Dealer Profile: Natal Caravans & Marine

By Brian Jefferies

One of my first tasks in the drawing office of CI Caravans, in the early sixties, was to measure up and assist the Late Allan McKee and Eric Courtis (late father of Brian and grandfather of Geoff) in the layout of the premises in Kirk Road, Pinetown, which had become the home of Natal Caravans, the dealership established jointly by the two business partners in 1960. This site was to become recognised as a landmark by caravanners and campers around South Africa, and later by the boating fraternity, too.

Having lived in Pinetown and worked for CI until my retirement some years ago, I have enjoyed a close relationship with Brian and Geoff Courtis, Dave Flack and the team at Natal Caravans & Marine, which has continued ever since through my representation of Caravan & Outdoor Life.

Eager to hear the inside story behind the recent big move by this well-established and long-serving dealership, I have had to wait patiently for them to be settled in their new home at 1 Waterberg Road, before trying to pin down this energetic father and son team for a chat over a cup of coffee.

I had lots of questions, and Brian and Geoff were very cooperative and enthusiastic in their open responses.

Natal Caravans & Marine’s Images

Brian Jefferies

After 56 years, three generations of family owners, consistent staff complement, landmark recognition throughout KZN and beyond… why the move?

Brian Courtis

There were two motivating factors. First, a business decision regarding the property, which over the years, I had purchased from the estate of my late dad and from his partner, Allan McKee just before he passed away in 2006. I had also, more recently, purchased the adjacent vacant site, adding considerable potential development value to the combined property.

We were starting to receive enquiries from potential developers and end-users at about the time I retired and had already officially handed over the reins to Geoff as MD, so I think I will ask Geoff to explain the other aspects of the decision to move.

Geoff Courtis

After recent changes by Jurgens CI we found ourselves as the only independent, privately owned Campworld dealership in the greater Durban and KZN coastal area. While we felt confident that our reputation for fair dealing and good service with the loyal support of our large customer base would stand us in good stead to meet this challenge, we were also aware that more would be required from us if we wanted to raise the bar and set the standard to remain the Campworld dealer of choice in the area.

We clearly needed to upgrade and improve our premises, which, in light of the increase over the years in sales and ranges of canvas products which require indoor display space, have become too small. Off– road trailers, Howling Moon tents and even the caravan tents, Patios and Multirooms all need to be displayed, fully erected, to enable meaningful customer evaluation.

To invest in alterations to our existing buildings to deal with this and other concerns would prove extremely costly and would not be viable in terms of the investment value of the property, which Dad has already mentioned.

Brian Jefferies

So, Geoff, very soon after moving into the hot seat, you found yourself having to deal with this problem. What was your reaction?

Geoff Courtis

In July 2015, we accepted an offer on the property, the terms of which gave us twelve months in which to find a new home and relocate.

Before we knew it, five of those 12 months had come and gone and we still hadn’t found a suitable site, and then, out of the blue, just before Christmas 2015, we heard that the Dales Auctioneers’ premises might become available for us to rent. December and January flew by while we continued our search until finally, around mid-February, Redmond Dales gave us the good news that we could have the premises to rent and take full occupation on 1 July with partial access from 1 June, giving us basically two months to execute the move and open the doors on 1 August, the date by which we would have to vacate Kirk Road.

I was very clear in my mind as to what we wanted, but realised we were not likely to find it ready-made. As it has turned out, this is about as close as possible to that ideal but it has required a fair amount of effort and substantial financial investment to get there. However, I am really excited about the final result.

Brian Jefferies

I am most impressed with the 270m² mezzanine floor upstairs totally devoted to Howling Moon camping tents on an astroturf surface, and the off-road Jurgens XT fully displayed on the ground floor, but what other prerequisites did you have on your wish list, and do you feel satisfied with what has been achieved?

Geoff Courtis

Knowing that we were sacrificing the landmark status and great exposure we have enjoyed for the last 56 years in Kirk Road, which I knew we were unlikely to replace easily, I was hoping for at least something nearby with busy traffic flow. Ample customer parking was also a priority.

I think we can tick those boxes! The 60 bay customer parking area consists of a clearly demarcated tarred area, dotted with strategically placed trees. It is easily accessed and exited and is only a few steps away from the main entrance to the building.

Beyond those requirements, I knew that after having worked from rather disjointed, fragmented premises all these years, it would be a huge plus if our new home could offer an “all under one roof ” option. With the alterations we have done, especially the partitioning, we have managed to achieve exactly that; and, of course, we still have loads of open outdoor space to display caravans and boats.

The supply of parts to the workshops is also much easier and more efficient than before, which has dramatically improved productivity.

Just up one flight of stairs is our new pride and joy – probably the largest display of camping tents in KZN – all erected and set up on a “grass” floor. This is already proving to be very popular and as word gets around, more and more visitors are arriving specifically to see this display

So, yes; to answer your question, Brian, I am more than satisfied and I believe the other members of my team feel the same.

Brian Jefferies

During my years at CI, I was focussed mainly on workshops and spent a lot of my time working with dealers on this important aspect of their businesses. I know Natal Caravans & Marine have always paid special attention to this and have built an enviable reputation for service. Do you see your move impacting on this side of your business in any way?

Geoff Courtis

Absolutely, and very positively! Apart from the streamlining of the workshop reception function, our new situation provides for a much more efficient dropoff and collection of boats and caravans brought here for service or repair.

Customers bringing or collecting a boat, trailer or caravan to or from the workshop can tow it around to the side of the building, where a gate will be opened to allow them to drive in. They will be met by a helper to assist with the hitching / unhitching, and Brendon or Veronica will handle the administrative process in the same friendly and professional manner our customers are so used to.

We have five caravan bays and four marine bays – all under one roof! The management of both the marine and caravan workshops is under the watchful eye of Nigel Gregson, who has, over the last few years, gained a mountain of knowledge and experience of caravans to add to his well-known and highly regarded reputation as a seriously qualified, hands-on outboard motor technician.

Nigel’s team of skilled marine and caravan technicians, with supporting factory certification, have served with our dealership for many years, and even the all-important cleaners are proud of their position with the company and are conscious of the need for quality work.

Having said this, no workshop operation can be successful without an efficient parts back-up and we have been able to improve this aspect with the close proximity of the stores section directly adjacent to the workshops. Capably handled by Emeil Maharaj, the supply of parts is efficient and smooth.

Brian Jefferies

You must be very pleased with your spacious Campworld store with the brand new gondolas all so well-stocked and easy to get to. Have you experienced any changes in the management and staffing side of this important side of your business?

Geoff Courtis

Thankfully, no. Karam Soorjbully, well-known and liked by our customers, still heads up the team of Stan, Martin, Sipho, Emeil and Fiona, all of whom play their part in keeping everything ship-shape and ensuring that our customers’ expectations are fully met… and hopefully exceeded!

On the big-ticket side, Bill Harrison, with his fountain of product knowledge and experience in the marine industry still heads up the boating side, and Wikus Radley, who has joined us fairly recently, has taken to caravan sales like a duck to water. Both these keen and helpful gents are ably assisted by Brendon Voss in his role of Operations Manager, a position we have created quite recently to ensure the smooth interaction between the sales, workshop and parts functions of our business – with one firm objective: CUSTOMER SATISFACTION!

Brian Jefferies

Brian, you have been unusually quiet. What are your feelings about these changes in the dealership your late father started, and which you and your team over the years have built up? And what are your feelings about the industry generally?

Brian Courtis

I let the reins go to Geoff a little over two years ago, and I must say I could not feel prouder than I do about the way he and his team have continued to run the dealership and how they have managed this difficult move.

Much about the industry has changed in the past number of years and I feel very strongly that this move and the improved modern approach to retailing and customer service will stand Geoff and his team in good stead for continued success in the future.

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