Ten years ago Venter Trailers in Johannesburg had it made. With control of over two-thirds of the market for lightweight recreational trailers in South Africa and 100 percent brand recognition within its market segment, Venterís future looked rosy.
The small, white and orange striped trailers were an integral part of South African life; to see a car pulling one on its way to the game reserve or to the beach was practically a harbinger for "vacation" to the average South African. Best of all, the company had a sterling brand name: Venter trailers were referred to simply as "Venters," or in Afrikaans "Venterjies" (little trailers).
The product, logo and strategy were all the brainchild of Maarten Venter, who built trailers for farmers in the boondocks of South Africa during the 1960s. His lightweight, sturdy trailers soon became a hit with farmers and vacationers alike. To this day, Venter trailers are still produced in their original factory town of Naboomspruit.
In 1991, Venter had 400 outlets nationwide and an instantly recognizable brand name. With sales parked at ZAR 60 million per year (about US$ 20 million in 1991) and the business still under family control, the owners decided it was time to go public. A financier named Michael Katcs was brought in for what then-owner Jasper Venter thought would "bring Venter into the big league." The company was launched on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange as Ventel (Venter Leisure and Commercial Trailers) at ZAR 1.50 per share to great fanfare. The good times were literally going to roll for Venter.
Within a few short years, Venter was in shambles.
Trading at a measly ZAR 0.33 a share, Venter's sales had collapsed by 30 percent and its taxed income had dropped by 85 percent. Debts were mounting and the shareholders went to war against Katcs, whose leadership style soon earned him a vote of "no confidence" from the board and staff.
Katcs's personal behavior included massive spending, increased home security including a phalanx of bodyguards, rumored drug abuse, and at one point, admission to a psychiatric ward in a posh Johannesburg clinic after what the company tersely referred to as a "shooting incident" at his house. The company became secretive about its finances, which even to the casual observer were clearly in disarray. Shareholders revolted.
In addition to massive financial mismanagement, the Venter brand was in deep trouble. The company nearly ceased marketing completely, devoting itself entirely to its internal problems. On the distribution end, dealers were cut off from the company, or would arrive for meetings only to be told nobody could accommodate them. Fed up with the lack of professionalism at Venter, they turned to newer companies and imported products. Pretenders began to flourish in a market that had once been defined and dominated by Venter. One of South Africa's best-known and best-loved brands, began to wither away into oblivion.
On May 4, 2002, Venter's struggles took an abrupt and violent turn. Katcs, who had finally been removed from his position as chairman of the company a week earlier, shot his wife dead and then turned the gun on himself at their home. This brought a grisly end to the years of struggle on the part of the Venter board to ward off Katcs' legal claims against the company and its ex-owner. It also cast the company onto South Africa's front pages and gossip columns. A brand once synonymous with good times was now tied with a tragic nightmare.
Control of Venter is now in dispute between the executors of Katcs' estate and Venter's CEO, Gerald Howell. In the meantime, the company has obviously had to rethink its brand strategy and its service policies.
Glen Nevelling, Venter's director of marketing since 2000, admitted that recent events have caused a vacuum at the top of the company but says this forces Venter to think about its brand and what can be done to salvage it. Despite the company's very public unraveling, the brand is still widely recognized in South Africa -- although it's in need of a more positive spin.
Looking on the bright side (he is in marketing after all) Nevelling points out that "Venter has been in the forefront of the trailer industry for more than 30 years and has been the solid foundation for the manufacturing and service of more than a quarter-million standard and special trailers. Our market appeal is based mainly around these facts."
The words that would best describe the Venter brand name, says Nevelling, are "value for money, safety, versatility and durability." He thinks that the strength of the brand from a sales perspective is the large dealer network that still exists and the fact that Venter, unlike many of its competitors, only builds trailers.
The company is also learning how to expand its established market base into the "development of trailers to suit market requirements." To this end, Venter plans to "assist people who need products to evolve small business -- taxis, telephone trailers, kiosk trailers, [and] contractor trailers, [as well as] extend the brand into the fast growing off-road market."
Venter is also back to active marketing and tries to organize its campaigns to run around holiday seasons when people are most receptive to the benefits of a small trailer. The company hopes that consumers will focus on the product's national availability and affordability. It also hopes to build on the quality of the product in line with its back-up service as a means to slowly reclaim market share and consumer confidence in the brand.
The company is tight-lipped about its plans for the future, but insists it has hired new talent to begin the reconstruction process. Venter's new brand managers will have to rebuild the company while at the same time reminding South Africa of the good times without bringing up the bad.