When John Burling created a simple trailer coupling in his garage in 1988, he wasn’t to know it was the beginning of what is now one of Taranaki’s largest, most successful manufacturing businesses.
In those days, John was Carac. He tinkered away in his shed in the small town of Eltham, creating one product at a time and selling it, largely to local farmers.
Thirty-five years on, Carac Group manufactures more than 4,500 different components and sells them all over the world. Much of John’s family is on the 40-odd staff, including his wife Yvonne as a director, daughters Sonia and Heather as CEO and financial officer respectively, and son Mark in operations.
Carac recently consolidated from seven factories and a powder-coating plant into one large premises, plus two smaller ones, and three manufacturing plants in America.
It’s not bad for a self-taught innovator turned highly successful family-run business.
John explains Carac’s success in an extremely uncomplicated way. “I like to think we do things that other people find too hard or can’t be bothered with,” he says.
Other significant success stories get the same treatment.
Like the time John went up to Auckland determined to source work for the America’s Cup. He didn’t know exactly what he could do for the industry but he’d recently seen Team New Zealand win the Auld Mug and thought Carac could be a part of it.
“I went around everywhere that was to do with boats but didn’t find anything and had to come home. I went back again two weeks later and looked at the boat trailer componentry and thought I could do that way more efficiently.
“So I arranged to buy a fully automatic bandsaw. I knew I could robot weld all the parts and do it fully automatically. We ended up picking up the whole industry and have had it for many years.”
People like John have been influential in the Taranaki manufacturing sector, which is one of the biggest in the region. According to Infometrics, it accounted for 10.5% of annual regional GDP in 2022, or $1.05 billion, behind only agriculture, forestry, fishing (categorised as one single sector) and mining as the third-most valuable local industry.
John has not only been a pioneer in developing his own operation, but he has been only too willing to lend a hand to others.
“I say to everyone, I don’t care who it is, just use us as an extension to your workshop. We have all sorts of machinery that people can use. It’s an open door policy – we don’t see others as a threat to our business, we try to help everybody.”
This attitude is common and makes a significant difference for other manufacturing startups and small businesses looking to grow.
Leon Power of Nanobubble Agritech has certainly benefited from the generosity of established businesses.
His company applies nanobubble technology that’s more commonly used in wastewater and hydroponic growing in larger scale agriculture and horticulture. Simply speaking, it puts more oxygen into irrigation water that helps grass and plants to grow.
Leon says being able to pick the brains of experienced people, even in seemingly unrelated industries, has been extremely valuable.
“There’s a lot of really talented guys that can build stuff in Taranaki,” he says. “We’re in the same office as Eagle Automotive, which is a large engineering business, and we’re really lucky that we can talk to them about anything we’re not sure of. Even if they’re busy, they can point you in the right direction or give you enough to figure out how to approach it.”
Being in a smaller region means people tend to know each other, and having fewer degrees of separation makes it easy to make connections. Leon says that’s been significant in getting Nanobubble Agritech through a considerable research and development phase.
“For example, when we build our machines on pivot irrigators, we retrofit the existing sprinklers with a mobile drop line, which is quite new and has come with a few challenges. We’ve had heaps of good people from other businesses work with us to overcome them.”
Leon’s experience is echoed by many other startup owners, including Nick Jones of Rewild. Rewild traps have been designed to be much more user friendly and safer than older models, while still also being humane and attractive to pests.
“It’s hard to build a device that’s super reliable and humanely kills the animal,” Nick says. “We went through testing at Manaaki Whenua in Lincoln to get the trap to that humane level, and that took six different trips. Testing for ferrets alone cost us $23,000, and it was similar for stoats and rats – fortunately DOC assisted with the latter. That’s not even product development, that’s just testing.”
Nick has leant on a wide variety of specialists throughout the years-long process, with conservation groups, engineers and material suppliers all willing to give time and even money to the cause.
“Beck CNC in Omata has done a heap of machining work and Devon Plastics have been really generous too – we got to a point where there was something we couldn’t afford to build so they subsidised us through that stage, with our production paying it back.
“We’ve had to outsource some tooling stuff to China, but we’re trying to do as much in house as we can, and the product itself is all made in NZ. For most of what we need, if it’s not in Taranaki, we’ve been able to get it from Waikato, Manawatū or somewhere close by.”
Nick has been around innovation his whole career, and says the key is having your eyes open, being open to receiving feedback and collaborating with others.
With increasingly diverse and experienced innovators across Taranaki, the region’s manufacturing sector is well set up to punch above its weight in years to come.