Action Manufacturing doesn't see much action in the annual results of its NZX-listed joint venture partner Tourism Holdings (THL).
New Zealand's biggest motorhome and speciality vehicle maker tends to be a footnote when THL reports its results each year.
But Action Manufacturing is very much in action in its own right, recording 15 per cent annual growth since it was formed in 2012, in demand on both sides of the Tasman for its design skills and composite material technology, and recently moving into refrigerated transport manufacturing.
Now the vehicle maker is poised to come out from behind THL's skirts. It is rolling out about 1500 vehicles a year, has 250 staff on the payroll, and annual revenue is projected to be $90 million, thanks partly to the acquisition of refrigerated transport specialist Fairfax Industries.
Action Manufacturing is eyeing a move into manufacturing in Melbourne and is about to get back into the retail motorhome market with its own new brand, Action Everland.
Action operates from three sites: Albany, where it makes motorhomes; Takanini, where Fairfax is based; and Hamilton, home to a large team that designs and produces St John ambulances, police command vehicles, DHB mobile clinics, eye surgery clinics for the Pacific Islands, and all manner of aerodynamic, fuel efficient commercial vehicles up to 18 tonnes.
By anticipating the rise of the world's fastest growing transport market - smaller vehicles for "final mile" and consumer food delivery service - and investing $10m-plus in R&D to prepare for it, the company reckons that in its market, it is in front of the Australasian vehicle body-building pack.
Demand is particularly strong from Australia, which is paying a lot of attention to final mile vehicles. Action Manufacturing is delivering under contract to international courier company TNT, prompting the company to significantly expand its Te Rapa, Hamilton working space by leasing a large building next door.
On the motorhome front, until now Action Manufacturing has only made motorhomes for THL, its partner since 2012 and the largest provider of campervans for rent and sale in Australasia, and the second largest in North America through joint ventures.
"Motorhomes are going out the door every two hours and 30 minutes at the moment," says Grant Brady, 100 per cent owner of Alpine Bird Manufacturing, which owns half of Action Manufacturing, with THL owning the other 50 per cent.
He's Action Manufacturing's managing director and is based in Auckland, overseeing the motorhome arm of the business while director Chris Devoy heads the Hamilton operation and has driven the company's light commercial vehicle export growth into Australia and more recently into refrigerated transport manufacturing.
By launching its own retail motorhome brand, the company is reclaiming some lost market territory. "Eight years ago, 70 per cent of motorhomes were manufactured in New Zealand. Today 30 per cent are," says Devoy.
Brady says motorhome manufacturing is a seasonal business – tending to be manically busy from spring to the end of summer, then dead quiet for six months.
At the same time that Action Manufacturing has been diversifying to avoid these peaks and troughs, imports of motorhomes have leapt due to a tourism surge and good economic times at home.
Five years ago, says Devoy, there were 100 to 200 motorhome imports a year. Last year there were 1200.
Emerging tourism companies have been among the importers, but "opportunistic Ma and Pa" Kiwis have also cashed in, bringing in 10 at a time when the British pound devalued after the Brexit vote and making tidy profits by selling the vehicles here, says Devoy.
When the kiwi dollar was high, it was cheaper for New Zealand to import mass market-produced campervans than buy New Zealand-made, but these imports have half the 20- to 30-year service life that New Zealanders expect from a motorhome, says Brady, a builder by trade with long experience in commercial and residential construction overseas.
The field is also far from level, he argues, with imports able to duck rigorous gas and electrical certification standards imposed on domestic builders.
But with the kiwi dollar falling in value, Brady expects a lot of opportunistic import activity to disappear.
Action Manufacturing aims to reclaim up to 20 per cent of the retail motorhome market, and is investing to achieve that goal.
The back story to the company is a convoluted one spanning decades, but is essentially the result of a merger between Brady's former Kea Campers and Kea Manufacturing, which made campervans, and THL's motorhome builder CI Munro.
"For me, the hero of the story is that we are about New Zealand manufacturing," says Devoy, whose background is in sheet metal and fabrication, including 10 years at Waikato light aircraft maker Pacific Aerospace. He was formerly at CI Munro.
"We are investing in New Zealand manufacturing because we believe in it. It's hard work.
"Manufacturing is the backbone of society. If you go to Europe or the United States, they're fighting to get manufacturing back. China is offering subsidised rents, so is Europe.
"New Zealand needs to look after manufacturing."
Brady and Devoy say Action Manufacturing's competitive points of difference are its design skills and composite panel intellectual property.
Australia has much larger body-building companies, but they lag on design, says Devoy, which is why interest has been so strong since Action Manufacturing's final mile vehicles for TNT were introduced into most Australian states.
The composite material it has developed is strong, light and with thermal characteristics ideal for refrigerated transport. It can be turned into panels for vehicle floors and walls and easily handles the aerodynamic curved roof design that is now a must for fuel saving and efficiency.
The company saw consumer freight transport needs changing four years ago, says Devoy.
"The global final mile and food delivery transport market is growing at 30 per cent annually – in New Zealand, think My Food Bag etc. Globally, people are waking up as to how to solve [freight] transport problems in congested cities. Groceries are going into boxes, not bulk freight. Containers with little pods are being dropped into towns on a hub and spoke model, then bikes with little containers deliver them.
"Trucks are too big now. [But] in New Zealand we take a big 18 tonne curtainsider into the middle of the Auckland CBD and park it on the side of the road and block traffic while it's trying to unload small parcels. Now everything is being driven by that final mile [delivery]."
Brady says Action Manufacturing "bumped into" Fairfax Industries as Devoy was driving the business into new freight territory and Fairfax was looking to build smaller trucks using composite materials.
"Fairfax has got very specialised refrigeration technology. It's a 40-year-old business and very well-regarded. But they are building in a very traditional way – our composite panels could really add a lot to that business."
Brady says there's some "nervousness" among loyal Fairfax customers about what its ownership change will mean, but lessons have been learnt from the THL-Action Manufacturing partnership, and Fairfax's Takanini culture will stay.
Devoy: "Grant and I tried for years to figure out whether we wanted one 'Action culture'.
"At strategic management level we have a single view, but at manufacturing level we have an Albany culture, a Hamilton culture and now, a Takanini culture."
Being a company with both a publicly-listed corporate owner and a private owner took some adjusting to, says Brady.
"I've learnt a huge amount being involved with THL and hopefully they've learnt from us. We spent the first couple of years trying to bash [the culture] into one box but that doesn't work.
"You realise you have different tribes. It's been much healthier since then."