How Zone RV co-founder Matt Johns is creating a $6 million business by building fancy caravans

Forget old stripy lino and scratchy chairs, the caravans of the future look like apartment showrooms, complete with sleek bathrooms, kitchens and well-lit breakfast nooks.

Former boat builders Matt Johns and David Biggar jumped on Australia’s growing affection for glamorous outdoor travel equipment two years ago, after crunching the numbers and realising the caravan market was a much broader proposition that the racing boat construction scene.

Their business, Zone RV, builds caravans to order, and the company recently won the ‘Best Aussie Van for $100,000+’ award as decided by Caravan World. With a 2015-16 turnover of $4.4 million, the team is looking to book $6.6 million in revenue this financial year.

Johns tells SmartCompany that while the company’s vans don’t include any features that are “too far of left field”, they’re still big ticket items, and there’s an art to dealing with customers when they’re making a big commitment to your product. 

My personal background is yacht racing; I was a sailor for 10 years. At the same time, David was producing high end luxury catamarans. We had a business building small race boats—that’s where we started.

With Zone RV, I think aside from the opportunity that we saw to modernise the caravan, first we identified the market size.

We had a pretty strong marine background, and through business experience with that, we were getting a pretty clear idea that if the market is not big it’s [difficult].

You might say there’s 1000 race boats in Australia each year, but there are over 20,000 caravans sold a year.

We were really driven by materials, and understanding different materials. Being from the marine background, we’re very structurally minded and identified that kind of things that could be done better [with caravans].

From there, we realised there was the opportunity to shake up the market.

Our vans are very much high end, luxury things—the key things we try to deliver are quality and reliability. The other things people are looking for is being able to get away from the trodden path. We’re a Queensland company, and here, you don’t have to go far to be off the track.

We’re 100% made to order [so] there’s quite a long process of information gathering from the customer. We’ve got our standard caravan, and there’s basically a space for [customers] to add different wheels, or whatever that is.

They put down half the value of the order at 12 weeks, and that’s basically our order process. We confirm the orders, and then, we essentially continue the communication.

Response times are important. The majority of our customers are retirees, and they have time to make contact with you.

It’s about making sure that you communicate enough. At the end of the day, this is not something someone needs to purchase, so remaining patient and answering the questions people have is important.

I think growing up with the sailing side of things—being overseas all the time and traveling solo—really ingrained almost a self-confidence in me, an idea that you need to look after yourself. In that sense, working for someone else doesn’t seem that natural to me.

Being able to make your own decisions, and being on the leading end of a business, is really what drives me.

But I think it’s very important that you acknowledge where your weaknesses are, and at the end of the day [make sure] people in the business are happy.

You’ve really got to decide whether to let go or not to let go.

We’ve recently employed a chief executive to run the business overall—just from the idea that we needed to focus on areas where our strengths lie. We’re very product focused; we know a lot about our caravans and what they are.

Carl [Bird] has come on board as the CEO has really taken over that side of things. He’s had experience running teams and he’s very good at running teams with multiple people.

I don’t think manufacturing in Australia is easy. There’s a lot of rules and regulations that affect the employees, which is important, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a hand out anywhere.

We’ve definitely got the talent; it’s about how people are managed, and keeping people engaged in the business.

People always talk about the younger business generation as not being not as motivated, but we’ve got a pretty young workforce here.

Probably the one thing early on in terms of advice [given] to me was just people turning around and saying “You’ve got to listen to your customer”.

Both David and I are quite limited on the [experience of actually going] caravanning. We were lucky enough to get customers that were very experienced, though. They had all of these ideas and experience with caravans and from that came a great knowledge base on what they saw was really important for the [design].

If something goes wrong, look at how it goes wrong, and see how you can improve the experience. We want the customer to be saying, “I had a problem with the van, but geez they did try to help fix it.”

If you’re producing something, especially if it’s a luxury item, you have to accept the feedback. And have a thick skin. Figure out what the information is and turn it into a positive.

In business, you have to have a go—there’s nothing to do but take it on. 

Do the little things right and continue, and hopefully it works out.

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