Elri Burger’s business is as strong and robust as the off-road caravans and trailers that she sells. She knows, because she and her brother Braam Korff started Conqueror Connection Central in December 2019, just four months before the pandemic and its lockdowns obliterated the tourism industry.
It was hair-raising as they had to close shop, phones went quiet and orders dried up first for weeks on end, and then for months very little happened, says Elri. So nowadays whenever the usual ups and downs of a growing business feel hard, the two entrepreneurs are certain that their venture can survive nearly everything the world can throw at it. It’s been thoroughly tested on a very rough road.
Today the busy showroom floor at Conqueror Connection Central in Bloemfontein is full of the South-African-made off-road Conqueror trailers and caravans, and clients are queuing up to have their caravans serviced in Elri and Braam’s workshop that forms part of the business.
Conqueror Connection Central is one of thirteen agencies selling the pioneering and popular brand of off-road campers and caravans in South Africa.
Back in 2019 Elri, an experienced public relations professional, found herself in an in-between phase of her life. After two decades of working as the Public Relations Manager for the Agricultural Research Council in Bethlehem, she moved to Bloemfontein. There she managed a medical practice for a year or two but found that it stifled her independence. Their father was a businessman and Elri always fostered the idea of running her own business one day.
Braam was also in between projects. He had sold the canvas business which he bought in 2004 in Bloemfontein, and through his network of 4×4 enthusiasts heard that the owner of the local Conqueror agency wanted to close shop.
Although Elri knew very little about the 4×4 world, the opportunity that Braam presented to her was compelling. Conqueror would support them to open a new agency with consignment stock, the building that Braam owned in West Burger Street in the Bloemfontein CBD was ideal as a combined showroom and workshop, and the previous agent agreed that they could take over his remaining stock and pay him as they sold it.
Elri likes a challenge and decided to join Braam in the new venture as managing director. They decided that he would own the business while she would buy the building from him.
She went in with her eyes open, knowing that the life of the owner of a fledgling business would be difficult, but there was not much anyone could have done to prepare themselves for the shock of the pandemic. “It was terrifying. We had put everything into this new venture, so we just hoped and prayed. We had no choice but to ride it out.”
At the first possible opportunity they registered as an essential service so that the workshop could service the vehicles and trailers of local farmers. For about eight gruelling months the business limped forward without the sale of a single caravan. Then the floodgates opened.
As South Africans grew weary of the lockdowns, but with no end to social distancing in sight, interest in camping shot up, and with it the number of people thinking of buying off-road equipment. Suddenly they made a string of sales, and Conqueror Connection Central took off.
To cement their ownership agreement, Elri set about looking for a financier so that she could buy the building from her brother. Their bank was not keen because the business was too young to have much of a track record. Elri got the sense that they only took a half-hearted look at her application.
The vibe could not have been more different at Business Partners Limited, says Elri. The investment officer came out to the premises, took a keen interest, “and was actually excited on our behalf about the business that we were building,” says Elri. “She answered all my questions so patiently and professionally. I would sometimes send her as many as five emails a day.”
Business Partners Ltd offered 100% finance for the purchase of the building in return of a minority shareholding which Elri will be able to buy back once the loan is paid off.
Today business is looking good for Conqueror Connection Central as South Africa enters the first truly post-pandemic tourist season. The workshop (where they service caravans and trailers, do conversions and where a great deal of 4×4 accessories is fitted) is fully booked and their small rental fleet is all booked out – a good sign as their rental clients often turn into purchasers of new equipment.
As the Bloemfontein agency has a very big area to cover, Elri and Braam are thinking of setting up a second agency as the demand for off-road equipment climbs.
There are still bumps in the road – the rise in the price of petrol tends to put a damper on off-road camping, for example. But they have made it through the worst thickets, and the open road stretches ahead as far as they can see.