Two-and-a-half years ago, in the wake of a devastating fire, Camper UK’s Managing Director Dean Hyde told his staff – “We are down but not out, if we stick together we will pull through this.”
Today, he is immensely proud that this well-known family business is back on top form and chalking-up annual sales of about £18 million, after coming back from the brink of disaster.
Dean credits everyone from family to staff, friends and suppliers, for playing a key part in that comeback. Now the firm is targeting further growth and looking to take on more staff. During that dark period in early 2014, Dean predicted that Camper UK would come back stronger, and it has, but sobering lessons have also been learned.
Alarming phone call
The evening of January 25, 2014, started on a high note for Dean and his wife Rebecca, but precious time spent relaxing with another couple was about to be cut short. “We had gone for a meal at The Bottle & Glass in Harby. Our starters hadn’t even arrived when my phone rang. It was a private number and my wife said ‘don’t answer it,’ as I was always on my phone,” said Dean.
“Minutes later, a second call was from my General Manager John Richards. The alarm people had rung saying there was a problem with our premises. They thought there had been a fire. Panic set in and I found myself dashing to North Hykeham.”
He arrived at the firm’s Station Road premises to discover 15 fire engines blocking that road. There were no obvious signs of a break-in. Once firefighters had accessed the premises all that could be seen was a flame reflected in a computer screen.
Dean was stopped from moving anything and felt powerless as flames went on to engulf the building, razing it to the ground. On site were £2 million worth of customers’ and manufacturers’ vehicles. It was horrific.
“It was like a death. We lost everything tools, equipment, our database, photographs, awards, parts and stock. We had started to lease our current premises at Deacon Road, Lincoln, which were due to be ready for our relocation on February 1st,” said Dean.
“I had to ring all our staff. I was devastated, but my business partner Alan Pickering and I told them, ‘we’re down not out, we will bounce back. You have been loyal to us. We are not laying anyone off.’ Their response was excellent.”
Everyone concentrated on recovery. Dean was also moved by his customers’ support. However, Camper UK’s bankers froze the firm’s accounts and he had to pay staff by selling spare stock, stored elsewhere. It was two-and-a-half months before the firm’s insurers accepted liability and the claim was only settled in May this year.
Starting to recover
“It took us a year to begin to recover. Our survival was down to our own determination, excellent staff, a very supportive family and great customers and suppliers,” said Dean.
“One customer was in the process of buying a new motorhome. Both his current and new vehicles were on site when the fire broke out. He simply rang and said: “How are you? I am here if you need me.” He never asked about his vehicles!”
Camper UK has an 18-acre leisure caravanning site near Dean’s home in Swinethorpe, near Newark. He said that although the firm’s new premises were not completely ready for occupation after the fire, a hangar space was.
“Our workshop staff moved into that part and returned to work using their own tools and those borrowed from local garages. My dining table acted as our accounts department, the sales team operated out of a motorhome at our leisure park and for six months, we did everything using our mobile phones,” he said.
Today, Camper UK’s impressive Deacon Road site gives no indication of what the company has been through. Storage and display space includes a massive showroom, displaying vehicles ranging in price from £5,000 to £205,000. The business also deals in second hand caravans and motorhomes and even hires the latter for trial periods.
This area is complemented by an equally-impressive, fully-equipped servicing department, a parts area and a shop stocked with every imaginable essential for the dedicated camper and caravanner.
Interestingly, for a business which enjoys great sales success, Dean never intended Camper UK to supply vehicles. It was the firm’s fast-growing reputation that opened the door to that potential.
Spotting a gap in the market
Camper UK was established by Dean, his father Paul (now retired) and Dean’s friend Alan Pickering. It officially began trading in February 2005.
“I originally had the idea of launching a servicing business. Having worked in the industry, I realise there was a niche for a business which concentrated solely on offering good after-sales service,” said Dean.
“I had seen lots of people buying caravans and camper vans and driving off, but there seemed to be no further interest in them after they had gone through the gates. Customers had felt they were not important anymore.
“But caravans and motorhomes are a special type of purchase; usually the most expensive thing next to your house. Lincolnshire is also home to a huge caravanning community, particularly when you consider the East Coast. I felt my idea would work.”
Dean was eager to get started, but admits he was pleased to have his Dad and Alan, on board. “I’m energetic and enthusiastic. I have ideas and I want to progress them straightaway. Dad was a steadying influence and Alan was very experienced on the technical side and well-respected throughout the industry, with his vast knowledge.
“I started off by hitting the road with a car full of leaflets. My wife and some of our five children were with us and we kept stopping to push leaflets through letterboxes.
“The telephone started ringing immediately. In addition, I was about to pop a leaflet through one guy’s door, when he approached me and said: ‘Look, I have a motorhome with the side smashed in. I can’t get anything done at my dealers. They keep saying they can’t get any parts.’
“Minutes later my wife was driving back home in our car and I was driving this guy’s six-berth Swift motorhome away, to get it fixed,” said Dean.
The work started rolling in. By the end of his first year, the business had taken on about seven fitters. John Richards, who joined at the start, was doing a great job in parts and was soon promoted to Parts Manager, then Aftersales Manager. Now he is Camper UK’s General Manager, working directly with Alan and Dean.
“He’s is our longest-serving staff member. We employ 33 people, working in our fully-operational parts and accessories shop, a fully-equipped, Fiat-approved workshop (claimed to be the largest in the country) and a lovely indoor showroom (also claimed to be largest of its kind in the UK),” said Dean.
In its first year, Camper UK was named Lincolnshire & Rutland Young Business of the Year.
From service to sales
“I always thought we would be busy on the service side, but I never planned on selling vehicles. Then we were approached by leading German manufacturer Burstner.
“They had heard a lot about us. No-one specialised in the repair of their vehicles in the UK – they had to get them shipped to Kehl in Germany. We were a central point for the business and we have become its number one service provider in Europe.”
Camper UK’s team visit Burstner for regular training and Dean has also hosted his supplier’s trainees, which all adds up to a great exchange of knowledge.
“When people saw us bringing repaired caravans and motorhomes out of our workshops, they noticed and said how nice they were. But we sent them to dealers elsewhere to buy them,” said Dean.
“A Burstner representative said we were missing a trick and should give selling a go ourselves. I thought about it for a couple of weeks, finally decided it was right for the business and we went on to become a dealer for Burstner.
“During a visit to Germany, we met other dealers and, after flying back to Manchester, diverted to Halifax on the way home, collected a caravan and towed it back to Lincoln. We sold it the same weekend,” said Dean.
At that point Camper UK had never attended an industry show, then Dean went to Earl’s Court, went onto the Burstner stand and ended-up being its top salesman at the event.
“Towards the end of 2007, Burstner approached us again, acknowledged our vast knowledge of motorhomes and asked us to start selling them (as well as caravans). It was a big decision. We were not a cash rich company, so funding was vital. But the first one arrived and we sold it before it was even unloaded from the transporter.”
Camper UK is now a dealer for a wide range of manufacturers, including Burstner, Carthago, Swift, Carado, Laika and LMC. “Five years ago, we bought 18 acres of land at Swinethorpe, near Harby, where we have created a leisure site with hardstanding for vans and motorhomes, a large rally field, shower block and fishing lake stocked full of carp,” said Dean.
“We invite 150 to 200 motorhomes’ customers to attend three open events each year, pop up a marquee, charge two pounds a pint for beer and lay on a hog roast and entertainment, which is really enjoyable.”
Dean was delighted when Lincoln MP Karl McCartney officially opened its 62,000 sq ft premises in Deacon Road in February 2015 – 10 years after the company started. Today he reflects on lessons learned and his hopes for the future.
“I’d advise any business about to speak to an insurer about a claim to thoroughly check the small print. We ultimately felt we were under-insured and had been badly advised,” said Dean.
“Always make sure your business documents are in order, right from health and safety through to risk assessments and personnel matters – you don’t know what’s around the corner. Also, listen to your staff, because they are important to your business.”
That’s very true. Now Dean is concentrating on Camper UK achieving further growth and looking to take on more staff, from trainees to fully-skilled technicians, including people looking for a career change.
This feature interview was first published in issue 85 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.