A chance encounter at Singapore’s Changi Airport five years ago led Richard and Annie Downes to Victoria’s Yarra Valley, and establish an online business selling custom made motorcycles.
‘We were coming out to Australia on holiday and met a couple from Brisbane on the airport transfer bus,’ said Annie. ‘We had pretty much booked the whole trip but left four days free. So we asked them what we should do and they said, ‘get on a plane to Melbourne, drive out to the Yarra Valley and have lunch.’ And that’s what we did.’
‘It was so beautiful. It just felt like home. And later Richard said – referring to our life in England – ‘there has to be an easier way.’
The couple lived 40 km west of London and Richard travelled an hour-and-a-half each way to work as marketing manager for BMW.
‘There were a lot of meetings and car launches involving overseas travel. In the early days he loved it but it started to become a chore. We were also paying a fairly big mortgage, and I was working long hours as a masseur from home. We were both approaching 50 thinking is this all there is?’
When they arrived back from their holiday the couple started to look at what options were available to immigrate to Australia and found a migration agent through the internet. ‘Being over 45 our options were limited to business migration,’ said Richard. ‘But the great thing is it’s all very well laid out so you know exactly what’s open to you. There are no grey areas.’
A year later Richard and Annie came out to the Yarra Valley for a second time and rented a house to check whether their first impressions held true.
‘We didn’t stay in a hotel deliberately,’ said Richard. ‘We went to the supermarket, the bakery, spoke to the people living next door, and tried to live as normally as we could.’ They also travelled throughout the Yarra Valley and decided they wanted to live near the town of Yarra Glen if their visa application was successful.
‘It took us two years to complete the process,’ Richard recalled. ‘It’s not trivial. You have to want to do it. We were very fortunate that our migration agent was also a qualified accountant so when it came to doing the business plan, and understanding what the Australian and Victorian Governments were looking for, he could point us in the right direction.’
‘I think making sure you select the right migration agent and asking questions up front in terms of their experience is very important,’ said Richard.
Richard’s business, Heritage Motorcycles, is an extension of his life-long hobby and passion for custom made bikes. ‘For everyday use I go for a modern bike but for looks I prefer the lines, style and appeal of a classic.’
‘Then one day it occurred to me that I could combine the best of worlds, and have a classically styled bike with all of the design cues of the 50s and 60s, but with a modern engine. That way it would start on the button, have good brakes and not drip oil.’
Richard’s company is in the process of producing two motorcycle frame kits aimed at the Australian, US, European and Japanese markets. At present the company has three engineering contractors in Victoria, and one in England.
‘We’re making the kits to order here in Victoria, and providing bikes in various stages of completion from the frame kit and a set of nuts and bolts to a completed ‘turn key’ motorcycle,’ said Richard.
The company’s major marketing tool will be its website as well as direct marketing via the internet, which is one of Richard’s areas of expertise. ‘I think most of my customers will be enthusiasts who have an older bike but can’t really tolerate the maintenance it takes to keep on top of it.’
The business continues to evolve with Richard also moving into restoration of classic bikes and cars.
Thanks to Richard’s sound business plan the couple received their visas in late 2004 and soon after came out to the Yarra Valley to look for a place to live. They stayed at a B&B in Yarra Glen and have since become good friends with its owners, Anne and Ted.
‘They were so helpful,’ recalled Annie. ‘They went to the real estate agents with us, and suggested places for us to look at. At breakfast one morning, Ted popped his head round and asked us in for dinner and in a very short period of time we’ve become good friends.’
‘I think it’s the landscape that attracted us to this side of the Yarra Valley,’ said Richard. ‘It’s slightly hillier but still quite open, and Yarra Glen is a great village. It has all the shops you need on a day-to-day basis and it’s a real community centre.’
Annie believes the sense of community is one of region’s great strengths. ‘It really reminds me of growing up in the UK in the 1960s. People are very friendly without being nosey, and they support each other if they need it.’
Said Richard, ‘The attitude to life is different here – it’s just as professional as the UK but it’s more relaxed in the way people go about things. There’s less pretense.’
Initially the couple wanted to rent a house before buying but while staying at the B&B with Anne and Ted they found a modern home on a 45 acre property with panoramic bush views, and decided to take the plunge. They bought the property in November 2004 and moved to Victoria permanently in March 2005.
Another challenge they faced was finding a home for Annie’s mother, Joan, who decided to come to Australia with her daughter and son-in-law, rather than stay in England. ‘She now lives in her own unit in the centre of Yarra Glen and is very happy,’ said Annie.
‘We’ve also seen more shows and concerts here than we ever did in England. You get in the car and it’s a pleasant drive to Melbourne. You don’t wonder if you’re going to get delayed on the motorway, and when you get there you can park and it won’t cost the same as your mortgage.’
Annie is also taking on other new challenges. She recently completed a marriage celebrant course and is in the process of setting up a business with her friend Anne called Yarra Valley Vows.
‘Experiencing all of us this with Richard is an absolute gift. He is my favourite person in the world and I was hardly seeing him when we were in England. Just the other day we watched an echidna walking around outside of the house and then went out for a fabulous meal. It was gorgeous. That’s what life here is all about.’