From Porsche ignition coils to variable-voltage Army paint. The story of Redarc is an interesting one.
Blind Freddy can see how influential Australia’s automotive aftermarket is on the global stage, our far-flung little colony punching far above its weight in terms of quality, innovation and reputation.
Today, Redarc has over 200 employees, and manufactures world-class gear for backyard builders, auto-electricians, OEMs and defence contracts alike from it’s 6500m2 facility in Lonsdale, South Australia. It was not a company born with greatness, however.
The story starts with an electronics engineer and Porsche enthusiast by the name of Bob Mackie. With a couple of Stuttgart’s finest in the shed, he developed an ignition system for the 911 back in September 1979. When fired in testing, it had a red arc. And so, the name was found.
From there, the fledgling business turned its eye towards the transport industry. The 1980s Australian trucking scene saw an influx of Japanese and European models enter the market. While American stuff like Mack and Kenworth ran on 12 volt systems, other brands like Scania, Volvo, UD, Isuzu and Hino used 24 volts.
Anthony Kittel, Redarc CEO explains: “So in Australia at the time, the three common things that people wanted to run in their truck were obviously a radio, lights on their trailers and, and the occasional fridge.
“So Bob found this little niche opportunity of building these 24 to 12 volt converters, so that they could power these items in their European and Japanese trucks.”
This was the bread and butter of Redarc’s operations up until the mid 1990s.
During this time, there was enough growth to facilitate moving from one room in Bob’s house to eight employees and a converted house in Reynella, and then to a ‘proper’ factory in Lonsdale.
Tragedy struck when Bob died from cancer in 1997, and his wife Margaret soon put the business up for sale. And that’s when Anthony Kittel, who was originally in a 50:50 partnership with his father-in-law, got involved. Anthony took over 100 per cent in 2002, and in the meantime was working on re-invigorating the business that seemed at a crossroads:
“The first three years, from 1997 to 2000 were quite tough because the founder, the innovator of the business hadn't broken ground for a couple of years. The product got a bit tired and there were a few issues with quality and also the customer service wasn't that great.
"So the brand deteriorated, not to the point of failure, but certainly if it had been left to deteriorate for a few more years, the business would have failed for sure.”
Anthony identified research, development and innovation as an important facet to explore and invest in, hiring his first engineer in 2002 and pledging 15 per cent of every dollar earned back into the R&D department. A big slice of the pie, for any company.
The first product of this innovation drive was a dual-battery isolator, for using an auxiliary power battery in a car or truck. Isolators were often a simple mechanical switch or solenoid, but the Redarc unit utilised a so-called 'smart gate', which could join the two batteries together if it sensed the starter battery was low.
Part of the new design philosophy was to ensure the product was suitable for harsh conditions, especially considering isolators are often located amidst the heat, dust and vibrations found under the bonnet.
Redarc went the whole nine yards, spending time and effort working on the packaging and marketing of the new product. They sourced a nice image of a Mitsubishi Pajero, through a mate that was a Mitsubishi sales manager, and set an ambitious goal of 2000 sales.
In just a few short years, Redarc had sold 50,000 isolators. Demand seemed insatiable.
“It was like there was this hole in the centre of Australia, and people just standing there throwing dual battery isolators in the hole.” Anthony said.
From there, Redarc continued to develop and innovate products for the ever-growing 4WDing, camping and caravanning sector.
As the average traveller and camper started to carry more gear, the demand for extra 12V power only grew. Products like battery controllers, brake controllers, inverters and power supplies quickly moved from exotic and specialist to expected staples. And in this growing market, Redarc grew and cemented its reputation as a market leader.
Beyond Australia, Redarc is growing overseas. The American ‘overlanding’ scene is exploding, as well as Europe's RV industry. Germany and France in particular are busy, with their 'Class C' motorhomes.
There's plenty of action in Defence, as well. The Thales Hawkei Army 4X4 uses some Redarc equipment, and the company has recently developed paint that features adjustable temperature.
"It's a unique product, it's actually a target. So, you can apply it to a tank, for instance. And when you apply a current to it, the paint heats to different temperatures, depending on how much current you're applying to it."
While he has a lot of education and professional experience against his name, Anthony credits his childhood work experience with his grandfather, Fred Teague, as extremely formative. Fred ran a service station in remote Hawker (near the Flinders Ranges) that saw lots of travellers heading into the outback.
“I would pump petrol in the petrol station from about 12 years of age and worked with my grandfather and my uncle. One thing my grandfather always instilled into me was about service with a smile and looking after the customer and always being able to make that conversation.”
Interestingly, Anthony’s grandfather spent time doing the infamous Birdsville mail run made famous by Tom Kruse in The Back of Beyond.
“He had told me stories about how he would drive basically a mile a day because he'd just have sheets of tin iron going across sand hills to get the mail truck up over the dunes.
“One story he told me was how he did a clutch plate one day and all he had was a 44 gallon drum in the back, so he cut a new clutch plate out the top of a 44 gallon drum to get him through.”
Since employing that first engineer in 1997, Redarc now proudly has a team of 40 engineers on a roll-call of staff numbering around 200. They’re a vital part of the business success and future outlook, where the importance of innovation cannot be understated. Anthony put it bluntly: “”If you don’t innovate, you’re dead.”