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Dan Britton, Chariot Carriers' founder and former president and CEO (EWAN NICHOLSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Dan Britton, Chariot Carriers' founder and former president and CEO (EWAN NICHOLSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

SELLING OUT

Thule's long ride to buy Chariot Carriers Add to ...

The 41-year-old Ontario native insists that “it's business as usual” at Chariot. “It wasn't a company that was in dire need of change,” he says. “But obviously, as groups get together, there are efficiencies that need to happen and will happen any time you buy a smaller company that goes into a bigger company.”

Thule will run Chariot Carriers as a separate business unit in a newly created division, Thule Child Transport Systems Ltd. According to Magnus Welander, there will be a push on product development and testing in the Calgary office, and a focus on getting products to the market faster.

Thule, which currently sells products in more than 120 countries, will add Chariot Carriers to its dominant European portfolio, strengthen Chariot's presence in the United States and look at untapped areas, such as South America, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

There is talk of moving Chariot's offices in Calgary into smaller quarters. Some employees fear that the sense of fun and personal touch that has always been a large part of Chariot Carriers' culture will disappear inside the maw of Thule, while others say there's a buzz of excitement about big things yet to come.

Although it's early days, Dan Britton says the transition has been surprisingly uneventful and calm. While he expects challenges ahead – “difficult times where it might feel odd” – he says he's looking forward to his new role as director of innovation, and he's no longer losing sleep over the things that keep you up when you own a company.

And for the first time since his days working part-time in his friend's bike shop more than 20 years ago, Britton will be working for someone else. But this time, he says, “it feels good and timely.”

THE THULE EMPIRE

Thule takes over about half of the firms it approaches, says Fred Clark, Thule's president of North American operations. It has acquired 12 companies since 2004, although two of those have since been sold.

König, Sportworks and C & C Distributors Inc.

König, an Italian maker of snow chains, was acquired in March. Thule was able to centralize König's marketing department and launched Thule-branded snow chains for passenger cars. The owners of Sportworks, a Washington-based manufacturer of front- and rear-mounted bike carriers, initiated contact with Thule; Thule acquired Sportworks' small product line and renamed the company Thule TS2. Brought into Thule's North American operations and renamed Thule Trailers Inc., C & C Distributors Inc. - a Maine-based maker of cargo and snowmobile trailers - never fully integrated into Thule and was sold back in 2006.

United Welding Service

The Florida-based maker of lockable aluminum boxes and step bars for pickups became part of Thule's North American operations. Headquarters, brand name and management remained the same.

TracRac

In November, Thule acquired TracRac, a design and manufacturing firm headquartered in Massachusetts, that produces cargo-management systems ducts. Operations remain in the United States under the same name.

Star Trailer and Omnistor

After boat trailers, horse trailers were the next top sellers in Scandinavia's trailer market. Thule was developing its own product but decided to buy market leader Star Trailer. Omnistor, a Belgian producer of awnings and accessories for RVs and campers, was a good fit because camper vacations were growing in popularity in Europe, and demand for accessories was increasing.

Brink International BV , Valley Industries and SportRack Accessories (subsidiaries of Advanced Accessory Systems) and Case Logic

After buying the Netherlands' Brink International BV, Thule changed its name to Thule Towing Systems. Quebec's SportRack Accessories maintained its name and management team. Meanwhile, Michigan-based Valley Industries was sold back to management in 2009. Post-Thule Colorado's Case Logic has maintained its brand and management.

Chariot Carriers Inc.

Chariot Carriers Inc. was Thule's first acquisition since Swedish private-equity company Nordic Capital took over as the dominant shareholder of the Thule Group in December, 2010. Thule promises to keep Chariot based in Calgary.

Special to The Globe and Mail

This article originally appeared in the October issue of Report on Small Business magazine.

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