The Mooloolaba canals meander towards the sea on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and, near the mouth, a luxury catamaran sits sleek and still at its moorings. The midday sun cleaves dark shadows across its form. An encouraging breeze blows across its bow.
On board, the breeze taunts two men to cast away the mooring lines and set sail. But this time they resist. Instead, they stay to tell their story.
For David Biggar and Matt Johns, theirs is a story of two men who, in life and in business, always set their own course and sail fast against the wind, striving to never miss a rising tide, especially one that leads to a new adventure.
Adventure is certainly part of their make-up, given that you’re likely to find them pumping their adrenalin riding motorbikes or kite surfing when they’re not creating new caravans.
But, on this day, Biggar and Johns are taking things a little slower; to sit and tell the story of Zone RV – the caravan business they started just three years ago and took out a category win at Caravan World’s 2016 Best Aussie Vans event in their first year of entry.
The catamaran on which the two are sitting isn’t theirs. But they did build it, and it is a boat that represents a turning point in their lives. In fact, it’s this curious nautical connection that is at the heart of Biggar and Johns’ story. Despite having told it many times since 2015, the two men clearly don’t tire of retelling how they moved away from building boats to building caravans.
That’s because it’s a yarn that is unlike that of most, if not all, other caravan manufacturers. It’s the tale of how two young men, now in their 30s, turned their backs on their carefree, adventurous, yacht-racing life to build a successful business that led eventually to building caravans in a highly competitive industry.
The story begins when the then-boys met each other at a yacht race. That chance meeting over six years ago then led to a friendship that saw the pair combine in building boats. It’s a friendship that’s as easy to see as a spinnaker on a sunlit ocean and a friendship that has endured as they’ve faced every business hurdle.
“We were doing some high-end luxury sailing cats and some little race boats,” Johns explained. Biggar then expanded his business into the transport industry by manufacturing composite materials – the sort you’d typically see forming the sides of goods trucks everywhere. Then, around two years ago, they custom-built their last yacht for a local businessman – the one on which we chatted – then started their caravan manufacturing business, Zone RV.
Biggar explained that the big turning point came during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) around 2008.
“When the marine industry slowed down back around the GFC, we started looking into other areas within the composite industry,” he said. “One way or another, we landed on building sandwich panels, initially for the truck industry. That’s what made me aware of the caravan industry and the fact that caravans were still getting built with timber wall frames and some moving into aluminium frames.”
“There needs to be a shift in the way caravans are being built,” he thought, and was happy to tackle the challenge because “there are 23,000 caravans built in Australia each year and it is an industry worth $19 billion”.
The two spent time looking at the opportunities in the industry and decided they’d work on making caravans using materials that are impervious to water, how to better secure interior furniture and how to improve electrical systems. They became further interested in the whole nature of caravanning especially living off-grid, as well as how caravans can be used more easily.
“We did market research and looked at how we could take it to the next step,” Johns said.
In their minds, the caravan industry was not embracing technology or current manufacturing processes to the best of its ability.
Consequently, they set out to disrupt the industry and introduce modern manufacturing technology, new materials, all while maintaining a high quality product for a top-end market.
“I am always out looking for a challenge. Anywhere you can come into a business sector and have a bit of fun and make a bit of a difference,” Biggar explained.
The pair is looking for innovation in all aspects of manufacturing, including electrical, plumbing and metal fabrications.
Wander through the factory and you’ll find many innovative ideas including using automotive-style electrical looms anchored throughout the caravan rather than simple singe wires and fibreglass bodies as the core backbone to do away with timber.
In order to improve strength and seal vans against water and dust, Zone is using the same bonding technology you’d find in high performance yacht building.
But incorporating boat building techniques into caravan manufacture is not their only goal.
“We are really about being able to do something the best way we can do it,” Johns said.
He said that insistence on quality was the approach they took to boat building and that’s why they are keen to repeat that approach with caravans. That means using the best materials and componentry so that Zone’s caravans can deliver the best ‘off-grid’ experience.
Our conversation continued off the boat at Zone’s headquarters at nearby Coolum. The Coolum HQ is one of four premises the company uses to manufacture various aspects of Zone RV caravans and to assemble vans.
That’s why they’re on the verge of building a new Zone RV factory that will encompass all of their manufacturing under one roof and double their production. The factory should also be able to run completely sustainably off-grid.
Biggar said while their caravans need to be able to go offroad and off-grid and stay in remote places for as long as possible, they’re designing a new factory that is more than just a good place to work. In fact, Johns said they are very confident that their new factory will be able to generate all the power it needs to run as a “self-sufficient assembly line”.
Along the way, he said they want to ensure that there is “an amazing vibe” among their team.
“The nuts and bolts of a successful business are so much more than the product. I am not naive enough to think it doesn’t take a full team. At this point in time, Zone RV has a solid team,” Biggar added. Through it all, they intend on providing the best customer service.
Nonetheless, it is two very competitive men whose competitive nature and vision drives the business.
Unashamed of his competitive attitude, Biggar smiled a bewhiskered smile and reflected once again on his past: “I think sailing performance yachts in a racing arena makes you become a highly competitive person.”
He said yachting also taught him much about structures and the way things need to be built. “Things need to be built super light but extremely strong. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re building boats or caravans or anything, it’s about building it light and strong and to last.”
Johns said building caravans ignited the same need for competition that racing performance yachts once did. “It is about the competition side of us. It is seeing what’s out there at the moment and knowing the feeling that we can do it better – better and lighter and stronger,” he said.
The full feature appeared in Caravan World #564. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!