Our History – Roadsafe Automotive Products

Do it once and do it right. This is Colin Smith’s advice for success in life, be it marriage, business or car restoration.

The Roadsafe Automotive Products founder is a perfectionist, a trait reflected in his home with its surrounding gardens, and the pair of mint condition vintage cars parked in his garage.

Living on the fringe of Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges, Colin’s property is surrounded by lawn, gardens and mountain ash trees. It is immaculate. Amid the trees and ferns is an old, corrugated iron woodshed, inside of which, stacked in neat rows, is enough firewood to last several years. It fits with the orderly nature of the property.

Colin is proud of his cars. The first vehicle he shows me looks like something out of a gangster movie: A 1927 Vauxhall 20/60. It features a black vinyl roof, red body paint and huge black fenders, woodgrain dash and leather upholstery. Inside and out, the vehicle sparkles. Close by is a 1955, 2.3L Humber Hawk, looking as if it still belonged on a showroom floor.

Colin established Roadsafe Automotive Products in 1994, as a steering and suspension aftermarket supply specialist servicing resellers. Roadsafe’s under car range was later expanded to include disc brake pads and drive shafts. In August, 2016, Roadsafe was bought by Bapcor, and Colin started a well-earned transition into retirement.

His has been a long, interesting journey. Born in December, 1943, Colin grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg. Mild mannered and soft spoken, he left school for teacher’s college and returned as a primary school teacher.

“I was a primary school teacher for several years before I decided I’d had enough, and turned my attention towards business.”

Colin worked for a large Japanese trading house for several years, learning the procedures of import and export, which served him well later. In the late 1960s, he decided it was time to start his own business and Venus Imports was born.

“In those days, overseas contacts had to be made by letter, telegram or telex. I knew all about the value of a telex machine from my experience with the trading house, and once I had saved the $3000 (about the price of a new car) I had no hesitation in buying one.”

No-one in his family was business oriented so he had to find his way, learning from mistakes and accomplishments. 

“I thought pharmacists would be a good, solid customer base so I called on several, enquiring about their products,” Colin said. “I would ask them whether they received a good supply and were well-serviced, and I was continually directed towards sunglasses.”

It was a strategy he was to employ through his business life. Venus Imports became Venus Sunglasses; contacts were made, samples of sunglasses received and a range put together.

Colin’s marketing strategy included a display stand made of white polystyrene to highlight lens’ colours better than the wire units then in use, however, he needed a financial backer: “To prove my idea worked, I cobbled together a display stand using polystyrene and sticky tape, filled it with sunglasses, and took photos of various sizes before it all fell apart.”

Colin called on a dozen or so pharmacies with the photos, and an order book. The response was fantastic and he used the orders to convince a backer, and subsequently built up Venus Sunglasses Pty Ltd into a national operation. At his peak in sunglasses, Colin had $2m worth stored in his shed, and a staff of more than 200 who, for the most part, were in-store demonstrators.

He sold Venus Sunglasses to the company accountant. A few months later he was offered the Sunoroid Sunglass company by Gillette: “I purchased it, built it back up to No.1, and sold it to Bells Discount Stores.”

Colin moved out of the sunglass industry because it was difficult, requiring lots of overseas travel, product selection based on fashion – the shorter the dresses the bigger the sunglasses – and a short selling season from September to January. He wanted to sell products without seasonal influence and looked at the automotive industry.

“I adopted the same approach as sunglasses, this time calling on wholesalers to ask what product ranges were poorly supplied,” he explained.

Colin was told to look at ball joints, tie rod ends and front-end parts. He formed Camelot Design Industries Group Pty Ltd (CDIG) in 1977, and using that company he found Trans Forward Ind Co in Taiwan, who assured him he would be their sole Australian agent.  He obtained order enquiries from Keep Bros & Wood and Burson Automotive. After some checking and testing, orders were shipped and invoiced in December 1986. Orders continued from Burson through until their last order was shipped in September, 2016, a 30-year association.

In 1987, Colin received a phone call from Andrew Schram (of Burson) asking: “Who is Endurance?” Burson had received their order, but some goods were packed in Endurance boxes. At the same time, Jack Elbourne (Friends Auto Parts, Qld) was asking: “Who is Camelot?”  He had received some of his shipment in Camelot boxes.

“The factory had mixed up their packaging and exposed their deceptive conduct,” Colin said.  Some good that came out of the mix up as it started a long, mutually-beneficial, association for the two men.

A year later Jack rang Colin to tell him he intended to set up his own factory in Taiwan, Transteering Ind Co, on a 50/50 basis with the previous chief engineer of Trans Forward Ind Co.  He didn’t require funds and would do all the range development, but wanted Colin (CDIG) to be the distributor for the products in Australia, except for Queensland, which he would cover. 

“We formulated a distribution policy aiming for at least one national distributor with their own brand, and separate agents in each State selling under the Camelot brand,” Colin said. “It was my job to set all that up, and Jack’s job to develop the range and product catalogue.”

The Camelot Distribution Group was formed, with BCF Parts (Qld) now using Camelot brand, then London Trading Co (NSW), Southcotts (SA), Amcap/BBK and Engine Parts (WA), and Paja Automotive (Vic/Tas).

Colin purchased the assets of Paja in December 1991 to form Roadsafe Automotive (for Vic/Tas), to be run by Dale May, formerly a manager at Paja Automotive. In August 1995 Partco, trading as Roadsafe (NSW) Pty Ltd, became agents for NSW. 

The Roadsafe brand was effective. In January 1996 Jack, Dale and Chris Lane (NSW) met and decided that the Camelot brand would be discontinued, and all three would purchase direct from the factory, but only in Roadsafe brand, and only for their own State.  CDIG would continue to supply the “nationals” under their own brands.

“This was disappointing for me after all the work for brand acceptance,” Colin said.  “Over the years, I had signed up most of the majors: Atkins-Carlyle, Echlin, K-Mart Auto, Repco, Federal Mogul, I.B.S. (who used Camelot brand), Pedders, National Parts (our largest customer), George Stock & Co (NZ also used Camelot brand), Burson, and even specific items for GMH.”

So, the Roadsafe brand was launched together in front end, and sales grew.  Burson continued with Camelot, then its own Burson brand before agreeing to use the Roadsafe brand. National Parts became dominant and Jack, Dale and Chris grumbled about their loss of sales to National Parts in their States, and his benefitting from that.

The lowest point for Roadsafe was about 2000 when Colin had to rebuild the business. “It was a long grind under several managers including David Berrill and Matt Grindlay,” he said. Meanwhile, the discontent with his interstate business associates escalated in 2005 after Jack Elbourne died.

 “The new managers of BCF in Qld (who retained a 50 per cent interest in the Taiwan factory) decided to allow Roadsafe (NSW) to approach ATAP in Vic for national sales. Previously this was the province only of CDIG. 

“They visited my long-term agent George Stock in NZ and showed them the factory buying prices ‘to improve sales,’ which had the result of a cut in my margin, and sales did not increase.”

Colin put forward his case that the distribution agreement was being breached; interference with his customers was not warranted, and the appointment of additional distributers would upset existing customers. This fell on deaf ears. Direct contact with ATAP would be allowed to continue, plus any others they deemed important. The factory fell into line with this, so he ended a 20-year exclusive association and changed suppliers.

“My intention was to use the new factory as a supplementary supplier with Trans Steering still the major supplier,” he explained. “However, once Trans Steering was told of my decision, they stopped supply, which escalated my range development with the new supplier.”

What followed was a long and tedious process from selection of a suitable factory, to supply of samples, testing, getting part numbers in place, packaging development plus obtaining agreement from all customers (including Burson) for this change. King Ting Ind Co (KT), formerly a forging factory, was chosen and a trial order shipped in April 2006, then orders for the others in July 2006. Repco chose to remain with TRANS, as did George Stock and IBS.

It was a trying time for other reasons: In October 2005, the owners of Paja approached Colin and asked whether he wanted to buy their business. Paja had recommenced business three years after he had purchased their assets in 1994, developing a business like Roadsafe.  Agreement was reached in December for sale in May 2006.

Meanwhile, Colin was diagnosed with prostate cancer. By December 2005 the cancer had escalated and he was booked for surgery to remove the prostate in March, 2006. The same month he agreed to purchase the two Paja buildings (Qld and Braeside).

“I was at home, recovering from the operation, complete with catheter attached, and the doctor was telling me to ‘not make any important decisions for at least two weeks’,” Colin said. “I had a friend check out the Braeside building and bought the Qld one sight unseen. I still haven’t seen it.

“All this was going on with a new supplier, a hostile Trans Steering talking direct to my customers (unsuccessfully), getting orders/shipments for the new products, coming to terms of a combined business with all the former Paja staff and Roadsafe staff, and moving everything over to the (larger) Braeside building.

“I had the building cleaned, painted inside and out, new carpets, furniture, computer system and a new phone system, arranged for sale of our Doveton building, and we moved in May 2006,” Colin said.

“This was the beginning of the last and most successful chapter of my venture into automotive,” he said.

Colin didn’t handle the combination of Roadsafe/Paja staff and business well: “It was a shambles. We had to rationalize sales policies/purchases/ supply of two brands – Roadsafe, plus Paja’s OEM brand - organize two lots of stock in the now overcrowded warehouse (Paja’s stock plus all our Roadsafe stock), find the best way forward with two lots of staff and, most disruptive of all, deal with two, then three computer systems.”

However, by the end of 2006, most things had been sorted with staff and stock rationalized. A game-changer occurred early 2007 with the collapse and subsequent closure of National Parts. This was a major customer for CDIG, and left a gaping hole in sales and profits, however, a major beneficiary was the new Roadsafe operation.

Customers still needed supply and were ringing everyone, including Roadsafe and the company had to ship additional containers of stock to keep up supply, and its customer base increased dramatically.  Profits lost in indent sales for CDIG were more than covered by ex-stock wholesale sales by Roadsafe.

Then followed a long period of consolidation and growth. Peter Moreau was appointed as general manager at Roadsafe, and Colin became aware of the quality of some of the staff that came across from Paja. In particular, Tania Allatt and Peter Taylor who revelled in the opportunities that opened.

“During this period the company became debt free and was operating well at all levels. I moved out of the building to allow Peter Moreau to be more effective, and my role from CDIG became more about governance and company direction than management. This proved to be important to Burson/Bapcor when they purchased the assets in August, 2016.”

Colin said people often ask him how he manage to turn it all around? “I always say that first you need to get the direction right. You can work hard and diligently but get nowhere, if the direction is not right.  From that you develop your strategic plan.

“The key elements in the automotive industry are supply and distribution. Both need to be solid.  Our position improved on the supply side once we moved to KT, and on the distribution side when we combined with Paja (and NP closed).

“Our customer base was being eroded by the activities of large companies, such as Burson and Repco, acquiring more independent resellers.  The vehicle market was also changing as SUV and 4WD vehicles gained popularity.”

Colin said this suited Roadsafe as the heavier vehicles put greater loads on undercar parts. The strategic move in this direction thus made sense from the perspective of parts being needed, plus introduced the company to another customer base.  However, this required development of many new 4WD parts, something driven by constant supply requests from customers. 

“This new direction distanced us from Trans Steering and other front-end factories. Towards the end, 4WD was 50 per cent of our business, and together with front-end, 90 per cent of sales emphasis was strategically reduced on previous supporting ranges, such as brake pads and filters, where we had no control on supply or distribution,” he said.

Colin said he must also acknowledge the loyalty and support of his major customers, particularly Andrew Schram (Burson) and Ron Pedder (Pedders), and National Parts when approached with direct supply from Trans Steering.  “That was a pivotal time for the business, and all have benefitted,” Colin said.

Interviewed March 2017