A homegrown towbar design and a deal with a German manufacturing giant are set to generate $50 million worth of export business for a small Kiwi company over the next five years.
Auckland car enthusiasts Stuart Terrell and Hank de Kock are over the moon about their deal with Westfalia Automotive to produce a hybrid towbar that meets the standards of multiple countries.
The pair fulfilled a dream to run their own company by purchasing a Tauranga family business selling towbars in October 2008.
They named it Starck Industries and traded under the old brand name of Towbar Factory.
The partners noticed it was becoming increasingly difficult to install standard towbars on late-model vehicles, so looked into adapting the latest technology from overseas.
"As vehicles become lighter and safer, design is critical," de Kock said.
"You can't simply bolt a towbar to the back of the car. It changes the safety and characteristics of the vehicle."
Well-publicised stories such as that involving Toyota and its problems with car mats causing fatal accidents mean manufacturers are more "risk averse" to added componentry.
"In the past, you could do what you wanted but now more people are aware of what can go wrong."
De Kock said other players in the towbar industry in New Zealand had fallen behind as their products became obsolete.
"If you plug trailer lights into modern cars, they come up with all sorts of error messages."
The duo approached Germany's Westfalia Automotive - which invented the towbar in 1934 and had technology to overcome the problems - to inquire whether Starck could modify its products to meet New Zealand standards.
"Europeans don't need chain mounts and there's no requirement for trailers to be braked in New Zealand," De Kock said.
Within two weeks, they were on a plane to Germany to seal the deal.
By mid-2009, they were importing Westfalia's towbars and modifying them in their Mount Maunganui factory.
They began talking to car manufacturers such as Mercedes Benz, Mazda, Ford and Ssangyong.
De Kock and Terrell then designed a unique and universal "hybrid" of the European towbar, which meets standards in all countries.
After struggling to get financial backing from within New Zealand, they went back to Westfalia.
"They said the potential was huge and it would revolutionise the industry worldwide," Terrell said.
"We went from the concept to the product cycle within six months."
Westfalia suggested a joint venture, an offer the Kiwis couldn't refuse.
The more formal relationship and their new name, Westfalia Asia Pacific, will allow them to penetrate markets in other countries and guarantee a manufacturing base in New Zealand.
When Starck began, 25 per cent of its towbars were manufactured in New Zealand and the remainder were imported.
De Kock and Terrell say those figures are now beginning to flip.
Their universal towbars fit into the rear of cars with a simple click and appear invisible when not in use.
They cost between $495 and $1500 and will be exported to countries that do not use the European standard such as Australia, South Africa, South America and the Pacific Islands.
Starck employs 20 people but expects that number to double once a second Mt Maunganui factory opens in June.By Andre Hueber Email Andre