Arriving in Australia with her mother and siblings after spending some five years in a refugee camp outside of Nuremburg, East Germany, Christa Croker started work at the very young age of 14.
With little English and survival her greatest priority, Christa undertook a number of different jobs before settling with her husband and establishing a long, successful career with a sterling reputation as one of the few women in caravan sales in Victoria in the 1970s and 80s. Christa is also the aunt of VACC Field Officer, Brigitte Reinbold, who has worked in automotive for many years. The two share a passion for the promotion of women in the automotive industry.
"We had a few businesses over the years. A used car yard in Sydney Road, Coburg and another in Keilor Road, Essendon. After we sold the car yards, and had a baby, we bought a few cars at auction and I would sell one or two from home every week. But that didn't thrill us...
We then decided to start up a caravan yard and I started selling. We weren't making many sales and were slowly going broke. We didn't have any advertising at all so I decided to take out an ad in The Age. After that a guy came in and bought 8 caravans in one hit – suddenly we were in business! We moved premises and never looked back – we were successful in business for 20 years selling mainly Millard Caravans.
I took the main management role in the business. I went to the Millard Caravan's monthly meeting at the Sentimental Bloke Hotel in Bulleen and to all the interstate conferences myself. Every caravan dealer in Victoria went to these and I was the only woman – this was the 1970s. The male dealers all treated me with respect, they knew I had the knowledge. It was the customers I had more of a struggle with.
The toughest part of the business was the attitude the public had to dealing with a female. In short they didn't expect me to know anything. As a woman they thought I had no knowledge, yet I had all the knowledge as the sales person and owner. Although the men would generally be respectful (though many of them still made a 'pass' at me), they didn't treat my knowledge of caravans seriously. One guy actually asked me if he could see the boss one day – I said "you're talking to her," and he nearly dropped dead. Customers would talk to the male cleaner first before they would believe I could help them.
This was circa 1976 and I was in my 30s. Caravans were delivered overnight on trucks and needed to be unloaded. This was the first job I had to do each day so the mornings were always busy.
I used to buy caravans from the trading post, getting up to get the paper at 5am every Thursday to get in first. I used to go to buy the vans and I was often asked, "What if your husband doesn't like it?" and I would say, "It's my money – my caravan." I had to register each caravan at the Police Station, they didn't know how to do it so I used to go behind the desk and show them how!
The first few years were really hard but in the end the customers and industry accepted me. Once people had bought from me and experienced the service I provided they referred their friends and family to me. That's when things really improved, with referrals.
I loved the selling process. You can feel it when you are close to a sale - it was exciting. When I felt my hands go sweaty I knew I was nearly there! My husband looked after the mechanical side; I ran the place, doing everything else. I looked after the money and enjoyed it! I would order the caravans and then worry about where to put them and how to afford them. I used to take a stand at the Caravan Show. Once I sold a motor home at the caravan show for $18K. I had to buy it from Millard in advanced and I lost so much sleep hoping the deal would come through. I was so relieved when it was collected and paid for.
I travelled 300,000km around Victoria buying caravans in my red Nissan 300ZX, driving to places like Lakes Entrance, Johnsonville, Warburton and Echuca.
We didn't always make much money in caravan sales but with hard work we did make enough to live a great lifestyle, which included overseas travel. After we sold seven caravans in a month, we would make money after overheads. I had all the sales projections worked out, I just figured it out how to do it myself. I didn't always feel like doing it but I did it.
I had a great family business. My son spent a few years working in the business as did my niece Brigitte. Even my twin sister Sigrid helped out at the caravan show. I was in cars for five years and caravans for 22 years. I got out of it when I was 60 and then I worked at Caravan City in Croydon after we sold the yard for a couple of days a week because I missed it.
Today I think the industry is still male dominated. My advice to males in auto is to never talk down to a woman and assume they know nothing. These days customers expect a lot more, more services and more guarantees. I think it is a better industry today. When I started it was a young industry and still working itself out. I still don't see a lot of women in caravan sales. I would encourage women to do it, it's a great industry but they do need to be prepared to assert themselves and really show they have the knowledge."