James Turner, MD of Swift Leisure, tells BQ editor Mike Hughes why caravanning is cool and sales are soaring.
Let me start at the end...
If you’ve got a few minutes before you go I’ll show you the site, offered James Turner in one of the offices at the very smart Swift Leisure headquarters at Dunswell Road, Cottingham, just outside Hull. We strolled out... and fifteen minutes later we still have not reached the other side of the 100-acre site. It is a vast area, but with everything filed away in its own section.
James keeps himself fit with a walk through the site every morning, along routes defined by full pallets of parts, caravans, motorhomes and access into the huge production area, to check all is right for the day’s production. Most impressive of all is that the hundreds of caravans here – soon to be moved to a new storage area at the furthest part of the site to allow expansion of the main production facility are either already sold or being sold. Forget Clarkson and his Amazonian mates, caravans are cool.
Now back to the beginning, MD James Turner says his business is in a good place thanks, in part, to a stronger UK economy and better consumer confidence, but inevitably helped by a bit of good British weather. There is a great divide between caravanning in the wind and rain and the same under blue skies and warm sunshine.
“It gives the whole industry a good footing on which to base their performance,” he tells me. “I guess what is different at Swift is that we are pressing on with product development all the time, introducing new ones and changing how existing ones look to give an advantage to the consumer.
“If you put the economy and the consumer enthusiasm together you get a reasonable result. We are a fashion industry and often track domestic trends, but consumers like to see a new product so that’s what we give them.”
Those products, brought together by more than 1,000 employees, cover a vast range from a £14,000 Sprite, the UK’s best-selling caravan brand, to an £80,000 luxury version of the long-established Kon-tiki motorhome and on to 11 different holiday homes.
James, aged 46, is proud of that range, which makes it pretty much impossible to visit any campsite in Britain and not see one of his Yorkshire-grown products being used. “The majority of our products change on an annual basis, but that could just be small cosmetic changes, but then we are also more akin to the car industry in that we will make major engineering changes and deeper styling changes on a rolling periodic basis around every three to five years.”
It all started more than 50 years ago, when the present chairman’s father, Ken Smith, started Swift in 1964, later passing the title to his son Peter. “I joined 22 years ago as a production engineer, so I have quite a long history with the firm,” said James. “I spent the bulk of my time in manufacturing, but have worked my way through the business in various positions, including engineering and production management, which means I tend to know my way around the site and the product reasonably well.
“Even 22 years ago when I was working in the aerospace industry in Leeds, Swift was a well-known organisation and a market leader. I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing because it was a difficult place in which to make visible changes.
“I hadn’t planned on a return to Hull, but Swift is a business where you can see your output on a daily basis and make effective and positive change. I saw the advert, applied and got the engineering job.”
James’s role back then was important for the future development of the brand as he helped define new methods and processes for the factory and bought the equipment those new processes needed to change the way the product was put together.
“We have changed a reasonable amount over the years, including adding holiday homes to the portfolio, which is now a really good growth area for us, and the way we construct the vehicles has also changed in terms of materials and methods.
“It’s very important to us that alongside marketing the actual products we make, we believe in very positive promotion of the lifestyle they can give our customers. It is a way of spending time with your family, which is very special, and getting to the outdoors. It is very much a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign where the caravan is the hero of that moment when the family needs a holiday together.
“If the family is talking at Christmas about what they have been up to together over the year, the holiday that the kids remember is the week in the caravan or holiday home as opposed to the fortnight abroad. That happens because you’re closely connected and living in a comfortable space together. That’s a powerful message.”
He’s right, and my own mind flashes back almost 50 years to holidays in Bude and Perranporth in Cornwall, filled with buckets and spades, the smell of the gas mantle, sand on the floor of the caravan and box after box of games behind those sliding doors under the bench seats. There was a unique warmth – and affordability – of those times for the Hughes family, and although the gas mantles have long gone, the boxes of games are still a part of the atmosphere James’s customers are looking for.
“We understand why people who try it get really hooked and in terms of the way the product performs, it is much more robust now,” he says. “We have two construction techniques, Smart Plus and Smart HT. The HT is entirely timberless and is put together with large aluminium extrusions where the panels interlock. Where we do see the occasional accident, the caravan always comes off better than the car.”
James’s answer to the obvious follow-up question is that yes, he has tried his firm’s caravans, motorhomes and holiday homes with his own family and is a big fan of the freedom and the time they allow with the children.
Back to business: founder Ken Smith was from Hull, which is why the group grew at Cottingham, but now a remarkable 80% of the UK’s holiday homes are built by firms in this area, including Beverley and Hull.
“We are here because our chairman’s father was here,” says James. “But there was a huge amount of timber being imported into Hull at that time which was one of the drivers for the growth of the sector. Swift now has three sites, 100 acres here where we make the touring caravans and also base the admin, design and sales teams.
“At our site in Hull we manufacture about 60% of our holiday homes and in Mexborough, which we acquired when we bought Autocruise Motorhomes, we now build about 80% of our motorhomes – all built on Fiat cabs.”
That’s the UK side of the operation but, perhaps surprisingly, there is a strong exports market for these little pieces of Yorkshire craftsmanship. The company has exported to Holland for many years, has recently started selling in Germany, a notoriously tough market for English products, and has just added Sweden to the list.
“The work is predominantly in touring caravans and motorhomes. We have a little export of holiday homes, but they are a very large object and they are not flat-packed, so you are shipping quite a lot of fresh air when you export them to France or Belgium.
“On a more global scale, we are exporting to South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, where the attraction starts with the fact that they drive on the same side of the road as us. So our vehicles that are right-hand drive with the habitation doors on the left are already 90% engineered for those markets.
“There has been a trend in Australia – where the market is about 18,000 -19,000 units a year – to move more towards a European-style product rather than the locally produced ones that are more off-road to cope with the Outback conditions. Our models are made for sealed Tarmac roads and Australia has more of them now because it has come a very long way in the last decade or so and customers look for a more luxurious and lightweight product.
The South Korea sales started in a reassuringly old-fashioned way, with a conversation at a trade fair and a growing awareness of lifestyle choices being made there. Back home, James senses a confidence in the air for the whole region, driven by the Siemens headlines and the awarding of the City of Culture for next year.
“The Siemens move is driving expectations in the labour market and we are an organisation looking to employ more people – and we are not unique in that. Our industry is doing well, so some of our competitors are looking to recruit along with other local industries.
“We have just launched the Swift Academy, which recognises the need to develop people within the organisation and means around 10% of our employees are in some form of education activity.
“We also took on a number of apprentices last year and are committed to doing that on an annual basis, as well as recruiting from graduate schemes into areas throughout the company.
“This is all part of what makes this such an interesting place to work, we do the lot, accounting, joinery, fabrication, 3D modelling, rapid prototyping all the skills associated with the car industry but we just don’t shout as much about them.
“It doesn’t look like a very glamorous or exciting industry, but it is and if we carry on as we are we will get to the stage where people instinctively say they would like to buy a Swift rather than just buy a caravan.”
With the company now making more than 8,000 caravans a year, working 24 hours a day to keep up with demand, there is momentum and commitment here that has taken it to top spot for touring caravan and motorhome sales, and third spot for holiday home manufacturing. With that label of ‘market leader’ comes the expectation of innovation and Swift has certainly changed the look of caravans since the Hughes family invaded Perranporth.
Instead of the gas mantles, for instance, Smart Command lets you control the heating and lighting from your phone or tablet, neither of which we had in the Sixties and Seventies. “The saying is ‘innovate or die’ and as the technology changes we like to be at the forefront, grasping the challenges,” said James. “That keeps the pace of development and delivery relentless, with computer simulation at all stages, then put it all through a life-cycle around a test track at Millbrook in Bedfordshire.”
Looking ahead, there is a rolling five-year plan for all Swift’s ranges which allows James to see what will be changing and when it will happen, and what technological or manufacturing advances will be needed to get there.
“My role in the organisation is to make sure that all the facets are knitted together and all aligned in one direction, and that people have the scope within their roles to be creative so that we can draw out of them all the ways they think they can improve the company.
“It is a very broad role that takes in everything from pricing a product, to making sure we get the right margins to finding out how engineers will make a particular new element and where that will sit in the factory.
“From a customer’s perspective a product is tracked using a system called Connect. From its initial build through to dispatch and onwards through every point of service and contact with the vehicle dealership.
“We also allow customers of our high-end products to access parts of Connect, so they can order a spare part from us directly and we can send it out there and then.”
Backed up by a 13,000-member social media community called Swift Talk, this is innovation at work and shows there is a confidence and depth of experience at Swift that is allowing it to look deeply into its own organisation and constantly refresh the four Ps - products, people, processes and profits.
A 100-acre business can hardly be a secret, but the speed of growth at Swift and its dominance and influence in a global market might still be a surprise to many in the region.
The company’s approach to a market and product it knows down to every last nut and bolt is impressive –and the fact that those nuts and bolts are sitting in some of the most scenic surroundings on the planet is something for every Yorkshire business to applaud.