“Keeping it real.” The inspiring CEO behind Carac Group

Client story  \  8 Mar 2024

Sonia Kiser earned her stripes in the family’s engineering business the traditional way – starting out in the grittiest job in the factory, aged 15, and working her way up.

Sonia’s first job involved 8-hour shifts in the rumbler bay – a notoriously dirty and noisy environment, akin to a laundromat for steel parts. Having personal experience of the unglamourous role makes her a very relatable CEO.

"I’ll sometimes say to the guys, I used to work the rumbler bay… and hey, it’s not that bad! I actually try to talk it up a little bit."

Over the years, Sonia learned to operate all the factory machinery – experience that’s now invaluable when she’s pitching the company’s TrackGrip product to a roomful of dealership executives.

"It’s usually all males around the table, and having that technical knowledge gives me confidence. I understand how every part of the product is made, from start to finish. It’s about being ready to answer any question that’s going to get asked – because with the big companies, you’ve got one shot."

Now in her third year as CEO, Sonia believes she has "the best job in the world."

My favourite part of the job is walking the factory floor and engaging with our employees, thanking them for doing such a great job. I’m so proud to take TrackGrip to the world with this team alongside me.

The mother-of-two works six days a week, often starting at 3am-4am and ending around 10pm, with a busy schedule of international calls and zooms to North America and Europe. She also travels regularly to the States to attend trade shows and meetings.

Carac Group is a true family affair, with Sonia’s two siblings heading up production and finance, and parents John and Yvonne Burling still very much involved.

Their story began 36 years ago, when John started making trailer couplings out of the family garage.

"As kids, we remember Dad would make 10 couplings and head out to sell them, come home and make 20 more. Every sales trip Mum would print out a map so we could follow his journey."

Fast-forward to today and the business is still in Eltham, employing 40 people in a state-of-the-art engineering facility. Carac manufactures more than 4,500 components for the automotive, agricultural, construction, marine, engineering and utility industries in New Zealand and around the world.

Their TrackGrip range – which is used in various tough terrain, from snow and ice to rock – has a very personal story behind it. 

"One day Dad was clearing a track with his excavator… there was a little bit of moisture on the ground, he skidded down this huge hill and nearly killed himself. There was nothing on the market that could have helped, so he invented it."

John regularly receives messages from people around the world, telling him they wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for TrackGrip.

It’s a purposeful mission that drives everyone in the business, says Sonia.

There’s no other product like it, and it makes a massive difference to both safety and productivity. Our ultimate goal is to get a TrackGrip on every single excavator in the world.

They’re already making good inroads, with a dealer network of over 450 locations across North America – and aspirations to partner with all the big players like Caterpillar, Hitachi, Komatsu and Kubota.

While TrackGrip is their flagship product on the international stage, Carac Group remains true to its domestic engineering roots.

"Eighty per cent of our customers are in Hamilton. We have some of the best machinery and equipment in the country, and we’re quite unique in what we can do here. Some customers come in with a plan on a napkin, and we can create their idea from start to finish."

To protect its various innovations, Carac has partnered with AJ Park from the start.

AJ Park have been so important to our business – we wouldn’t be where we are without their advice and support, and their resources around the world. They’re an absolutely amazing team.

Having robust IP protection for TrackGrip has been critical to its success, says Sonia.

"Some of our major customers wouldn’t have signed with us if we didn’t have patent protection. TrackGrip looks so simple, you’d think it would be easy to copy. But it’s actually not that simple to manufacture and design."

And with John Burling’s constant quest to make product improvements, the IP protection is never a one-and-done affair.

"One of Dad’s favourite sayings is: 'if there’s a better way to put your shoes on, I’ll find it'. He’ll often wake up and go 'right, we’ve got to change this and this', even if we’ve just gone into production run. If we can make something that little bit better, we will."

They’re also happy to make tweaks to the TrackGrip range, when customers ask for something to suit their specific equipment or track.

"Our answer is always 'yes, we’ll work that out and come back to you'. We’re very solution-focused, and AJ Park has the same approach."

As well as handling all the patent applications, the firm provides important contract documentation for the fast-growing business.

"In the past year AJ Park have handled all the big distribution and supplier contracts we’ve had coming in. It’s nice to be able to put it in their capable hands. They really understand how we work and what we like, and they deliver it perfectly."

AJ Park Principal Sarah Barclay agrees the long-standing partnership is founded on clear communication and mutual respect.

We’re so proud to work with Carac Group. It’s amazing to see this company, one that’s built on Kiwi ingenuity and strong values, having such success both in New Zealand and on the world stage.

AJ Park solicitor Rumbie Mutanga and Principal Sarah Barclay, with Carac Group CEO Sonia Kiser (centre)


Written by Libby Schultz  


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