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Taking over the world, one towbar at a time

Business is booming for Towbar Express as thousands of Kiwis buy new cars, boats, caravans, ebikes, trailers and motorhomes with the money they’ve saved on international travel.

In the auto fashion world, towbars are the new black.

Christchurch-based Towbar Express is the country’s biggest manufacturer of towbars and supplies around a third of the market. Last year, its income grew by almost 30 percent after the national Covid-19 lockdown with over 20,000 of its LOCK ON towbars made for customers throughout New Zealand. Around 30 percent of these were fitted at its own premises in Christchurch and Wellington.

One of the company’s three directors, production engineer Clyde McCready, says their success is due to their commitment to customers and the huge database of knowledge of factory vehicle specs it has built up over the past 20 years.

“We knew when we set up the company back in the early 2000s that we would need national scale and we don’t see a limit to how big we can grow. But that takes hard work from the whole team and putting the customer’s needs first.”

The company’s motto is ‘Taking over the world, one towbar at a time’.

As part of its growth, the company recently bought out one of its Christchurch competitors (Towright Ltd) and is turning the premises into a development centre. “This is where we will do our one-off custom manufacturing which will free up some space at our main site in Sydenham.”

The Blue Book

One of the first things the company’s founders Allan Smith and Clyde McCready did when they set up the business was to hire a computer programmer. It was his job to start a database of vehicle specs and towbar patterns. This has grown into a library covering hundreds of different makes and models of vehicles. Known as the Blue Book, this database is intellectual property gold. As well as the vehicle information, it also holds the wiring and fitting instructions.

“We try to make it easy for customers to fit the towbar, so we send each one out with fitting and wiring instructions. Wholesale customers have access to these online,” says Clyde.

The Christchurch base holds a stock of around 1,000 towbars for the most common vehicle makes and models. There are also separate storage racks for the hundreds of individual manufacturing ‘jigs’ (patterns) the company has made for all the different makes and models of cars they have built towbars for in the past 18 years.

Director Allan Smith started with a mobile towbar fitting services in Christchurch and over a beer, he and Clyde decided they could do more. “Clyde is the one with the big vision and I’m the grunter who makes it happen.”

However, the landscape is changing, with more technology being fitted behind bumpers and a continual flow of new makes and models coming into the New Zealand market from around the world. “Every four to eight weeks we are asked for a towbar to fit a model we haven’t worked on before.” A year ago, they may have sourced a suitable towbar from overseas if it was likely to be a one-off, but the pandemic has made this more difficult. As a result, they are making even more custom jigs in Christchurch.

Meeting the market

Director John Maskill (right) joined the company in 2010 with a brief to focus on business development. “The country was just coming through the GFC and the used vehicle import market was starting to pick up rapidly. This secondhand market is a major driver for us.” In 2010 and 2011 the Christchurch earthquakes temporarily closed many of the new car dealerships and this had an effect on the Towbar Express output. “But our site was still producing. We built a steel safety cage in the middle of the building so staff could run inside if there was a big shake and kept going,” says John.

His fellow director, Clyde McCready, says John’s business skills expertly guided the company through the earthquakes, rapid growth and now a pandemic.

“Soon after he joined the team, a Wellington automotive company closed its doors and John encouraged us to take on their assets and staff. Meanwhile, Christchurch production needed more space to grow so he took on the job to find new premises and move us into a building in Gasson Street which gave us three times the footprint,” says Clyde.

Wellington branch

Towbar Express holds a prime spot in central Wellington and the six staff are kept busy. Under the management of the gregarious Cindy De Giorgis, the crew fit towbars, provide advice to customers, run a grooming service, provide warehousing for around 1,000 towbars, and forward freight from the Christchurch operation.
(In the face of rising airfreight charges, the company is now using land transport to deliver many of its towbars to the North Island.)

“We also rent space in a workshop in Lower Hutt where we fit towbars two days a week,” says Cindy.

The Lower Hutt ‘branch’ opened in 2016 after the Kaikoura earthquake. “Our main site was in Wakefield Street and this was condemned so we moved up to the Hutt until we found our new premises in Victoria Street. It meant driving customers’ cars to and from Lower Hutt, but it worked.” Dealerships in the Hutt Valley are finding the local fitting service useful, and the Wellington workload has doubled in the past year.

“We started installing roof racks, bike racks and hard lids about a year ago and this is growing fast,” she says.

With autumn arriving, the pace has slowed. She says summer is always busy, but this year was a record breaker.