We often feel pride and shared success when we see our clients featured by the news. Seeing Luke Sutton in Saturday's paper was no exception.
A longtime client of Michael Hilsden our Mid Coast Business Advisors and Senior Scaleup Mentor, Luke founder of Drifta has grown his operations from humble beginnings to a multi-million dollar operation that speaks true to Australian business ideals.
Manufacturing all of Drifta's gutsy all-terrain camping trailers and gear in Gloucester NSW, Luke is not only building a household name but more importantly employment in a regional town.
Starting off in a small shed - Drifta's operations have expanded 12 times over! Read the full story below!
When Luke Sutton was a young man, he left school and joined the Army as an electronic systems technician. Halfway through his apprenticeship, the whole electronics industry changed, shifting from analogue to digital. It rendered any education that apprentices, like Luke, had attained over the last two years null and void.
"Everything we'd been taught and trained in was redundant," Sutton says. "It was like a death sentence for a young fella like me. So, I thought, 'Oh well, I'll just head off and do something different'. Only, the Army doesn't just let you out . . . I mean, if they let everybody leave when they wanted to, there'd be no one left in the Army."
Luke went AWOL.
"It probably wasn't the smartest thing to do, but, at the time, I figured it was my only choice," he says.
If an Australian Army recruit is absent without leave, they will try to find them. In order to stay one step ahead of his lawful abductors, Sutton attempted to vanish by going off the grid.
For a while, he travelled around Australia, working on farms, labouring, hunting feral pigs, and chipping cotton. At one point he travelled as far as North America, where he joined a mule pack across the Cascades Mountain Range. He would do whatever he could do to survive, and evade.
"I had my swag and a hoochie tarp and just became a drifter, really," Sutton says. "At one point I was working up in Cairns as a horse guide. My boss up there called me 'Luke the drifter', because of where I'd been and what I was doing, just trying to stay one step ahead of the Army."
Smash cut some 25 years later and Luke "the drifter" Sutton owns and operates a multi-million-dollar manufacturing company in Gloucester, named Drifta Camping & 4WD.
The company designs, manufactures, sells, and retails some of the best products and equipment in the world for living a life of adventure outside. From tents to camper trailers, kitchens and cutlery, pots and pans, tarps and shelters, recovery gear, leatherwork, even two-wheel-drive electric bikes that go just as well over sand dunes and off-road tracks as they do over the black-top and tarmac.
Drifta is Gloucester's biggest employer, with 85 staff, and a turnover of $12million annually.
How did Luke Sutton get to this point?
"I was camping in Tasmania, in the middle of nowhere, and a lady saw me set up my camp with this little fold-out kitchen I'd built," Sutton says. "She was in awe of it, I suppose, and told me I should be selling them."
What looks like a relatively small and simple timber storage box, from the outside, is actually more like some sort of mysterious camping Transformer.
The Transformer that enjoys nature, the outdoors, and the getting back to basics that camping really offers. There's space for a one burner butane gas stove, shelves for plates and cups and pots and pans, a washing up tub, even a cutlery drawer.
The best thing about it, as any camp cook will attest, is the indulgence of two metres of bench space where one can chop, dice, slice and prepare all manner of food and fare. More than meets the eye, indeed.
"Eventually, I returned home and started thinking seriously about making these camp kitchens," Sutton says.
"I was making five a week for five years in a double garage shed at home [in Blayney], until I met a bloke who wanted me to make them for these camper trailers he was building . . . that's when things really took off."
From little things, big things grow. Drifta now manufactures an entire range of camping kitchens featuring enough storage and bench space to make the humble idea of camping - anywhere in the world - as comfortable as possible.
Since starting the Drifta brand, almost 20 years ago, Sutton has evolved the business, moving from wood work and carpentry into metal work, canvas sewing, stitching and seaming, leather work, as well as the construction of his own line of state-of-the-art camper trailers, known as the Drifta Offroad Tourer, or D.O.T. for short.
"All I've ever done is build stuff that I'd want to use," Sutton says. "From the first fold out kitchens, to the canvas bags and leather work, even the DOT's, they're all literally products that I would want to use for myself. That's all I do. I design and build stuff that I find useful."
Other people do too.
"I've been using Drifta products pretty much since day one. They're such quality products, all of them," says Scott Mason, camping and 4WD photojournalist and editor of Unsealed 4x4 magazine.
"His products are so innovative and I'm a fussy person. I believe in quality and that's exactly what Drifta makes, quality, well-made products perfect for when you go bush."
The whole Drifta brand is built around Sutton's brilliant fold-out camping kitchens, which he says is the secret to a comfortable camp set up.
"Your kitchen is the central point of your camp, because that's we're you spend most of your time," Sutton says. "When you're camping you're trying to relax and entertain yourselves. What's more relaxing than sitting around at camp, cooking with your family, cooking delicious food and sharing that time with each other?"
Turning over $12million for any business, particularly in the manufacturing industry, is no mean feat. Australian manufacturing accounts for less than 10 per cent of GDP.
"These days, you won't see a business like us in a small rural town like Gloucester, usually because you've got to be able to sell your product, locally, at least," Sutton says. "But, we're web based, mostly, and we don't have a local market, as such. We can ship our products all around the world, so, really, we could be set up anywhere . . .
"We design and manufacture all of our products ourselves; we market them ourselves, and we sell them ourselves. Our biggest expense is wages. Sometimes we get people saying we're too expensive, but that's because they're used to buying stuff made overseas, where wages are a lot less, and so is the quality."
Sutton says he believes it's important to explain to his customers why Drifta can't compete on price with some of the larger camping retailers, but he's quick to point out that the vast majority of money Drifta makes stays in the local economy and community.
"Rather than going off overseas somewhere, the money we make goes directly back into the community . . . We're creating real jobs that give people actual, practical skills," Sutton says. "Hardly anyone's doing that these days, but if you don't, the towns suffer, society suffers and, eventually, the whole country suffers . . . So, you know, it gives me a lot of satisfaction knowing I'm contributing something positive to the community from the things we make."
Sutton's latest invention is designed specifically with the community in mind.
In collaboration with non-profit charity organisation, Sea Mercy, whose mission is to provide assistance and health care services to the remote islands of the South Pacific, Sutton has created the Drifta Sea Mercy rain tarp. The tarp is designed specifically to provide relief aid to remote islands after being impacted by natural disasters, such as cyclones.
"The basic idea is to provide shelter and clean drinking water by catching the rainfall during a disaster situation," Sutton says. "Rain falls on the tarp and gets channelled into a guttering system which gets collected in bladders and the drum. It's very simple."
Rainfall drains into two 200L bladders as well as two 50L drums (which stores the entire tarp system), meaning up to 500L of fresh drinking water can be collected and stored.
"You see a lot of people in disaster areas lining up all day to receive fresh drinking water instead of being able to get on with rebuilding their houses and whatnot," Sutton says. "This is just a simple, self-sufficient and sustainable way to get a crucial resource to people without having to ship in loads of shelters plus millions of litres of bottled water."
Eventually, Sutton was dishonourably discharged from the Australian Army.
"After seven years they sent me a letter informing me I was dishonourably discharged and that was that. I suppose I wouldn't be doing what I am today if my apprenticeship hadn't changed," Sutton says.
Today, Sutton has built an incredibly successful global brand based upon good design, innovation, integrity and making camping as comfortable as it can be.
"Camping is a bit like doing an apprenticeship," Sutton says. "The more you do it the more you learn; what to do, what not to do, what works and what doesn't. If you can make it an enjoyable experience, then everyone who goes along with you will love it and will want to come back.
"Camping is especially important for families, I reckon, because it gets you all to connect and spend quality time with each other. For me, life doesn't get any better."
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