ESTABLISHED in 1994 at Givrand, on the outskirts of St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie in the Vendée, O’Hara was the landlubbing offspring of Annette and Louis-Claude Roux, owners of the boat builder Bénéteau.
The boat building industry was in decline at that time, there was a threat to jobs in the factory and, following a visit to America, where they saw the American version of mobile homes, the couple felt inspired to diversify Bénéteau’s activities, build caravan holiday homes and save local jobs.
Today, O’Hara is an autonomous company within the Bénéteau group, with a turnover in excess of €50 million. It makes around 5,000 units per year and employs 300 staff, many of whom live within 15km of their workplace. There is much seasonal work in both factories, thanks to tourism: the fishing industry employs a number of people in St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, but it is boat building and caravan holiday home building that provide stable employment.
Bénéteau has since diversified further and now has interests in building timber-framed houses for social housing schemes in France alongside boats and mobile homes. It has no day-to-day involvement with O’Hara, but the managing director of the division is a board member of the parent company.
O’Hara now has two factories strategically located; one in the Vendée, built in 1998 next to one of the boat building factories on the D6 road, and the other at Lézignan-Corbièrs in the south of France, not far from Narbonne, built in 2002.
The factory in the Vendée (pictured left) is 8,000 square metres with a showground capable of displaying around 20 units and a yard that can store 920 units ready for despatch. The second factory is of similar size and both produce the same model range but with different production schedules.
We met sales director, Jason Selzer, in the factory in the Vendée. Jason is an Englishman who, at that time, had worked for the company for just a few weeks, having had experience with several other companies associated with mobile homes in France.
O’Hara makes two product ranges, only referred to by model numbers. Distribution is via a network of six wholesalers and a huge number of campsites throughout France. At the time of our visit prices were determined by individual sellers, but that situation was about to change. More of that later...
Jason told us that the company has three main philosophies: to build high quality products; to have an on-going care for the environment; and to produce homes that are aesthetic and functional. O’Hara is known for its innovation and keeps a critical eye on high street design trends as well as its competitors. It leads, rather than follows, he added.
Environmental concerns have been given greater emphasis over the last few years and the company has achieved ISO 14001 classification, having achieved a core set of environmental management standards. Indeed, O’Hara believes it is the only manufacturer of caravan holiday-homes in France to have achieved this.
Jason told us it was an important part of the company philosophy for both factories to reflect these concerns, from the buying of components with green credentials through the construction process to deconstruction at end of the product’s life. Staff are trained to work in an environmentally friendly manner and there are eco-friendly lavatories and electric light reduction practises in the factories and offices.
The future is bright for the company, Jason believes. The market is improving, and he believes there is room for 20,000 new units each year (though other companies beg to differ with this figure). The industry had bad press in the past and dubious practices by some unscrupulous parc owners did nothing to promote caravan holiday-homes as second homes.
Like its competitors, O’Hara thinks that older, unsound units have to come off the parks and this needs a concerted effort by all the players. We know from our visits to France that discussions are taking place within the manufacturers’ federation to establish a “buy back” scheme of old models for re-cycling against new orders. This will release pitches and thus stimulate the industry. Caravan holiday homes have to be economically viable for the parcs. Recent legislation has defined a caravan holiday home and this has made matters much clearer for parcs and owners – 40 square metres maximum size and “moveable within 30 minutes” is what the law now says.
Local governments are also tightening up on units being placed on any old bit of land, to the chagrin of the locals. Building bigger units increases the manufacturing costs, and may not be what the parcs want for French sales, Jason added.
Bespoke units will not be built by O’Hara. The only choice for the consumer is of interior colour schemes, and that is one Jason compromised on. “Building to order is a risky strategy,” he believes, though the marketing team beg to differ. “We build to a high specification at a low price – fridge freezers, ovens, hobs, extractor fans are included as standard,” he added.
The factory is a single production line with 15 stations; pre-galvanised chassis are bought in and furniture arrives from a supplier ready to be assembled in the factory and installed as the caravan holiday homes are built. 20cm insulation is standard in the floor, walls and roof of the models designed for private ownership.
A well-established team is responsible for the day-to-day running of the factories in each location, but the company is about to undergo a new strategic direction. It believes there needs to be a fundamental change to the way that caravan holiday homes are sold.
O’Hara has made the bold and brave decision to sell direct to the end-user, cutting out the wholesaler. It will determine the recommended retail price, including VAT at 19.6%, which will include installation on a parc, but exclude transport from the factory nearest to the parc chosen by the buyer.
We were sure that the wholesalers had thrown up their hands in horror and used a few well-chosen French epithets, but apparently not, according to Jason. He believes the company’s action will increase the volume of sales, make the process more transparent and establish a price point. This may mean the sellers having to reduce their prices and use their dealer margin for the benefit of the buyer, not themselves. That is laudable.
The initial target audience is, naturally, the French market, but UK buyers are high on the list, too, as many UK owners of caravan holiday-homes buy through parc groups or individual companies, either French or UK based.
A new website in English will be launched and brochures will be in English, downloadable from the website. Two new English-speaking members of staff have already been recruited to the sales team and more are likely to be employed. More prominence will be given to promoting the sales ground at Givrand and to promoting the O’Hara name and product in other locations, which at the time of our visit were still awaiting the crossing of the t’s and dotting of the i’s.
Certainly, this is ground-breaking marketing and sales, combining the concept of “buy back” and having a transparent and radically different pricing structure and attitude, enabling the customer to purchase from the manufacturer or through a campsite at the same price. This still gives the campsite owner a workable margin.
Will we hear more of this from other companies? Remember what Jason told us: “We are a leader, not a follower.”
Standard feature across the O’Hara range include:
• Roller blinds in the bedrooms
• Thermostatic heaters in all rooms
• Marquise-type sun visors on windows
• External plug socket
• Electronic water heater
• High quality, UV resistant curtains, with black out material
Interior features can include:
• Highland brown oak cupboards with a touch of brass
• Freestanding sofa, with fold out bed and storage locker
• Coffee table with integrated stools
• Square dining table with extension
• Dining chairs with imitation leather upholstery
• Sandy grey worktops, with metal/brown edging
• Connections for dishwasher and/or washing machine
• Microwave shelf/cupboard
• Oven and four gas burner hob in stainless steel finish
• Aluminium finish cooker hood
• Bedrooms with a ‘Zen’ feel to them, finished of with brass and anthracite headboards
• Main bedroom with memory foam mattress
• Floor-to-ceiling wardrobe with sliding doors in main bedroom
• Mirror in main bedroom
• 90x90cm shower cubicles in the 980 and 1060 models with raised roof
O’HARA MODEL RANGE
Size: 8.62m x 4m (floorspace 31.07m2)
Sleeping capacity: 4/6
This unit has a vinyl clad exterior, two bedrooms, a centre lounge, one shower room, electric heating, water reducing valves on the taps, LED lighting, external shutters to the bedroom windows, double doors from the living area to the exterior. In the kitchen are a four-burner gas hob, built under oven and freestanding fridge/freezer, while the living area has an L-shaped sofa that converts to a bed and has storage space under it, a dining table with four chairs upholstered in white faux leather and lined curtains.
Price €29,995 ex works (not including transport or installation)
Size: 8.94m x 4m (floorspace 32m2)
Sleeping capacity: 6/8
The 860 has three bedrooms an open plan centre living area and a functional kitchen. There is a freestanding sofa with fold out bed, a coffee table housing foot stools and a large dining table with extension, four elegantly designed imitation leather chairs and two folding occasional chairs.
Price €31,995 ex works (not including transport or installation)
Size: 9.62m x 4m (floorspace 34.84 m2)
Sleeping capacity: 4/6
Two bedrooms and panoramic end lounge are the 930’s key features, plus cupboards in the entrance hall. There is the option of a king size bed (160x200cm) in the master bedroom.
Price €33,995 ex works (not including transport or installation)
Size: 10.12m x 4m (floorspace 36.72m2)
Sleeping capacity: 4/6
An innovative raised roof dramatically increases the interior volume of the 980, which has two bathrooms (1 with room for a washing machine), two bedrooms and a convivial kitchen with a breakfast bar and stools.
Price €36,995 ex works (not including transport or installation)
Size: 10.97m x 4m (floorspace 40m2)
Sleeping capacity: 6/8
The height of the ceiling gives an amazing feeling of spaciousness to a bright and spacious living area equipped with sofa and fold out bed, large dining table with extension, elegant chairs covered with imitation leather and two folding chairs. The kitchen has a breakfast bar with two modern, height-adjustable stools and there are connections for a dishwasher. There are three bedrooms.
Price €39,995 ex works (not including transport or installation)
Parc D’Activities Du Soleil Levant, Givrand, 85806 St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, France Tel: 00 33 2 51 26 20 28 Email: [emailprotected] Website: www.ohara.fr
The O’Hara showground at the Givrand factory is open seven days each week from 10am to 6pm.
This park review was published in the April 2011 issue of Park & Holiday Homes. To order a copy of Park & Holiday Homes please click here