The Dunbier Dynasty

John Willis | VOLUME 32, ISSUE 4
30 years ago, at a boat show
For nearly half a century, the Dunbier family has been manufacturing boat trailers from its ever-expanding Melbourne base.

Dunbier has been manufacturing trailers for Australian boaties for nearly 50 years. What started from modest beginnings as a one man show in a borrowed garage has evolved into a backbone supplier to the Australian and international boating industries, manufacturing a range of innovative products that have allowed generations of boaties to enjoy their lifestyles in safety.

Since 1969, Melbourne-based Dunbier Marine Products has manufactured hundreds of thousands of trailers as well as supplying a large range of componentry to the marine industry.

As is so often the case with the marine industry, founders Russell and Kay Dunbier came from relatively humble beginnings. Russell was, in fact, apprenticed as a pastry chef from the age of 13, but learned to weld when he helped his father-in-law assemble a Creek kit trailer for his Caribbean boat. The result was so successful that Russell was soon assembling more trailers and selling them to a fast-expanding trailerboat community. It was a boom time for many brands of emerging fibreglass and aluminium boats, from the likes of Quintrex, Haines Hunter, Savage and Caribbean.

Such was the growing demand at the time that Dunbier soon moved into a dedicated factory to embark on complete trailer production in the south-eastern Melbourne suburb of Moorabbin, although Russell still had to drive taxis part-time to help pay the rent.

Demand continued to grow as local dealerships such as Boatarama, Gales Marine and a blooming JV Marine jumped aboard as Dunbier dealers, prompting another move to a larger factory in the nearby suburb of Braeside.

EXPANSIONS

Trailer development continued, with extruded channel frames being replaced with RHS steel construction and the development of the Dunbier Supa Rolla Series that offered full drive-on capability. The drive-on designs saw demand soar, prompting the establishment of interstate branches, beginning with Brisbane in 1989 and eventually extending to Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Queensland and New Zealand. The branches were established to support what is now a huge dealership network throughout the country and across the Tasman.

By the end of the 1990s, Dunbier had again outgrown its premises, working across three different factories to produce between 12 and 15 trailers per day. With demand continuing unabated, in 1998 the Dunbier family took the plunge and invested in a massive six-acre site, yet again in Braeside, at a cost of over $3m. During the heyday of the 2000-07 period, the business produced around 40 trailers per day, peaking in one memorable week at a total of 50.

Russell rates one of the major contributing factors to his business’s success as the support and involvement of his family, most of whom are still employed there. Russell is as committed to developing and growing the business as he was in the early days, still opening the doors every morning and often being the last to leave at night.

He will be 74 years young in December and I was struck by how fit and agile of mind and body he remains. Wife Kay still maintains her position in the business and their two daughters are now company directors. Michelle oversees all sales, marketing and budgets, while sister Tracy historically looked after office administration until the recent acquisition of rival Mackay Trailers, which she now heads.

Both Michelle and Tracy’s partners also have positions within the company and its offshoots, with Matt (Tracy’s partner) taking the key role of Research and Development plus Production, while Duncan (Michelle’s partner) has spent the last 15 years managing the Trailer Repair Centre just up the road.

NEXT GEN

As the business expands, so it seems does the supply of Dunbier family members, with another generation of nieces and nephews poised to move into key positions.

While interviewing Russell and Michelle, it was obvious that they recognise the biggest asset the business has is its people, whether they be relatives, employees or contractors.

“We are all a strong and committed team,” emphasises Michelle.

Dunbier currently manufactures a range of over 60 models of trailer to suit all facets of the boating market, including powerboats both inand outboard, yachts, kayaks and canoes, jetskis and, more recently, foldaway and ATV trailers and rugged offroad trailers for more intrepid travellers.

Ranges include the traditional Dunbier series of galvanised boat trailers, with the long-standing Supa Rolla and Glider series for fibreglass boats, as well as the Nipper, Centreline, Sports and Glider series for aluminium hulls. The popular Rollamatic trailer is suited to both fibreglass and most aluminium hulls.

Russell admits that he didn’t invent the multi-roller trailer, but he firmly believes that he perfected it with the creation of the Supa Rolla series.

“During the late 1970s, we enjoyed a period of innovation and growth throughout the industry,” he says. “We were faced with strong competition from terrific Australian companies, including Brooker, Redco and Tinka, who were strong with the large northern boat manufacturers such as Haines Hunter, Seafarer, CruiseCraft and Quintrex.

“We recognised the trends and took our time through research, development and thorough testing before we released competitive products.”

SUPA SUCCESS

“The Supa Rolla development took months to get right, with constant trials of the prototype down at the old Priestley Marina at Patterson Lakes. We eventually perfected the design and construction and, with only minor improvements since the Supa Rolla, has been the most successful boat trailer on the market.”

Russel says Dunbier has endured and continues to dominate the industry, despite a very competitive atmosphere.

“Many have tried to copy us, but none have got it right. There have been many imported attempts, too, but none have matched our overall standards and certainly haven’t followed up by matching our customer commitment through premium manufacturing techniques, backed by our strong dealership network,” he maintains.

“Competition is good as long as it’s a level playing field, with quality products. Reputable Aussie brands have a strong history, as opposed to fly-by-night imports,” says a fiercely patriotic Russell.

The move to aluminium construction over recent years has seen one of the greatest changes in boat trailer construction.

“Alloy construction is totally different to galvanised steel,” explained Russell. “Aluminium trailers require totally different manufacturing techniques and design, as aluminium is a lighter and more flexible base material that needs different welding, gusseting, bending and assembly procedures.”

Russell says that while Dunbier uses steel winch posts and carriers for superior strength at crucial load points, aluminium is used in all other major structural areas. Some other manufactures, however, use steel components, such as drawbars, rear cradles and other parts, that can compromise the finished product, with a major concern being corrosion as well as added weight.

Another important feature that Dunbier incorporates on its aluminium trailers is its own customised alloy extrusions. While smaller operators often rely on off-the-shelf extrusions, Russell says Dunbier’s ability to have extrusions supplied specifically to its own designs and construction requirements is a major benefit the company has over much of its opposition.

Most recently, at the Melbourne Boat Show, Dunbier launched a new range of premium aluminium trailers for smaller craft, including jetskis.

MACKAY PURCHASE

In February 2015, Dunbier bought one of the country’s largest trailer manufacturers and competitors, Mackay Trailers, in a bold move to expand its product range.

“The purchase of Mackay provided some exciting new horizons, particularly in custom trailer development for both marine and external markets,” explains Michelle. “We were faced with a choice of starting from scratch or purchasing Mackay, with its leading technology and experience. In the process, we gained around 15 highly qualified staff, 10 of whom had over five years service, and three or four having over 15 years of direct product knowledge.”

While all Mackay manufacturing has now been moved to the six-acre Dunbier factory, Mackay’s distinct brand identity remains intact. Mackay’s expertise in the custom manufacturing area, including the use of CAD design technology, has expanded the manufacturing and design capacity of the combined plant.

“The move has also led to a multitude of other custom design and manufacturing projects, including trailers for specific purposes in other industries such as pick-up trailers for shopping carts in retail centres,” says Michelle. “Some of our new special purpose Mackay designs are valued at up to $100k. It’s a complete change in mindset for both our companies.”

However, many customers and dealers still stay loyal to the traditional Mackay MLKR and MLJ Series trailers as well as the AL (aluminium), KR (premium), KRX (four-wheel drive, heavy duty and off-road) and the popular PU series trailers, all of which are still in production.

NEW DIRECTIONS

Boasting a 40-page product catalogue, Dunbier Marine Products is a huge supplier of individual components, both to the marine and general trailer and automotive industries. Big growth areas include jetski, canoe and kayak trailers, plus some interesting new designs for beach launching of rescue craft, in which the bow points directly to the surf for quick getaways.

Dunbier can also match craft imported without trailers to its own trailers at their various branches around the country, prior to delivery to individual dealers. The enormous growth in the popularity of Kiwi plate alloy boats has seen major growth in this facet of the business.

Supply of original equipment manufacturer (OEM) trailers remains a major component of the business, with brands such as Horizon and SeaJay Boats using its products.

As a long-time marine industry partner and purchaser of trailers, Melbourne’s largest marine dealership, JV Marine has had a long association with Dunbier.

“JV Marine and Dunbier have enjoyed a long relationship that extends back to our joint beginnings some 50-odd years ago,” said JV Marine General Manager, Greg Walker. “We are still dealers for both Dunbier and Mackay products and find that both ranges complement each other well. And the quality has always been premium, as has back-up, supply and service.”

As Australia’s manufacturing capacity continues to decline in critical areas, in particular in the automotive industry, Dunbier refreshingly bucks the trend. From that modest garage nearly 50 years ago, the company remains a local manufacturing powerhouse and an iconic player in the marine industry.

TRAILER TIPS

In addition to spending time touring the modern Dunbier/Mackay plant, we also learned a little about what points to look for when purchasing a trailer.

Trailer selection

• It’s important to select the right trailer for your boat’s hull. Trailers to suit fibreglass boats are entirely different to those for aluminium craft, and there are also differences between pressed and plate aluminium. Rollers or skids, keel support and many other factors effect ease of launching and retrieving. It is essential that you choose the trailer with the right support for your boat. If in doubt, consult an expert.

• Confirm how much weight your trailer can carry from the manufacturer, dealer, or via the identification plate, which must be fixed in a prominent position on the drawbar of the trailer. Consider the weight of your boat, motor, the trailer, fuel and any other gear that you may load into your boat, including peak loads for holiday travel. Overloading your trailer is illegal and dangerous, plus may affect your insurance. The ATM (Aggregate Trailer Mass) weight will determine whether you require brakes on your trailer. Every trailer with an ATM over 750kg requires brakes for registration and those over 2000kg require breakaway-style brakes, which automatically apply the brakes if the trailer and tow vehicle separate.

• It’s critical for registration and insurance purposes that the trailer conforms to Australian Standards.

• Many wagons and SUVs require longer drawbars for rear-door access. Longer drawbars also reduce the risk of jack-knifing in tight reversing situations. Consult your vehicle manufacturer/dealer on recommended towing weights and power options, as well as towing regulations throughout the country.

• Where you store your boat and trailer is critical, taking into account overall height, width and length. Where height is a consideration, wide-bodied trailers are an option as the boat sits lower in the trailer frame.

• Manufacturing quality is obviously critical, especially in terms of galvanising, overall strength, welding and frame wall thickness. Buying from a reputable Australian manufacturer will ensure peace of mind. Consult an expert if in doubt.

• You also need to consider if the brand of trailer offers the support of a dealer network in case repairs, spare parts or warranty work are needed.

• Purchasing a reputable and recognised brand ensures a high resale value.


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