By Narelle Coulter
Navigating the challenges of doing business in China has been part of life in the fast lane for for mini-helmet manufacturer John Kral.
John Kral’s Lilliputian racing helmets combine his love of motorsport and artistic design.
From a home office in Upper Beaconsfield, the former corporate recruitment executive runs Kral’s Creations.
In the corner of John’s sparse office is a plastic tub full of colourful miniature racing helmets emblazoned with the colours of teams and their sponsors. Each helmet has a movable visor, foam padding and a tiny chin strap.
“This is an entirely new product to Australia,” John explained, plucking out one of his favourite helmets.
Popular in the US and Europe, John was the first to introduce the concept of miniature souvenir racing helmets to the Australian market.
Manufactured in China, John sells mini helmets to racing teams and drive experience businesses like Fast Track, who then on-sell them as merchandise and souvenirs or give them away as corporate gifts.
Last year he moved 2500 units and hopes to expand that output by exploring new opportunities in the US and the Middle East.
John’s love of racing began as a boy growing up in Lakes Entrance. He started riding motorbikes at 12, then moved into racing at 14.
He won few championships “here and there but crashed a lot too”.
“Being a country lad in Lakes Entrance there was always a strong surfing and beach culture but that didn’t do much for me. I liked tinkering with machines and ultimately things that burnt petrol.”
John was also inspired by his father’s stories of messing about on bikes in his native Czechoslovakia.
“He would tell me stories of bikes he rode in Europe and all the crazy stunts he pulled. I thought ‘that sounds great’. My parents were very encouraging in everything I did and motor bikes were no different.”
After university John pursued a corporate career in the recruitment industry. However, he quickly discovered the corporate culture wasn’t for him.
“It just wasn’t making me enthusiastic about getting out of bed each day. The general make up of private company organisations didn’t gel with the way I like to work. I didn’t fit in particularly well and I didn’t enjoy it.”
What he did love doing was custom painting racing helmets.
In the late ’90s his hobby became a serious income generating option when John and his partner were working hard to secure their first mortgage.
“Custom painting helmets became popular in the late ’80s in America. I couldn’t afford a custom painted helmet so I thought I’d do it myself.
“For me it was a practical form of art I enjoyed. Whenever I got a new helmet I painted it to show my own identity.”
John soon found that he could make more money custom painting than his day job paid.
He admits it was big decision to quit the safely of a regular income and go out on his own, but once the mortgage was secured he took the plunge.
As business grew John moved Kral’s Creations to a factory in Berwick, eventually employing eight staff to custom paint not just helmets but hot rods, racing boats, jet skis, snowboards and Harleys.
“I was fastidious about the art work. I wanted it to be exactly the way I wanted it so we developed a very good reputation very quickly.”
As with many small business owners, John soon found that he was tied up operating the business and not doing what he actually loved, which was the creative side of Kral’s Creations.
“I ended up essentially running a business and doing marketing which was not that enjoyable.
One day a customer walked into John’s factory with a mini helmet he had brought back from Europe.
“I thought it was the greatest thing in the world and it sowed the seed of an idea.”
Manufacturing in Europe would be too expensive so John turned his attention to China.
After 12 months of “banging my head against the wall” John found a reliable agent and a manufacturer who would fill the relatively small orders of 250 he required.
John spent 70-80 hours crafting a full size prototype shell of his own helmet design to avoid the headache of licence fees.
When the first test copy of his prototype arrived from China John opened the package with trepidation.
“It was so exciting and thrilling to open it and see something I hoped for but didn’t dare think they would get right the first time.”
By this time he had closed his Berwick factory, scaled back staff and relocated Kral’s Creations to Upper Beaconsfield.
The first customer for John’s mini helmets was the F1 Corporation which purchased 250 to give away at the 2012 Melbourne Grand Prix.
Since then sales have steadily grown with John’s client list now including the likes of BMW, Mercedes AMC and Subaru.
He is now looking to develop an open-faced helmet to appeal to motorcycle categories and also dirtbike helmets, which are different again from motorbike and car racing helmets.
“I’m also trying to make headway in the US and Arab nations. In the US you can get mini helmets already but they are of a fairly low standard. There are organisations there which want a premium quality product.”
John loves the autonomy of running his own business or as he puts it “being the dictator of my own future”.
“Realistically if you put the work in there is a high potential you will be rewarded for it. I like being the author of my own destiny.
“This business is still very much in its infancy but I can see in the future that if I have a dozen organisations that are re-ordering every year, ordering say 1000 helmets, suddenly life is less stressful and I can spend less time on sourcing new orders. I am really, really looking forward to that.”