Pat Callinan’s 4X4 Adventures sits down with Frank Hutchinson, who has celebrated 50 years in the trade as boss at Don Kyatt Spare Parts.
PC4X4: Do you have a trade or background as a mechanic or other car-related trade?
My background was as a Parts Interpreter, and I learned from the best, long before computers. We learned to solve the problems of the thousands of mechanics, and back then you learned to find the answers yourself and remembered it because you didn’t have the answer to everything in your pocket like we do today. I still have hundreds of Bedford part numbers committed to memory, and I can tell you exactly where each part sits on the vehicle.
Still today I see our catalogues as a key differentiator in the industry as we have 60 Parts Interpreters feeding our catalogue team every day. These skills take decades to develop.
PC4X4:1969 was undoubtedly a different era in both business and general life; did you ever think you’d be at it this far along, or did you have another “real job” to fall back on if things didn’t pan out?
It was absolutely a different world, but most of the principles have remained the same. Customer relationships are still at the heart of our business, and those relationships have always led to understanding difficulties, which has led to innovation, which has led to good decision-making. We have seen our industry where the decision-makers are a long way away from the customer and are too corporate – they can’t make informed decisions. Having the customer at the centre of each decision has always been important to us.
I didn’t have a fallback, but I pulled beers each night and weekend at the local pub for the first two years of our existence, as the business could not afford to pay me a wage during the early years. I knew the direction I wanted the company to go but didn’t look too far ahead – certainly not 50 years ahead. In the early days, it was survival first, and that is where you learn the fastest.
PC4X4: What made you ever think you could make a go of selling spare parts? Wouldn’t most people figure getting parts direct from the car manufacturer would be the only way?
The aftermarket was alive and growing, but at the time, it was controlled by groups that only supplied to the large distributors. There were genuine dealers, but they had to abide by the rules of genuine manufacturers, so there were a lot of regulations and margins were too tight. I spent years travelling to manufacturers all over the world, looking for ways to improve the 4X4 market.
When we started to make parts that were stronger than the original equipment – stronger gears, washers, shafts, suspension, clutches, filtration systems, radiators, even seals – this is when we opened up a whole new category in our industry.
PC4X4: Why is the company named after your partner instead of you or a mix of names?
Don Kyatt was 20 years older than me, and I felt his long relationship with customers would be an advantage. He knew every Bedford driver in Melbourne by name, and that proved to be important to our company and became my secret weapon also. Bill King once told me that if he bought a part from a genuine dealer, he was just a number, but if he bought it from me, he was Bill.
Using Don’s name meant people felt more relaxed in the early years like they already knew us. Our internal company slogan hanging on our Head Office wall is “Everybody is Somebody“; I felt like having a non-corporate name helped us communicate this.
PC4X4: How do you develop new products – via your staff or the general public’s ideas?
With new innovative parts, ideas can come from any direction, and the key is always to be open to them.
Often an idea comes from a customer’s problem that we’re trying to help solve. Still, by the time we trial, discuss, argue and trial again, it can move and shape into something different from the original concept. I enjoy seeing an old idea come back to life with a new design, such as our parabolic springs.
We also actively ask both staff and customers for how we can improve a part, and welcome any ideas. We have senior managers working at shows and visiting key accounts, so they get to talk directly to the public and understand any new issues as they come up.
We supply to the mining industry a lot, and that can be a great new product generator, as the conditions they work in can age a part 10 years in only six months – much quicker than anyone could ever test for.
Once you have the problem and are working on the solution, the environment is the next big step. We used to have to wait to spend a weekend in the High Country to get testing experience – I remember 25 years ago testing airbags for a full weekend with Allan Gray before the two of us decided against developing them – and the High Country is excellent. Still, even then you can’t swap suspension in and out of the vehicle in a hurry, so that’s where our test track has been our unique playground.
We can travel on it, hear for noise, feel a suspension kit articulation, fit Go Pros, see the difference an E-Locker can make, swap parts in and out quickly in our workshop and then get back out there. It sets us apart and is an excellent example of how specialised we are, compared to a generic parts shop that wouldn’t be capable of the same.
PC4X4: Are there particular areas or types of products you have always preferred to develop?
We’re parts people. We do what I call the meat and potatoes – the parts that will keep a vehicle running. Some people fail to see the difference between parts and accessories, but they’re different worlds and require different skills to develop.
For example, we have a lot of modified gears. The vehicle won’t look any different or feel any different but will be three times stronger than it originally was in the gearbox. That can be the difference between days of inconvenience, especially if you’re out off-road.
PC4X4: What type of vehicles and parts were you dealing with in the early years of the company – LandCruiser or something else?
We started our selling Bedford and Land Rovers, then moved into Toyota.
PC4X4: Are there any particular parts or systems within your vast inventory that stand out in your mind to have been ground-breaking or a huge success?
Converting vehicles to run on diesel engines was big back in the day, and we were the only ones in the country with the ability to do it in the 1970s.
We’ve done modified and reconditioned gearboxes and diffs. Modified gears have always been in demand in all countries, and I like our work with suspension. We seem to be more agile than most there.
Flashlube has been a story in itself with supply to some of the largest LPG companies in the world. The Flashlube Catch Can Pro was imported seven years ago at a time when most thought a catch can was a coke bottle from the 80s.
PC4X4: Terrain Tamer has launched many products that are “different” to the norm, i.e. parabolic leaf springs, re-geared gearbox kits, etc. … why have you gone down this path instead of taking the easy option of re-manufacturing existing products?
We have over 40,000 parts, and that covers a vast range of OE equivalent parts as well, but the conditions faced by the Australian customer has always demanded more, and that’s why we try to innovate and strengthen parts. We often need something different here to meet the demands of the environment, and this has meant that customers in challenging situations overseas often seek us out about how these products can also benefit them.
PC4X4: Shock absorbers are a massive part of the 4X4 industry in general; what makes your range different, better or a standout to make the public want to give them a go?
Suspension tends to get grouped, but I think what sets us apart, like with any part, is the ongoing commitment to improvement. We’ve recently been trialling a revolutionary new shock absorber seal and to test it we freighted red Australian dust to the testing facility for a month-long test – it’s been a real winner.
Most people won’t even notice, but the research and development that goes into our parts is just another step forward for us.
PC4X4: Do you have a preferred 4X4?
I love the 60 Series but today enjoy the V8 70 Series; it’s simple but strong.
PC4X4: What is your list of ‘must-have’ accessories fitted to a new 4X4?
A pre-filter would be number one. Number two is good quality suspension – a must if you’re going off-road. And a catch can is number three – it’s not even optional in my opinion, it’s a life-saver.
You can never go wrong with a good quality winch and a good set of snatch straps.
PC4X4: Are you still active in the company?
Absolutely, and I love it. I’m usually the last to leave each night, and I work five and a half days a week – I don’t want to slow down. Even on holiday, I love to visit customers. It keeps me young and keeps the mind growing to be around fresh ideas and learning new things.
PC4X4: Where do you see Terrain Tamer heading in the future?
There is so much for us to grow into both globally and in new ideas, we have for products. It is limitless. We’re just now hearing from customers in different areas of the globe that we haven’t set up in yet, who have discovered the quality of Terrain Tamer parts and want to use them.
PC4X4: Lastly, can you give us an idea of any new products Terrain Tamer may have in the pipeline?
Heavy-Duty Bearing Kits will be out soon, and I reckon they’ll set a new benchmark in the industry. We also have GVM upgrades launching very shortly. There’s always a handful of projects on the drawing board.