in engineering and technology. Australian made products are built and assembled at the head office in Dandenong South, located in the south east of Melbourne. Capabilities include axle and stub machining; manual and robotic welding; electronic component assembly; machining of raw castings for hubs, disc rotors and brake drums; and brake actuation system manufacture and assembly. We have also established an Australian production facility for the assembly of AL-KO’s AMC Chassis for Australian Motorhome manufacturers. In addition to our high-quality products, AL-KO has formed close partnerships with the major Australian caravan & motorhome manufacturers. With our Australian manufacturing presence, we can meet the ongoing needs they have for a lot of customisation to suit the end user requirements. We don’t just supply product – we also have the strongest sales & customer service presence and provide a huge amount of technical training. We also partner with our customers on marketing initiatives – each year we take a group of key customers to a remote location to conduct a tow test of their caravans with our product fitted, which then receives a large amount of media coverage. AL-KO also has the largest national support network with over 300 AL-KO distributors & service agents nationally. With Australia being such a large and remote country, we have found that this is especially important. In terms of product development, we have always focused on exceeding the requirements of the extreme Australian conditions which include rough off-road conditions & long travelling distances. This has always motivated us to focus on quality and strict compliance to design rules. We recently achieved Accredited Supplier status with the Caravan Industry Association of Australia.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What are some key developments & trends in the Australian & New Zealand market?
Peter Mannfolk: Australian off-road caravans are continuously increasing in weight, testing legal towing limits and leading to a boom in sales of heavy-duty off-road couplings and suspension upgrades. Consumers are looking for all the comforts of their home and caravan manufacturers are delivering this. Caravanners are becoming more adventurous, tackling more off-road terrain. Regarding suspension, for many years the Australian market mainly used straight beam axle and leaf springs. Over the last few years however, there has been a shift in the market, and an expectation from consumers for heavy duty suspension with shock absorbers and springs. Responding to this trend, our Australian R&D team developed AL-KO Enduro independent trailing arm suspension systems – specifically designed in Australia for the harsh Australian conditions. Enduro features premium AL-KO shock absorbers which provides advanced heat dissipation as well as premium coil springs. The product comes in 3 grades – Enduro Outback for serious off-road terrain, Enduro Cross Country for long distances on corrugations and graded dirt roads and Enduro Touring for short distances on corrugations and bitumen roads. In terms of market demographics – in what was traditionally older retirees, we have now seen the strong growth of the young family segment, which is the second largest consumer group and the fastest growing. Entry level caravans and campers are an attractive option for the family market, allowing them freedom and mobility at a suitable price point. As a result the imports of camper trailers from China have grown rapidly within the last 2-3 years.
Safety has also become a high priority, which resulted in the Australian development of AL-KO Electronic Stability Control (ESC). This product was a game changing safety technology for the Australian market, and continues to be the leading choice of safety conscious caravanners across Australia and New Zealand. The AL-KO ESC uses a sensor mounted on the underside of the caravan to constantly monitor for the presence of dangerous sideways movement. In the event of an emergency avoidance manoeuvre, the system automatically applies the caravan’s brakes, bringing the caravan back into line. Further utilising our capabilities in electronics and braking systems, additional Australian developed products include the iQ7 Electronic Air/Hydraulic brake system, with its primary function being braking performance for large trailers. iQ7 delivers much faster braking response compared to other products that were on the market. We have further adapted this concept for the RV market, with modifications for dusty outback environments that people are travelling in. Theft of RV’s has always been a problem with their high value, and AL-KO has also led the market in anti-theft technology with its cutting-edge GPS tracking system: the AL-KO ATS (Anti-Theft System). One extremely practical feature of the ATS is the ability to set a “Geo Fence” around the vehicle being tracked. If your caravan moves outside of these bounds, the unit will send a theft alert to the connected device promoting the relay of the vehicle’s location to the relevant authorities. We’re constantly developing new products in response to market needs, and striving to be the leading innovator of towing and RV solutions in our market through our people, products and service.