Coca-Cola – the carbonated soft drink sold around the globe – like many other big brand products, is a household name.
However, the originator of the carbonated soft drink in the late 1800s, American pharmacist John Pemberton, initially developed and sold the concoction not for enjoyment but for medicinal purposes.
Fast forward 131 years and what was once sold as a cure for myriad ailments is now better known as a popular brand of soft drink found in supermarkets, corner stores and service stations around the world.
Like Coca-Cola, road safety solutions and equipment specialist Safereroads began life selling one particular product, but rose to prominence by repurposing that product for something entirely different.
In celebration of 25 years in the road safety industry, Roads & Infrastructure Magazine talks to Founder and CEO Darren Hotchkin about how Saferoads began and what’s helped establish the company as a prominent safety solutions specialist over the years.
“We founded the company in 1992 primarily to commercialise an innovation, which was a guide post made by recycling car tyres,” explains Darren Hotchkin, Saferoads Founder and CEO.
A motor mechanic by trade, Mr. Hotchkin owned and operated a tyre shop at the time, which is where the seeds for Saferoads were sown.
“The Victorian Government outlawed dumping whole tyres in landfill, so there was a question of what we do with the old tyres. At the time, there was around one tyre for every person dumped each year and all of a sudden we had all these tyres and nowhere to put them,” he explains.
“We started playing around with guideposts and looked at what the advantages were in using rubber over traditional guidepost materials.”
Mr. Hotchkin says guideposts at the time were made of wood, which were flimsy, prone to breaking and did little to help deflect vehicles. “Timber wasn’t very durable and they needed constant maintenance, such as repairing and painting.”
By utilising an end-of-life resource such as used tyres, and one that was more durable than timber, Mr. Hotchkin, along with his father and another colleague, Duncan Smith, created a new guide post for Australian roads that quickly built traction and propelled them into the road safety equipment space.
Mr. Hotchkin sold the tyre business and began managing the startup company full-time. “That got us into roads. Once there we really saw that there were other opportunities in that industry, particularly around recycled rubber.”
Rubber Tough Industries – as the company was called at the time – specialised in repurposing tyres, and even had a purpose-built machine that could remove the treads from the tyres.
“We started recycling tyre rubber into speed humps and the like, and then we started to expand more into guideposts,” explains Mr. Hotchkin. “In those first three or four years we were a very tyre-based organisation. We went through a lot of developments and eventually came to be a leading supplier of guide posts in Australia.”
The company hit a tipping point, where it began to expand beyond its original product range.
“We eventually started seeing there were broader opportunities in road safety products,” he says. “Then we basically made a decision to do more and more in that space, including building our own products.
“It wasn’t something we planned from the start. As time progressed we had to look at every opportunity and direction, and road safety was the direction of choice.”
Mr. Hotchkin says the company began to establish strong relationships in the road safety industry, including with a US-based firm whose products they began distributing.
By that time, the recycled rubber side of the business became less of a focus – it was being superseded by the businesses’ profitable expansion into road safety. The Rubber Tough Industries brand was sold, which Mr. Hotchkin says still exists in some form today.
“We totally got out of all the rubber stuff we were doing as it had nothing to do with roads. That’s when we started increasing our product range and moved into road safety products and the name Saferoads came about,” he says.
Building the business
Mr. Hotchkin and the company had to make a number of calculated decisions when moving into the road safety space. However, there were larger decisions to be made in the years to come.
“In our 11th year, we decided we wanted to float the company on the stock exchange to attract outside investors and grow the company even more,” he says.
The business reached a high point where it was distributing crash barriers, traffic calming products, lighting and other road safety equipment to the Australian market. In terms of size, the business was the largest it would ever be.
Unfortunately in 2008, its US distributor fell on hard times and was bought by another company, which already had a well-established relationship with one of Saferoads’ competitors. The company that acquired Saferoads’ distributor decided to deal exclusively with Saferoads’ competition within the Australian market.
“So we eventually lost half of our product range on a single day,” states Mr. Hotchkin. “It was intense – we were at a point where we thought things would last forever, but we soon started to work out through that experience that that isn’t the case.”
Reeling from the blow to its product range, Mr. Hotchkin says the company had to reapproach its entire set up – it downsized, reassessed its assets and refocused its core values.
“What we’ve done in the last five years is really establish much more solid foundations in Saferoads. We’ve made a point of owning all of our intellectual property and other decisions like that,” he says. “Being in control of our own destiny rather than have decisions influenced by third parties was a big focus.”
Saferoads refocused its efforts on its research and development department. It has since made leaps and bounds in developing new and innovative products for the Australian market – a move that has helped bring the company back from the brink and into the spotlight once again.
Progressing safety products
Casey McMaster, Saferoads’ Engineering Manager has been with the company through thick and thin for the past 14 years, citing the company’s downsizing as one of the major challenges he’s seen over the years.
Mr. McMaster, a civil engineer, heads up Saferoads’ research and development department, which has had to adapt with the changes happening within the company.
“Previously, each product had a product manager, which made them a Jack of all trades with their individual products. However, we had to consolidated that when we the company changed,” he says.
Saferoads has now shifted towards a more focused structure, with individuals now responsible for complete product groups, which has helped the company be more dynamic with its approach to the market. The structural changes in the firm, however, have not impacted on the technical breakthroughs happening in its research and design department.
Mr. McMaster says Saferoads had typically dealt with safety barriers comprising either steel or concrete, but Mr. Hotchkin came up with the idea of including a concrete ballast within a steel barrier.
“We thought: what if we started from scratch? We then developed a solution combining the two and the result was the Ironman Hybrid barrier,” says Mr. McMaster.
“I also invented a connection system about two and a half years ago that we use in our barriers. We’ve modified the end so any barrier along the string can be removed, which helps with maintenance.”
“We like to be different – the company really stands out by doing things like this.”
Likewise, Mr. McMaster says Saferoads took a unique approach with its variable message sign (VMS) products.
“For a long time we tried to be the best of the best with VMS and included all the bells and whistles,” he says. When the company’s product range reduced significantly through the sale of its third-party manufacturer, it had to reassess its product range, including VMS and its corresponding management software.
“We wanted to bring it in-house so that we were in control of the intellectual property. We then downscaled the product and looked specifically at what the customer needed. These days everybody’s putting in video, different lights effects and all the bells and whistles.” says Mr. McMaster.
The solution was to simplify the product and take its management online and into the cloud. The result is its Zone 2 management software for its VMS products.
Likewise, the company has expanded into the solar light pole space, albeit without overcomplicating its market offerings.
Saferoads is doing extensive work in off-grid lighting, and other products that have the ability to illuminate black spots, high trafficked areas, and rural areas with no power. “We’ve kept out solar portable lights quite simple, and kept the concrete base simple but safe,” he adds.
The act of bringing the design process into the heart of the Saferoads’ research and design department has also enabled the company to work more reactively with customer needs.
“I believe one of the greatest strengths the business is to be adaptable and open to changes, and that has grown over time,” asserts Mr. McMaster. “We don’t just focus on a being a churn factory – we are a job shop – everything we make is custom-made and that’s one of our strong points.”
The imagination of Saferoads’ research and design department has continued to flourish by taking its products in-house. That successful process has continued to this day.
In the past 18 months, the company has invested in LS-DYNA simulation software to crash test a new portable barrier the company is working on.
“It’s quite a costly venture, but we can carry out hypothetical tests on crash barriers in house,” he says. “It’s pretty unique for a company of our size. Big tech companies in the United States who have this on tap have been using it for the past 20 years. Traditionally we’ve relied on feedback from our customers and a trial and error approach, but using this just makes things more effective in crash testing.”
He says he’s pleased with the progress the company has made by utilising the LS-DYNA software because the company can move into production and the prototype phase of product development quicker than ever before.
Mr. McMaster says the innovation coming from Saferoads stems from the creative mind of its Founder and CEO. “The big driver of Saferoads’ research and development would be Darren – he’s the entrepreneur; he’s the ideas man.”
A complete journey
Reflecting on Saferoads’ evolution, Mr. Hotchkin says the past quarter of a century has been an interesting time for the company and himself.
“I was 28 years old when the company began – starting Saferoads certainly wasn’t the plan,” he says. “We’re a company that’s had a lot of changes in 25 years – we’ve definitely seen some high highs, and low lows. We’re smaller now than we were about eight years ago, but we’re a company that continues to innovate.”
While Mr. Hotchkin certainly didn’t envisage himself running a road safety product and solutions company back in 1992, he says the benefits of working in such a sector has had an impact on him.
“It is a nice feeling to know you’re making a bit of an impact and helping make people safer. Australia is one of the top 10 safest countries to drive in and our road deaths are half of that in the US. I like to think we’ve contributed in some way to that.”