Location, location: How Grant Wilckens built Australia’s largest holiday park business

It’s a long way from working for a bank to owning and operating caravan parks. But six years ago, Grant Wilckens gave up his corporate finance lifestyle to pursue a dream of owning his own business. The 39-year-old South Australian is the co-founder and chief executive of Discovery Holiday Parks, Australia’s largest owner and operator of lifestyle parks. The company now turns over $75 million a year from its own assets and a further $45 million from managed assets.

I’m a chartered accountant by trade and I have a corporate finance background, working for firms like KPMG and NM Rothschild & Sons. I was working very long hours for big banks and making them and myself a lot of money.

I wanted to start my own business but I wasn’t sure what it should be at that stage. I moved back to Australia in 2002 and got a job while I worked out what I wanted to do.

I joined forces with two older gentlemen, and the caravan park industry was where we decided we wanted to be. The caravan park industry was largely a cottage industry and it wasn’t yet corporatised. It is a fairly unsophisticated industry and at the end of the day, it’s about managing caravan parks.

We run a hotel management company in the caravan park industry. The industry is quite unsophisticated and most parks charge the same tariffs regardless of occupancy. But we run a professional hotel management business, so our tariffs go up as occupancy rates go up.

We currently own 32 properties. Over the years we have bought over 50 properties and sold over 20. We bought another one last week—the Tannum Beach Caravan Village on the central Queensland coast.

It happens a lot in business that people don’t take a professional approach to their assets. We are professional investors and we have a very clear strategy about what we want. If we have developed a property the best we can and we think someone else can manage the property better or we want to put the capital elsewhere, we’ll sell.

I think my background certainly helps running a business this size. We now employ over 600 staff.

When I started out, my background helped me with the capital structure. We started off with about $50 million of property from day one, so we needed to raise capital quickly. I was able to make money and I knew how to deal with banks and raise capital.

Running my own business was a bit of a shock. I didn’t realise how full on it would be. Initially I was everything: the financial controller, the human relations manager, the marketing manager. I was pretty much doing everything.

We started out with just two of us, sharing one desk and one phone. We used to try to make the company seem much bigger than it was by answering the phone, putting people on hold and then passing the receiver to each other.

I came from a lucrative financial career and for the first three or four years I was looking at my investment banking friends and thinking: “Why did I do this?”

I describe it to some people as like running on a treadmill. Because you’ve invested your own money, you can’t walk away. The treadmill just goes faster and faster. Sometimes you want to give up but everything, your house, is on the line. You have to persist and eventually things will come around.

I look at my investment banking friends now and I’m starting to catch some of them and even take over them.

I invested everything I had into the business. And then I went about leveraging bank debt. It was all pretty scary at the start. We’re based in Adelaide but I basically moved to Sydney for three months and walked the streets presenting my vision to investors. We had the properties but were yet to really start the business so it was a bit like venture capital.

Sunsuper bought a majority stake in Discovery Holiday Parks in February and we’re now owned by a massive super fund. I have taken some capital out of the business but I still have a significant investment in the business. We now have a very stable, long-term strategic shareholder.

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