Perfect paradox pays dividends
How do businesses future-proof themselves? takes a look at older businesses in rural community to find out what keeps them ticking along.
As you head north from Invercargill on State Highway 6, blink as you hit the 24km mark and you’d be forgiven for missing the unassuming-looking sheds of Lochiel Trailers.
Lochiel Trailers – the trading name for Lochiel Engineering 2000 Ltd – continues to go from strength to strength thanks to a paradoxical blend of stubborn marketing persistence, allied with a flexible, ever-changing embrace of the latest technology.
Husband and wife Colin and Chris Hitchen took on the thenstruggling firm in 2000, during a period of ebbing fortunes for Lochiel as a result of farming sector belt-tightening.
At the time, the Hitchens, who met while studying at Lincoln, had been involved with farming for several years, with Colin always supplementing his farm income with ‘‘off-farm interests’’. Those interests included shearing inseason, and a growing interest in building and selling steel and alloy products out of season.
Although Colin always enjoyed – and continues to enjoy – the design and manufacturing side of the business, he quickly realised his true skills perhaps lay elsewhere.
‘‘From those early days, I realised I enjoyed and was reasonably good at developing and marketing the product rather than building it, so at Lochiel I’ve always made a conscious effort to employ better than me to build the gear, and stick to what I enjoyed doing - which was finding out what the client wanted and marketing it,’’ he said.
Lochiel, which had been running as a general engineering firm since 1950, enjoyed a strong reputation for the enduring quality of its trailers, and Colin decided to capitalise on this aspect of the business.
‘‘The original owners established the company as Lochiel Motors and developed the engineering as a side line, which rapidly took over. In those days there was a railhead on the premises, and a lot of farm gates and so on were loaded out from here for the Lands and Survey farm developments being done in the Te Anau basin.
‘‘Aside from that extensive range of farm-related products, there were the trailers, and that’s where we’ve concentrated our efforts over recent decades, offering a range of about 60 models today.
‘‘We believe in sticking to what we do best, and getting that message out to our customers.’’
In stark contrast to Lochiel’s heels-in-the-ground obstinacy on the marketing side is the firm’s attitude towards leveraging the latest technology in order to achieve its mission.
Here, Colin and Lochiel Trailers couldn’t be more flexible, although adaptation wasn’t without its challenges.
‘‘You have to learn how best to use the ever-changing technology we’re bombarded with these days. This takes a lot of courage, and a lot of developing the grey matter to learn and implement,’’ he said.
‘‘Despite that, we’re always adapting in order to work towards a consistent and genuinely premium product.
‘‘For example, we use Ostendo job-costing and inventory software to carefully manage costs and profit margins and, on the client side, to demonstrate the valueadded benefit of purchasing quality with the back-up and service of a lifetime guarantee.’’
Colin was also expecting new 3D design software Auto Desk Inventor to generate a paradigm shift in Lochiel’s processes and end product during coming months and years.
Investment in quality bred further quality, he believed.
Retention of staff was critical to maintaining the highest standards, Colin said.
‘‘One of the challenges we face is succession.
‘‘I’m continually hitting my head against a brick wall with school career advisors pushing varsity over a hands-on, traderelated career.’’
Competition from ‘‘cheap and nasty’’ foreign product was also a bugbear.
‘‘We’ve always built all our products here in Southland, with Southland staff, using New Zealand/Australian steel.
‘‘Unfortunately, our customers today have a world of choice at their fingertips online, with some manufacturers, both here and elsewhere, making inferior copies of our products, and undercutting us in price. In most cases, the results are not good for the end user.’’
Local, southern pride in a ‘‘good job, well done’’ remained key to future success, Colin believed.
‘‘Southland people are down to earth, do business on a handshake and expect the same.’’
Winton Lochiel Trailers managing director Colin Hitchen, middle, and his wife Chris, left, with truck driver Mutt Donlea.
Winton Lochiel Trailers managing director Colin Hitchen and his wife Chris, with grandchildren Casey and Jonty Malan.