Thanks for talking with Caravan World, Gerry. Can you take us back to how you started building RVs?
I had been working at AMP in their property department and studying accountancy and I realised it wasn't for me. Some university mates were working at Sunwagon Trailers over the holidays and they said come and join us. So, I started on the production line as a fill-in job and two months later I was a foreman.
Six months to the day I moved up to Production Manager — I was only 22. A year later they sent me to America to Jayco US where Sunwagon were buying their lift systems. I met founder Lloyd Bontrager and he invited me over to learn about production, and while I was there, I spent time in R&D and other departments learning the ropes.
After a while, I came back to Australia and by that time Sunwagon and a small manufacturer had merged. The old Sunshine Biscuits Company wanted to get into the leisure business and with the merger came a new manager and so I was pushed aside. I suggested a number of ideas that I had developed in America, but they weren’t prepared to listen. It was frustrating, especially when they brought in a new engineer who designed a new lift system, so they didn't need Jayco parts anymore.
I was 24 and thought I would have a crack at making campers myself so I wrote to Jayco in the US — there wasn't emails in those days — and eventually I rang Lloyd and asked him if I could buy some product and he agreed and offered for me to use the Jayco name if I wanted to.
That was pretty generous of Lloyd to let you to use the Jayco name.
Lloyd used to love coming down to Australia and he liked the idea of the Jayco flag flying here.
Was there a commercial arrangement for the name?
No, at that stage they just started supplying components.
What type of campers or caravans was Jayco America building — was it a similar thing?
Camper trailers were similar, but their vans were bolder and bigger than ours, whereas the Europeans were more petite, smaller and lighter weight. In the 45 years I have been involved, Australian caravans have shrunk and that continues. Today the most popular sizes are around 20ft whereas five years ago it was 24ft.
What was it like for you in the early days?
I started building a prototype camper in August ‘75 and we had the first product off the line in January ‘76 with eight people in the factory — very naive, I was!
In the first year we produced 480 vehicles and from there we continued to expand the range of campers and then went into pop-tops. But by then the market was shrinking. We lost Viscount and Millard, then Franklin, all the top brands, just as we started to expand into caravans and other products.
It seems remarkable that you were making so many vans in your first year and yet the big companies were struggling.
It was all about timing, really. They were overproducing and we had the camper trailer market pretty much to ourselves. Campers became a boom product back then, so we came on the back of campers and then expanded. We came into the market with second and third string products. It all started to happen in the early ‘80s and today we have 28 dealers in Australia and three in New Zealand that are exclusively Jayco.
And are the dealerships owned by Jayco Australia?
No, they are individually owned by the operators — we are purely manufacturing.
In that first year, what did you do differently to the other companies? There must have been other camper trailer manufacturers back then?
We were able to be flexible in our manufacturing and we have always been innovative and ahead of the pack. Jayco has always been value for money — we didn't have big overheads and our on-costs were lower than companies that were around at the time.
When did you become the biggest builder and how did that come about?
It started in the early ‘80s and then we had the recession and Coromal came in with caravans and pop-tops and became bigger than us. Back in the early ‘90s, America was coming out of a recession and I spent four weeks on a family vacation in America and felt that at the time Australia didn't have a way out of the economic issues. We had gone from producing 3800 units for our top year in ‘87 down to 1400 units and we had to lay people off.
So, I came back and thought about what we needed to do. What was the way out of this? Because Jayco needed to keep growing for the people working with us and our dealers and our industry. The late Kevin O'Brien, Ron Chapman, and Max Eslie and I formed the national body and had a national advertising campaign and things started to turn around and grow. Jayco was out there as a leader in innovation, and I spent more on R&D and marketing and that’s where we are today.
How does the current Australian market compare to the American and European market?
The concept is still the same. People all over the world want RVs but different countries want different things. The Germans want ovens, the French want cooktops and so on. And gradually things change — we gave people annexes, then they wanted rollout awnings to spend lots of time outside the caravan.
When I first started, the only buyers were the holiday market then came the retiree market when people had the money to travel for long lengths of time and wanted to travel around Australia and wanted bigger caravans. Now, in the last few years, people are into the adventure market where they want to go offroad and take loads of gear with them.
That Adventure caravan you have was a big step away from what you were doing at the time. The first model seemed relatively over-engineered, but the latest model appears to have been pared back. Were your expectations of customers too high?
No, that's when I was out of the company for a few years and the MD decided to go upmarket. I thought it was over-engineered and overpriced and needed to be pared back. We’ve always been value for money even as we always stayed innovative and we certainly led the change with the changes we made. It’s probably a market we misjudged. It’s back on track and now they are selling very well.
What’s the process of introducing a new van and how many people are involved?
We’ve got two R&D departments — one section for motorhomes and there are five staff in that, and then in the caravan side there are 18. At shows we seek feedback from customers and we also have a dealer advisory board meeting where we go through all our products. We present to them what we are planning, then go back to our customers for feedback, set out the design, and produce a prototype. Finally, we build two production models and they go to testing before going into production. For most vans it could be anything from six to nine months.
What has been the influences of Chinese vans in Australia?
I don't mind a level playing field but some of the products coming in are non-compliant and being sold as Australian when they are imports. It is one thing to sell a van, but where do you get parts for them and who is going to fix them?
How much of a Jayco is built in the factory in Australia?
We’re the most fully integrated factory in the world. We make the chassis, we make our side walls, we have our own fibreglass plant. We do metal fabrication and all our furniture is built here. We even make our own doors and soft furnishings. We have probably the biggest sewing department with about 50 people sewing canvas and curtains.
What’s the total number of people in the factory?
We are getting back to around 1000 people at Jayco and then the subsidiary company that supply us has about 120. On top of that we’ve got transport contractors, so all up about 1350 people rely on Jayco for their pay packet each week.
How has COVID affected production?
It’s been pretty tough. We kept as many workers on as we could but had to layoff 140 people and we went to a four-day week. The latest lockdown has changed things again, so we will have to see how things stand when it’s over.
It seems that demand for caravans has mushroomed in the last month or so with the lockdown. We should come back to 9300 sales this year down from 10,800 for 18/19, but potentially we should hit 12,000 units next financial year, which would be our biggest year.
What innovations have you seen at Jayco over the years?
A big thing has been the slide-out vans themselves, but also slide out barbecues, external locker doors, some of the electrics in the Silverlines, the Bluetooth awning, the 360-degree camera, electric awnings, air conditioning, showers — we used to produce only 15 per cent with showers now it's more like 95 per cent.
Can you think of a model that is your favourite?
Well, probably the first camper I built. People ask which is the best and one of the engineers will say this or that is the best, but my answer to that question is that the next model is the best one.
Can you think of any that you thought was a good model, but people didn't respond to it?
No, I couldn't say that we ever produced a total failure, but we produced some that probably didn't weigh up with the competitors — maybe the wrong colours or shape.
How are your vans built now?
We used to build with timber — a lot of manufacturers still use 19mm or 25mm Meranti frames — but now we use laminated fibreglass. It’s hail-proof, strong, light and a better unit.
How do you think Australian vans rate on the world scale?
The Europeans are well engineered but are different altogether because of the amount of volume they have. But, you can’t just bring a European van out to Australia with our different roads and climate. They use a lot of ABS plastics with full fronts and the harsh sun and heat do affect some of their quality issues.
Our engineering quality is better than the Americans. We can stand up dollar for dollar and quality and eye appeal ahead of the Americans.
Let’s talk about social media, which now play’s a big part with customers. Do you think that customers are more aware of their consumer rights?
Oh, very much so. As I have been saying for the last 10 years to the management team and the dealers, the consumers are more educated and more demanding so we have to make sure that we have the product right and the right service, and that's where Jayco has been a leader. If there is a problem, we fix it and back it up with 110 service outlets, and we have the best service division in any company.
If something breaks down, then the owners get transport home — is that correct?
Yes, we get trucks, and the call service is anywhere in Australia, and get it back to the local service centre and get it fixed.
Are customers today more demanding of what their rights are as well?
I don't say demanding, it’s their expectation. My philosophy is that it’s value for money right down from management to the factory floor. We are building people’s holiday dream, so we have to make sure that we live up to their expectations.
How many people in warranty team?
There are about 10–12 in that department. You have to remember we have approximately 220,000 Jayco RVs running around Australia or sitting in backyards and we have to look after them and the product could have been sold three or four, or even seven, times.
You have customers who are going through ACCC at the moment because of problems. How did that come about?
We have a case with ACCC with three customers. It’s an ongoing issue so I can’t really talk about it until it’s resolved. As far as warranty goes, from a company point of view at our dealer conference we have a lawyer go right through the issues. We also have a compliance manager who explains to the dealer network the issues of consumer law. Our warranty covers everything in the van and 38 per cent of our warranty cost is performed outside the warranty period.
What should happen with the industry around warranty?
The industry firstly has to make sure every caravan conforms with ADR and they don't. Secondly, they should be helping dealers and manufacturers understand the laws and build the quality into vans that they expect.
The issue is that the industry is so fragmented at the moment. You could be building a couple a week or bringing them in from China and putting a fridge in it and call it Australian-made.
The industry needs to make sure that the companies that do a great job are supported — there are great builders out there who are supporting their products, but there are some who aren’t holding up their end of the bargain.
How much time do you personally spend now in the factory?
I’m full time. I’m lucky enough to have stepped away from management for a while and walk the red carpets and sporting events of the world but I’m back and passionate about the industry and what we do.
I spent six years in retirement, and I got bored. But right now I love getting up in the morning and getting here to the factory. One of the greatest joys of the time in the industry is that of the eight people that started with me 40 years ago, two are still with me. Scotty Jones who started with me at 16 sweeping the floors is now National Sales Manager. It’s also great seeing people enjoy their Jaycos and knowing we helped make a difference in their lives.
What’s on the horizon for Jayco?
We are always aiming to improve and build a better quality product of course. We have two caravan production lines and two different building methods because we had two different engineers running the lines, so we are planning more standardisation to simplify the manufacturing process and building on the engineering and simplifying the build. We will see some more adventure products next year. But what will slow that down is maintaining production with the coronavirus affecting things. Our focus is on improving the products we have.
What does the future hold for you, Gerry?
I love what I am doing and the Jayco family of loyal workers, loyal customers and a network of dealers, but I’m likely to wind back to a three days a week in the next few months.
Is there a future for caravanning in Australia?
Of course. People will always want to go out and enjoy the great outdoors and the beautiful landscapes we have here in Australia.
What advice would you have for a young Gerry Ryan, sick of his job and wanting to start a caravan company?
Dare to dream.
Thanks very much, Gerry for taking the time to talk with Caravan World.