Chatting to the brains trust behind one of Australia’s most highly regarded four-wheel drive brands: Piranha Off Road.
IN THE BEGINNING
ALAN and Barbara Johnson started Piranha Off Road 30 years ago (yep, it’s the big anniversary this year) and have since developed the company into a brand synonymous with quality products and excellent service. The long road to 30 years of successful business wasn’t easy, especially at the start when Al received plenty of ‘advice’ on what he shouldn’t be doing. His answer was akin to the old ‘red rag to a bull’.
“What started me off was people telling me that all my ideas and things I wanted to do were stupid,” he laughed. “One of the people – one of my mates – who was someone I had a lot of respect for, said ‘Alan, car companies spend millions of dollars, they have teams of engineers to build the car, what makes you think you know better than those guys?’.
“It was a valid point, and it still is a valid point, but I guess the issue is what we’re doing is we’re not rebuilding a car from the ground-up, we’re taking something that exists and we’re making it better,” he affirmed. “We’re improving its weak points and making it better and making it do things that were possibly not intended for it to originally do.”
This has remained Al’s ethos since the start of Piranha but with one significant change from the early days of the 1980s, and one that reflects the marked change in what a four-wheel drive is expected to do in the modern era.
“What we were doing in the early days was making a very tough car a bit softer and a bit more liveable,” he said. “Now, what we’re doing is making a soft car a bit tougher. So that’s what’s happened: the big thing in 30 years for me is this change. We’re now taking a 200 Series and trying to make it a bit tougher; make it a bit more suitable for off-road work. Whereas in the old days you had a 60 Series, it really was a ‘truck’, and we’d try and make it a bit less rough and a bit nicer to live with. It’s a different world.”
KEEPING IT REAL
YOU don’t stay at the top of the game for three decades by focusing on one thing. For Alan, it’s not only about manufacturing and selling top-end products, as Piranha Off Road also prides itself and is highly regarded for its attention to service and to the actual customer.
“The thing is, many people want advice,” Alan said. “They want to be guided into a package that is going to do the job that they want it to do and, in most cases, I’d suggest most companies (possibly, if they’re lucky) meet their expectations.
“We try to exceed people’s expectations, we try to give them more than what they’re asking for, we try to give them a really good solution and, in many cases, that’s not just selling your product, it’s educating them as to what something can and can’t do and how and why it works.”
Alan is also always very keen to get the customer out to the workshop so they can see what the Piranha Off Road team is doing during the fitment process. “That way, people get a good understanding of how the whole thing is likely to work,” Alan said.
ON THE FRONT FOOT
PIRANHA Off Road remains a small and nimble company, as Alan and Barbara never wished to expand too much for fear of compromising quality – plus it enables them to keep the entire manufacturing process in Australia. Remaining small means the company can quickly adapt to market changes, which is something Alan believes has been a big factor in keeping Piranha Off Road relevant.
“We are often able to lead the market because we can respond quickly because we are small,” he said. “Obviously we don’t have the ability to produce massive volumes, but we can normally produce enough product to satisfy our initial immediate market very, very quickly and very, very well. So that’s a really good thing – it does give us the advantage.”
Piranha’s long-developed reputation and relationship with vehicle manufacturers also brings with it many advantages in terms of bringing new product for new vehicles to market quickly.
“One of the good things is we get brands who we buy new vehicles off are very happy to lend us a vehicle to do R&D with,” Alan told us. “Often manufacturers will bring us a car when a new car comes out and say ‘look, you’ll probably need this for a couple of days to do your R&D’. Fortuner came out, for instance, and we were able to have all the accessories for that pretty much straight away.”
The compact business size also ensures that, by remaining self-contained, Piranha Off Road can maintain a high level of quality control – something that is increasingly more important in the marketplace and, along with personal service, a brilliant selling point when compared to the ‘faceless’ online retail outlets.
Again, being in the business for 30 years is an advantage, most notably in regards to brand recognition and returning customers from all generations.
NEVER STAND STILL
THERE’S no doubt that to stay in any industry for 30 years you have to be passionate about it, and Alan and his team most definitely are. Equally, they aren’t content to sit on their laurels, with Alan using his frequent off-road trips (he tries to average four big ones a year, with 2017 including a big Cape York trip with a group of fellow Suzuki 4x4 owners) to tweak and fine-tune available products, as well as identify an area in the touring scene where a new idea might sit.
“I guess whenever I do a biggish trip I normally come back with some change or tweak on my vehicle that I think would have made that trip better,” Alan said. “It could also be something I didn’t need and could have left behind or something that I took and failed or didn’t live up to expectations. I think every longish trip you come back with at least ideas for things and concepts and, yeah, it’s a fluid thing; it never stops changing. You know, you tweak this way, you tweak that way and every time it’s a little bit better. You know, it’s a bit nicer.”
Speaking of products, Piranha Off Road has been busy behind the scenes and has some new gear coming in 2018, but Alan was understandably reticent to offer a sneak peek. He was, however, willing to nominate a slight favourite out of the myriad of gear Piranha has produced.
“Look, over the years we’ve developed a lot of different products,” he said. “Things like 30-second kitchens, things like fridge slides, things like diff breathers and dual-battery systems. But I think our expertise and our knowledge we’ve learned in the electrical side of things in dual batteries is probably second-to-none and has enabled us to really be able to give people exceptional results at really good sensible prices, without wasting money on things they don’t need.”
This is what was most noticeable during our chat with Alan and what we reckon has been one of the main reasons for Piranha’s continued success for more than 30 years: A focus on ensuring as many people as possible get the gear they absolutely need to get out and enjoy the off-road touring lifestyle.
BACK in September Alan was part of a team that set two World Records: the first solar-powered AGM vehicle and the first lithium battery-powered vehicle to cross the Simpson Desert, taking seven days to do so. Not a bad way to celebrate 30 years in the off-road touring business.
With an aim to improve on that record, as well as gear-up for the release of some exciting and innovative product in 2018, Alan and the team at Piranha Off Road have a busy year ahead, which is good news for any off-road tourer looking for top-notch locally designed and manufactured gear.