Converting Corvettes and More

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-By John Boley

Many people say the writing is on the wall and that large cars are dinosaurs. They back up such an assertion with statistics: the compact Mazda 3 outsold Holden’s Commodore last year while nearly everything outsold the poor old Ford Falcon, whose sales slid by 36.5 per cent. To rub it in, Toyota sold almost twice as many of its little Corolla.

But the big-car market is not irrevocably doomed. Boosted by a strong dollar and not a little helped by some high-profile movie offerings in recent times, the market for imported US-made muscle cars is stronger than ever, according to Glenn Soper, general manager of Gympie, Queensland based Performax International.

Performax currently has around 60 per cent of a market of around 350 units nationwide per year, so Toyota is under no pressure. But Glenn says there is plenty of scope for growth. “We are having a big recruitment drive right now,” Glenn told us. “We want to grow to 450 vehicles (per year) by 2015 and to get there we have a definite need to grow capital and also staff to meet that demand.” The company imports for stock, rather than expecting a customer to fork out the cost price before the import procedure starts, and has dealers in the ACT, Perth, Melbourne and Tasmania to back up the main outlet in Queensland which until quite recently accounted for almost all national sales although only half were actually within Queensland.

The business was founded on Chevrolet Corvette and has thrived on its Silverado. Performax began as Corvette Queensland and was founded by two enthusiasts, Greg Waters & Brian Learoyd, two local Gympie lads who wanted a trip to Perth. Glenn takes up the story. “In those days, some 21 years ago, airfares to Perth were pretty steep. So they added $300 onto the airfare ticket and ended up in America with a round-the-world ticket. Then they pooled their money and bought a Corvette, brought it back and were shopping around to see who could do the [right-hand drive] conversion for them, and just realised there were not many quality conversion companies that would do justice to a conversion. So they investigated further and just decided they would do it themselves.”

From there on, it was a case of mates coming to them and asking for another one. “They started to grow and first one gave up his full time job, then the other one.” There had been some banter, to say the least, locally about the viability of such an enterprise. “But now they’ve got this $25 million company and are well respected in the town. The mayor and everyone knows Performax and its contribution to employment and bringing respect to the area.”

Part of the growth included diversification. A ‘bread and butter’ product was trucks (big US utes), starting from when they won a contract with the government to supply ambulances in Victoria. The conversion job in this case was less complex than the Corvette and could be done in higher volumes, while demand for the products grew quickly.

Glenn’s path was somewhat different, with a background of Bentley (looking after 20 dealers around Asia-Pacific from a Singapore base and involved in the excitement of the iconic nameplate’s launch into China). He joined Performax International two years ago after a spell at Renault, “coming back to this type of exciting product, back where I feel I’m most comfortable. Prestige products are a passion of mine.”

The plan for growth now includes expanding the offer of trucks, bringing in all four major US pickups to become a “one-stop shop for this type of vehicle.” Potential buyers have a soft spot for a particular nameplate, says Glenn, and hitherto they have not been able to get hold of trucks other than the Chevrolet Silverado. Performax has just started offering the Toyota Tundra and will soon have examples of Ford’s massive F250 and Dodge Ram.

These are vehicles that are not offered for sale in Australia by their manufacturers – to some extent because of their low-volume niche market here which itself is part of the appeal to buyers and drivers. Performax operates between the OEM and the authorities, with General Motors and Ford well aware of their existence and activities – and tacitly favouring what the company does although not officially ‘approving’ its products – and the authorities happy that the conversions and engineering are up to the exacting safety standards of the regulations on conversions in this country.

So how does this affect warranties? “We underwrite our own warranty, which is just like any bumper to bumper, statutory type warranty that you get from any normal OEM, and we fund it completely. Ours is a 4 year, 120,000 kilometre warranty on retail vehicles, so it’s bigger than some and smaller than others, but pretty much market standard.”

Engineering-wise, Performax believes very much in doing it ‘right first time’, to use a phrase Ford used to use when it wanted to improve its own manufacturing processes. The OEMs are so busy launching new models that they hardly have time to help, so the team tends to find out new things the hard way. Electric power-assisted steering, for instance. “It’s relatively new technology, and it created all sorts of challenges when the 2011 Mustang came to our shores. We didn’t know it was going to have electric steering and we spent a lot of time trying to find a solution. But now we honestly have the best right hand drive steering rack in the world for Mustang.” The mathematics involved in the relationship between a pinion and a rack shaft is extremely precise. “But we nailed it and we have a number of happy customers out there now. There are other providers of this item but they’re welding components, which is a no-no with regards to steering as far as we are concerned. Ours is essentially OEM quality.”

Having all four ‘big trucks’ “is going to enhance the business dramatically.” The factory producing all the components for conversion (including the instrument panel) is a particularly well-equipped facility, says Glenn. “In addition, we are the only ones at the moment doing plastic components. So we alone can turn out OE quality dashboards that are plug and play. We make them in-house, which is a unique selling proposition that we’re quite proud of, and make a big point of during the sales process. A lot of potential customers, if they are on the fence, come and do a factory tour of our place and see our craftsmen in full flight; that’s usually the clincher for the deal.”

Many other conversion companies are working in less desirable facilities, says Glenn. “When customers come to our place and see what’s going on and the professionalism, then they see that we actually have a working production line, it usually has them signing on the bottom line.”

The mining industry is a perhaps surprising customer. “We’ve got a number of vehicles that are set up specially and are working in the mines on trial programmes to see how they tolerate the harsh conditions, and we expect that to pay dividends.” These will be large-capacity workhorses with massive towing capability too, not show-off muscle cars; they are also gaining acceptance among some farmers (especially around Queensland), and will be a testament to the strength of Performax’s engineering.

Much of the attraction of big US vehicles is in their novelty compared with the run-of-the-mill offerings on sale. It’s less about performance, of course, because of the impossibility of driving fast these days. “It’s about people who love nice cars, love looking at them and you quite often get waves and claps and whistles and the like as you’re driving these vehicles. With the new resurgence from the release of the Transformer movie, the Camaro [another Chevrolet offering that Performax converts] has just got a new lift. If you take one of those home you certainly lose all anonymity.” In any case, something like a Corvette ZR1 is hardly going to disgrace itself if allowed its head – not with 0-100km/h in 3.3 seconds.

It is no secret that Ford and GM top brass both admire the savvy available in Australia and although Glenn prefers not to comment, it is highly likely that both corporations are happier to let Performax ‘do their thing’ than they would be in importing and converting their cars themselves, which would be relatively costly for them.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:32 PM AEDT