The rise and fall of Kimberley Kampers
TWO years ago Kimberley Kampers was one of the most promising companies on the Northern Rivers.
A pioneer in off-road campervans, it boasted some of the most innovative products on the market and seemed to have starry future.
But it had a couple of hidden weaknesses.
It was reliant on just a handful of dealers for most of its cash flow.
And it's high growth strategy - which involved ploughing huge amounts of money into research and development for new products - also didn't give the company room to move in changing circumstances.
Nevertheless, in 2016, things looked rosier than ever.
Under the decade-long leadership of director Bruce Loxton, the company had forged some of the most innovative and technologically sophisticated off-road campervans ever created.
When Mr Loxton bought the company in 2014, it had $4 million in turnover.
By 2009, it had $11 million in revenue, and never retreated - posting a record $18.8 million in 2016.
The company won a roll call of awards in the late 2000s, including the NSW Telstra Business Award, the AMP Innovation Award, and the Australian Business President's Prize for excellence in education and training.
It's luxury campervans and hybrid camper trailers had a reputation for toughness and clever design - the perfect fit for the Aussie outdoor market which had an obsession for getting as far off-the-beaten-track as possible.
The company spent millions in research and development pioneering world-firsts such as a remote waterless toilet, a system to reclaim grey water from the shower, and variable air suspension.
It was the first Australian campervan to roll out lithium ion batteries
It's luxury state of the art Kimberley "Kruiser", featuring all of those innovations, cost about $2.5 million to develop.
Kimberley also achieved a number of Australian export firsts in the campervan industry.
In 2005 it became the first and only Australian company licensed to sell its products into the USA, fully compliant with US road regulations.
In 2009 it exported its first unit to a businessman in Saudi Arabia, which sparked further exports to whom Mr Loxton described as "very senior" families in the Kingdom, as well as the UAE and Qatar.
In 2014, for example, it sold $250,000 worth of product to an Abu Dhabi buyer.
In the same 2014-15 financial year it sold more than $1 million in exports.
But the company's high growth strategy had some downsides.
Mr Loxton said while the company was always profitable, it had a huge appetite for cash because of its fast growth.
"There was always tension on the cash flow," he said.
"Once you get on that rollercoaster of growth with risk, you can't suddenly change to a Plan B."
Mr Loxton, a former senior executive at Swedish-Swiss engineering giant ABB, had chosen to put much of his own money into the business, rather than get a bank loan facility.
He said banks refused to value the company's intellectual property as an asset because he had chosen not to patent many of their inventions, due to cost.
When new models such as the ambitious Kruiser were released, there were cash flow scares due to teething issues, which increased warranty expenses.
The beginning of the end
In retrospect, it was toward the end of 2016 that the first sign of troubles emerged for the company.
In October 2016 Mr Loxton brought on a partner, Todd Cannock, who bought out his ex-wife's share of the business.
In a case of the worst possible timing, it was in December 2016, that a dealer who represented a quarter of the company's revenue retired suddenly with no warning.
"We'd never had a drop in sales like this before," he said.
"Our revenue dropped by a quarter and that created the problem for us.
"We weren't prepared for it, we weren't geared up for it.
"My assessment was we could sell direct and we should be able to sail through, but to be honest I was wrong on that."
"We went to the Sydney (outdoor) show and we got one order.
"We kept the people on, and we couldn't afford it. I put my own money in rather than have them out of pocket."
The company eventually ran into credit issues, and Mr Loxton said "to be honest we never quite recovered".
Rocked by the stresses, Mr Loxton said in 2017 he and Mr Cannock disagreed on key decisions.
He said Mr Cannock wanted to cut costs, lay off staff, and cut production, and outsource more manufacturing overseas, while Mr Loxton wanted to continue to go for growth. He said he was outvoted.
Mr Cannock has not responded to an interview request for this story.
Sadly, things did turn around by the end of last year and it had substantial increase in orders, totalling $6.5 million by the time it went into voluntary administration in December, when Mr Loxton decided to exit the business.
By then, however, things were moving in the opposite direction, leaving it flat footed and needing a huge cash injection to ramp up again.
"I think we ended December with the biggest backlog of orders we ever had," Mr Loxton said.
"We had the orders but we couldn't build them."
Mr Loxton said manufacturing was a tough business, and the cash flow swings - in the order of $1 million a week - were "not for the faint hearted".
He said in hindsight he would have tried the grow the business more steadily to ensure the orders were more consistent and predictable.
"I'd say a backup line of credit would have been helpful, and probably less R & D."
Meanwhile, more than 50 employees are now rueing the loss of their jobs, for a business which meant so much to Ballina.
Those owed money or who still believe the company has a future will be awaiting eagerly to view the initial report to creditors, due on August 8.