On the surface, the Terrain Tamer story is simply one of a spare parts business that has grown to see international success.
But at its heart, it is one of a company that has not only survived but thrived thanks to a consistent, ongoing culture of listening, problem solving and customer obsession.
Coupled with an innate understanding of what is needed to take on the Australian outback, this culture is what has driven five decades of innovation.
When 24-year-old Frank Hutchinson and his business partner Don Kyatt started their company in 1969, they did so with little more than their computer-like minds for parts interpreting, and a few hundred dollars.
But more than this, Frank’s acute will to serve and commitment to service would become the driving force behind what would eventually become the company’s true north, the Terrain Tamer brand.
This emphasis on service was made clear to everyone who worked with Frank. Without the customer, there was no business, so when someone came in with a vehicle, they wanted to make sure they got the right part.
If it wasn’t in stock, they would find it from somewhere and if they couldn’t get a new part, they would try reconditioned.
If a part had failed, they looked at why and how it could be strengthened or upgraded.
Frank’s ‘service first’ policy and determination to get whatever was needed, delivered as quickly as possible, was how he would repeatedly win customers to his business.
This included customers like tour operator Bill King, who operated out of Melbourne and pioneered tours into the red centre in the 1960s and ’70s, at a time when there was no Stuart Highway, no road houses or roadside assistance and more often than not, no other people in sight.
There was no beaten track, and this meant taking his tourists through rough, uncharted terrain and private cattle station gates to eventually reach their destination of Ayers Rock (Uluru).
Of course, with these conditions came breakages, and in the isolated and unforgiving outback, where a poor-quality part can literally be the difference between life and death, a need for something stronger and more reliable arose.
When Bill King remembers the early days of his business, he recalls Frank’s dedication to customer service.
“When I visited a dealer, I was just another customer, but when I went to Frank for a part, I was Bill,” he said.
Frank’s determination to really talk to customers like Bill, find out what they needed and create a solution, was the foundation of Terrain Tamer.
And as the 4WD community grew over the years, the goal was to do the same for the problems of mine operators, cattle station owners and recreational drivers around the world.
In the early days, others weren’t interested in creating parts that were stronger than OE, seeing it as simply trying to fix what wasn’t broken, but Terrain Tamer was.
Innovation had driven them from the start and the ideas they had, that came from talking to their customers, watching how people actually used their vehicles and how mechanics did their work, was the future they envisioned for their business.
Terrain Tamer invested heavily in overseas travel throughout the 1970s and ’80s, allowing the team to meet with the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of the world and come up with solutions to these customer problems, essentially laying the groundwork for the future.
The customers themselves couldn’t do it themselves, as it requires such a large-scale investment in tooling. The manufacturers couldn’t do it because they didn’t have the required understanding of the customer. And Terrain Tamer says the opposition couldn’t do it because they weren’t focused specifically on 4WD customers.
It was only Terrain Tamer that had the critical mass needed to bridge the gap and bring the solution together.
Everything that was done was grounded in day-to-day use, and the information that Frank had gathered from his customers, not just on what the Terrain Tamer team thought would be better.
If it wasn’t going to improve the use of the vehicle, no one would want it and it wasn’t worth modifying.
When Terrain Tamer introduced kits to its range, for instance, they were almost unheard of in the industry.
Previously, overhauling a gearbox or transfer case meant sourcing a hundred parts separately, often from different suppliers. It was extremely easy to forget something and then be delayed while waiting for that last part to arrive.
Terrain Tamer says it changed the game by putting together complete kits that included exactly what was needed for any job.
Terrain Tamer knew from talking to its customers that for the recreational four-wheel driver, spending their time off-road and in the bush was a priority, not having to spend time fixing their broken-down vehicle.
For mechanics, time is expensive, so when a car comes in that needs a wheel bearing adjustment, it is easy to go to the shelf and grab a Terrain Tamer kit with everything inside, rather than missing one or two crucial pieces.
When operators of 79 Series LandCruisers were experiencing an issue in the vehicle’s gearbox, where the short spline of the main shaft was prone to stripping, even in easy conditions, Terrain Tamer addressed the problem by designing a shaft with a longer spline, doubling the surface area.
A similar issue with the vehicle’s input gear was where the inner spline was also stripping during use. By removing the spacer that was connected to the original gear and instead lengthening the inner spline, Terrain Tamer made a part that was far more hard wearing.
Terrain Tamer’s modifications essentially made the gearbox three times stronger, provided a significant increase in the performance of the vehicle’s driveline and was the precursor for many modified parts to come.
The company was now putting its name behind parts that they had developed and created themselves. It was they who were now responsible for the quality of these parts and ultimately, the safety of customers.
Terrain Tamer says this has meant that from the beginning, the rigorous research, development and testing that every part has gone through before it is able to bear the Terrain Tamer stamp, has ensured that “every part is at least equal to original equipment and often far exceeding the standard.”
Manufacturers are reportedly hand selected from the best in their fields in the world, often resulting in collaborative relationships where ideas are shared, ensuring parts that are created with Terrain Tamer tooling are of the highest quality and cannot be replicated by competitors.
So many of Terrain Tamer’s solutions that are developed for the Australian market are then shared with the wider global market via the Terrain Tamer network across 80 countries.
This allows for expensive tooling to be justified, and it is that connecting tissue that has grown the company to be as truly international as it is today, with 17 branches worldwide, and almost as many branches overseas as here in Australia, including Africa, Europe, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.
Today, the business remains independent and family owned, having carved out a unique international niche among the industries major corporations.
This is in no small way due to Frank’s belief, right from the very beginning, that his company is not just a business of parts, but of people.
The same culture that is ingrained in Terrain Tamer’s head office of innovation that stems from having had that deep connection to the customer, is replicated in each of those branches, and over 50 years on, Frank is often still last to leave each night as he drives the culture overseas.
It stemmed from Frank all those years ago, but took up a life of its own when he trained the first generation of managers, who then trained the next generation, who have now been with Terrain Tamer for over 25 years.
Frank’s son Brent has spent his life in the company, learning from those who have been there almost from the beginning, and is now the general manager.
As a result, Terrain Tamer’s people are those who listen to the customers’ needs by instinct and connect the need with the innovative solution, day in and day out.
Terrain Tamer says it has been this culture that has propelled the company and the brand forward, decade after decade for 52 years, and ensures they will be of great service to the industry as they continue to be discovered by 4WD specialists around the world.