In a camper trailer market that has been on a rocket-like evolutionary trail for the past two decades there has been one constant – the perennial Cub Campers. Cub is one of the foundations on which the industry has been built, and it has just finished celebrating 50 years in business.
Today Cub occupies a huge 3500sqm factory and showroom headquarters on a 1.2 hectare property at North Rocks in Sydney’s north-western suburbs. When the company moved into the property in 2011 it “rattled” about in the free space, but today the factory area is bursting at the seams, despite a recent extension of the work space. There is even talk of a further extension at the rear to accommodate future growth.
So what lies behind Cub’s growth and its rising profile in the market? For one, the decline in the number of other Australian manufacturers in recent years has helped make Cub something of a standout, but – more importantly – Cub has raised the standards around which the company builds its campers.
This rise in standards has been spearheaded by a restructure in the company’s management, with an outside CEO – Simon McMillan – appointed. Founder Roger Fagan’s son, Shane, now holds the position of Managing Director; and Cub once again has a Marketing Manager, Glen Schoeman. These three have modernised pretty much everything, including design, production, presentation and sales.
“The factory has gone through an overhaul in the past two years and we’re driving a lean approach to everything,” Shane said. “We’re looking to minimise waste, not just in production but right across the business. Any successful manufacturer these days needs to be efficient across all areas.”
Throughout the factory are targets and completion numbers at the various work stations. All up, Cub employs 65 workers across its entire workforce and they are all committed to the improvement of the company outlook. The production area is a buzz of highly efficient equipment and employees working flat out.
Each camper is assigned a barcoded order number. As work commences on a job – with the welding of the basic chassis – the barcode on a work card is scanned by the relevant worker, and he scans the card again when he’s finished and the job is moving to the next station. This applies right down the line, so that management is always aware of where each ordered camper is in the production process and can keep an exact summarised total of time spent on each camper’s construction. This enables tight control over costs and gives instant feedback on any changes or improvements in the production process.
“Continual improvement is the keyword: never stop improving, never stop striving to do better than yesterday or last year,” commented Simon.
We counted 14 campers in the production process during our walk through the factory. These contributed to the record number of campers the company produced during 2018, a 20 per cent increase on the previous year. The only year in which the company produced more was in 2016 when it was also manufacturing all of the Johnno’s brand campers.
We jokingly made the observation that at this rate it wouldn’t be long before they were producing over a thousand campers per year. Simon commented with a straight face that he thought that a quite realistic target within five years.
“Let’s just say that last year sales exceeded production, so this year the target is for production to exceed sales,” Shane added. “Our target is to continue to grow.”
The manufacturing area was recently expanded by shifting a wall to extend the production line, and Shane says one of the main drivers behind this was to enable that extra volume.
“With the production line restructure we’re in a better position to quickly adjust our output to meet increased market demand,” Shane said.
Still, this ad hoc increase of space was always going to be a relatively short term fix and thoughts are being given to relocating the staff facilities building and extending the whole factory building towards the area now used for maintenance and post-production checking.
Cub prides itself on the modernisation it has undertaken in recent years. Simon has brought a corporate view to the business, and Shane has been responsible for the installation of a range of high spec manufacturing processes. Among the first of these was the turret punch, which in just a few minutes can produce the full range of bracketry and smaller fittings required for a camper, all manufactured to a tolerance of a tenth of a millimetre and with much greater accuracy than if done by hand (which would take over a day).
The laser canvas cutting equipment produces the tent components to within millimetre accuracy so that fit and finish are excellent and such things as leaks are now a rarity. All cabinetry is now finished professionally by a modern process that takes it out of the range of cutting individual components by hand.
Recently installed is a complete paint spray booth which permits Cub to offer campers in a range of colours. This expands upon their two basic offerings of the past – grey and white – and while the uptake of the new colours has not been rapid, it is sure to gather momentum as the new “coloured campers” begin to hit the campgrounds.
CUB’S MODEL RANGE
Cub has been almost exclusively a rearfold hardfloor manufacturer for the past two decades – despite a brief flirtation with sidefold softfloors under the brand name Coolibah Campers in 2017 – but in 2016 they became just the second Australian manufacturer to enter the deep and cost-conscious waters of forwardfold campers with their new Frontier model. This highly capable and well finished camper took on a market that had been largely captured by the Chinese imports and has since become Cub’s best seller. It still continues to evolve today.
“Whilst the Frontier is more expensive than some of its rivals, its success has been founded on the realisation by the consumer that there is a significant increase in quality,” stated Simon. “If you sit inside a Frontier versus one of its rivals it’s pretty easy to see where the money has gone.”
We can expect to see more forwardfold and potentially even hybrid products coming soon. All this, of course, is not to diminish the strength of rearfold campers within Cub’s market; they still represent 80 per cent of the company’s sales.
“Some people in the industry keep saying that the rearfolds are a thing of the past,” Shane said, “but despite the success of the Frontier our sales would indicate that rearfolds are still doing well.”
The increasing production and focus on efficiency has nevertheless had a significant impact on the campers that Cub now sells, explained Simon.
“Going back a few years Cub had more than 20 models,” he said. “That was reduced to 14 and last year we cut it to seven models... We were pretty clear on meeting the needs of different customers – the onroad, the offroad, couples, families – and within those seven models we felt we could meet the needs of all those groups.”
“The main aim was to simplify the choice for the consumer... The key for me is simplicity, and to make it easier for a customer to choose a Cub.”
Simon sees a steady growth in the desire for creature comforts, partly because of advances in available technology.
“In the past the more basic setups were what people needed and wanted but now we regularly get asked for things like air conditioning and other comfort features,” he explained.
“Hot water is a great example. We released hot water in the Frontier at last year’s Rosehill show and very quickly we reached a point where 90 per cent of our forwardfolds go out with hot water systems.”
All this has cost impacts, which requires a constant struggle for a balance between price and fit-out, and in the future this might be reflected in a situation where there are both basic and deluxe versions of each model.
The advances even within Cub’s existing range will continue to come. For example, all the 2019 models feature a stylish new kitchen with a Rimex stainless steel bench top that is largely scratch resistant, and has increased bench space and a mixer tap rather than a manual tap, all as standard.
This was, in part, prompted by the similarity of kitchens in imported campers (made in the same factory) and the desire to distinguish Cub.
“Five or ten years ago people accepted a hand pump as part of camping, but not anymore,” explained Shane. “My wife is a classic example... As soon as she knew there was an alternative to a manual hand pump she said ‘Why wouldn’t you simply have that as standard?’ But that, of course, brings with it another dynamic because you need the power to run it and in the past our base models didn’t have a battery pack. But who goes camping who doesn’t need lights or some kind of power source? So we’ve had to accept that all our campers will have a battery pack as standard. It all increases the price but we think people will be happy to pay for it.”
AUSTRALIAN MADE AND PROUD
Simon made it clear that Cub want to keep manufacturing in Australia – “We still think there’s a place for it.” Of course, that’s not a task for the faint-hearted, with constant pressure from importers keen to take on the mass-produced products from China and elsewhere.
“We’ve got the experience, we’ve got the brand, we’ve got the manufacturing facility, we’ve got the dealer network, we’ve got the customer base, and that’s why we’re on a big R&D drive at the moment,” Shane said. “We recognise that we need to be ahead of the game and be the market leader and be seen as the innovator in the camper trailer market.”
This Aussie-made distinction has formed part of their marketing, Glen said.
“There is still a lot of demand for locally manufactured camper trailers and just as much misinformation regarding what constitutes ‘Australian-made’,” he said. “Our goal is to help consumers who want a completely locally manufactured camper trailer find what they’re looking for.”
In this competitive market, it may well be that survival depends on offering higher quality and fit-out more attuned to market demand than imports, or on adopting manufacturing processes that ensure the lowest prices combined with individualised service from an all-Australian background. Cub Campers, it would seem, is well on the way.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
The Cub story is more than just a tale of the last decade. It’s also a story of survival and endurance. Fifty years ago there were over forty manufacturers of caravans and campers in Australia, some of them significant and notable players: Viscount, Chesney, Millard, Coronet, Franklin. The only survivor in all its forms from those days is Cub (the only other remnant from the late 60s is the Binns family, which now trades under Avida Motorhomes).
In 1968 Roger Fagan’s father, John, acquired a company called Cub Trailers, a retail outlet on Canterbury Road, Lakemba, in suburban Sydney, which sold trailers. It was thrown in on a deal to purchase some rental real estate properties. Roger was working for welding supplier Lincoln Electric and he convinced his father that they could weld up their own trailers in a shed out the back.
The first campers were pretty simple – just a mattress on a box trailer under a canopy with a window at the front, but they sold and by the early 70s Cub had moved to a new factory in Chapel Street, Lakemba, where they also began building horse floats, a line which was continued very successfully until the late 1990s. The camper trailer evolution continued, with the world’s first soft floor camper, a rearfold design called the Trailer Camper.
Roger sees the release of the Cub Drifter rearfold design in 1975 as one of the high points in the company’s evolution. The Drifters came in a variety of formats, with single pull-out beds as well as double ended pull-outs.
In 1979 the decision was made to get into the rearfold hardfloor designs which still form the core of the company’s output today. They designed a cantilever rack to help open the top. Later Roger developed the Ezy-Wind system which, with the assistance of gas struts, made the campers almost self-operating and opened the market for campers to people of all ages.
“In the 1980s the caravan and camper trailer market dropped from about 35,000 units nationally to about 6,000 per year,” explained Roger. “There were many reasons for it: the price of fuel, the growing popularity of smaller vehicles, the advent of the jumbo jet which made overseas travel more affordable. Faced with a declining market in 1986 we made the brave decision to expand into the USA. We sold a few hundred into the US, which was a profitable move when the dollar was down but when it went up it became difficult.”
In 2011 Cub moved into its new home base, an ex-furniture factory in Sydney’s north-west. With that, at the urging of son Shane, the company began introducing high tech equipment, which has enabled a cut in costs and improvements in accuracy and quality of component parts.
“Without that move Cub wouldn’t be in business today,” Roger assured us. “And there’s more to come.”