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Building kayaks came easy to Paul Hewitson, but building an export business seemed so daunting he decided not to do it – After a sea change, he found it wasn’t so difficult, and he has learned a lot along the way about tackling problems.

In the early 90s, Paul Hewitson combined a passion for kayaking with skills gained in the panelbeating and spray-painting trades to start Mirage Sea Kayaks, in the New South Wales central coast town of West Gosford.

For the most part, the business came about while improving his own boat and realising it would be easier to build a better kayak from scratch. “Originally we built what we thought was the perfect boat.”

Now his team—three permanent staff fitting out and shipping the boats, eight sub-contractors producing the fibreglass—craft the boats based on customer feedback. Of approximately 500 boats made and sold each year, 20 percent are exported.

Despite his now obvious success, the export market was something Hewitson was keen to avoid as the business grew. “We made a decision that we didn’t want a website because it would start to generate overseas sales. At that time, it was all too hard to start shipping kayaks around the world—they’re quite an awkward thing. But, in time it became obvious that without a website you weren’t in the game. We virtually got forced into having a website to be competitive.”

As he suspected, with the website up, interest started trickling in from overseas. But he soon discovered that exporting wasn’t as hard as he had expected. “In the beginning it was a bit of a daunting task to get kayaks to Dubai and Japan,” he explains. “But it was only hard initially, until we got a few boats on the go. Then it all became quite easy. In the end, it’s really no harder to ship a boat overseas than to Melbourne.”

And so, he says, the initial decision against going global was based on fear of the unknown. “It’s quite a big mental hurdle. But, once you have the contacts set up, it’s not that hard.”

Time & Money

Hewitson finds time differences difficult because he can’t get on the phone during his business hours and talk to customers as easily as he can with an Australian client. “It’s not as easy, but it’s not impossible either.”

When Mirage first started exporting to the US at the end of the 90s, the Australian dollar was trading at around eighty cents, so Hewitson set up a US manufacturer. Although they had the capacity to produce the boats, this site didn’t really get off the ground in terms of boats sold. When the Australian dollar dropped to around fifty cents, Hewitson cut his losses, closed the US production facilities, and decided he would make a better go of it selling through the internet and shipping from West Gosford.

For Mirage, the US has been the key export market, along with New Zealand, although kayaks have been sold to Japan and Dubai, and Canada is often in its sights.

In terms of international marketing, Hewitson invests his advertising efforts early in season in the northern hemisphere, particularly in an American-based international niche magazine. Because kayaking is a largely seasonal pastime, Mirage is a somewhat seasonal business and the summer months are tied up with producing kayaks for the local market, and New Zealand, while the winter months are spent servicing the northern markets. “It evens our workload out for the whole year.”

Venturing into overseas markets has brought with it some challenges, one of which is the changing value of the Australian dollar. “With currency changes, you’re in the game one minute and out the next. And that’s the hard part. You can spend all your money and then the goal posts get moved,” Hewitson says. “But even when they’ve moved in the wrong directions, we’re still competitive over there.”

He has also had to deal with dealers who have promised the world and failed to deliver. After being approached by potential dealers, Hewitson travelled to the US to meet them and sign them up. He soon became frustrated by their failure to perform. “We didn’t get a good result because they weren’t converting leads into sales.” The lesson? “We’d be a little more selective about who we’d have as dealers.” He recognises that part of the problem is because selling a boat to someone sight unseen works better from Australia than in the US. “We get a better result selling them from here.”

Another downside to exporting to the US market, says Hewitson, is the transit time. Shipping takes more time than airfreight, but is much cheaper. Because of the time delay in shipping the boats to the US, Hewitson says they don’t advertise at the end of their season, although if clients are happy to wear the costs he can send a boat by airfreight in about a week when necessary, thanks to good connections with his freight companies.

Although everything sent overseas is insured, there are occasional dramas with offshore shipping, mainly with stock arriving damaged. And because they don’t have an on-the-ground presence in those markets, dealing with damage is problematic. “Locally, it’s not such a big issue, we can get the boat back and repair it. Overseas, you can’t just say send it back and we’ll give you another one. But in saying that, insurance has always looked after it.”

As most of the damage has been caused by the boats being crushed as they’ve been strapped down, the company has modified the way the kayaks are packed and shipped, as well as adding plenty of ‘do not crush’ labels.

Using familiar freight companies who are used to handling the kayaks helps to eliminate problems caused by damage. “Internally, we use the same airfreight company and they’ve become used to handling them and we don’t have any problems.” And although establishing relationships with the shipping companies has been an important step in reducing these problems, Hewitson says these companies often forward his freight on to other companies who he doesn’t know. “You just have to hope for the best!”

—Camille Howard

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