Editor’s note: This article was modified at the company’s request to note that Winnebago signed a lease for the open house property that was longer than one year, but shorter than the “long-term” description included in the original story.
By Greg Gerber
ELKHART – Michael Happe, the president and CEO of Winnebago Industries, painted a very positive image of his company during last week’s Dealer Open House in Elkhart.
The Winnebago staff was in a new, permanent location that offered room for indoor and outdoor displays. After signing a lease for the property after last year’s open house, Happe is confident that Winnebago will become the third major anchor location during open house week.
“This just increases our presence at open house and we’re very excited to be able to participate,” he told RV Daily Report. “We had two locations this year, this one on County Road 6 that is home to the Winnebago brand, and another location near the RV/MH Hall of Fame where Grand Design was introducing its new products.”
In the past, the Iowa RV manufacturer’s participation in the Elkhart event has been sporadic considering the firm didn’t have much of a presence near the city. All that changed in recent years with the acquisition of Grand Design and the launch of a manufacturing facility for towables in Middlebury, Ind.
Happe predicted the new facility will become an open house destination for dealers visiting the city on their annual trek to order new product for the following year.
“We have an area for outdoor engagement in a natural setting, but also have a climate controlled indoor location in case the weather is rainy or cold,” he explained, noting that dealers apparently liked the move as well because traffic was heavy the first two days of the event.
It could also be that dealers were excited to see the new product offered by Winnebago this year. The firm has worked hard to rebrand its towable line around the Minnie brand. Minnie is already well known in the market and the team saw an opportunity to reduce brand confusion and reinforce a positive impression of the company by creating a Minnie family of products.
As a result, the firm reduced its towable offering to four lines:
- Minnie Drop, a 17- to 19-foot teardrop travel trailer
- Micro Minnie, a 17- to 22-foot travel trailer
- Minnie, a 22- to 25-foot travel trailer
- Minnie Plus, a 26-30-foot travel trailer or a 25- to 27-foot fifth wheel
The Minnie Plus fifth wheel was introduced at the show. All the trailers feature Winnebago’s signature eight colors ranging from white, platinum, champagne and Hunter brown to orange, blue, yellow and cherry.
“The past one and a half years we have focused on the travel trailer side to deliver value and an excellent product to our dealers and end users,” said Happe. “What we displayed at open house was the culmination of an intentional effort to expand the depth and breadth of our product line.”
It’s a strategy he said will help the firm compete in all segments of the industry, especially in towables, where Happe sees tremendous potential for those types of RVs. It is a segment Winnebago sees as being very important financially and strategically for the company.
“In the past, RVers had to spend $100,000 to get a Winnebago branded motorhome. Today, we want them to have a similar experience with our high-quality products, but at a price that is more affordable for many families,” he explained. “Our plan is to help them graduate from a $20,000 travel trailer into a $500,000 motorhome by making Winnebago a flagship brand for the customer’s entire life.”
By enticing people into the brand at a lower price point, Happe is confident the strategy will set up the firm’s motorhome business for long-term success as well.
A dramatically different company
“We are a dramatically different company than we were one year ago,” Happe boasted.
The acquisition of Grand Design just before the 2016 Elkhart Dealer Open House shocked the industry, but Happe said it was the right move for Winnebago.
“I could not be more proud of how our business performance is taking shape in the market today,” he explained, adding the firm is expecting double digit growth to continue, especially with Grand Design.
“The leaders are intact and we have hundreds of new employees,” said Happe. “Grand Design will become a full-line brand in the future.”
In fact, he is so confident in the leadership of Grand Design, Happe said he will not put any limits on where that team can take their business.
“Grand Design has the potential to build an even stronger, more significant business in just a few years,” he added. “Our business model really works. We have two great brands. We mothballed the Itasca brand and we’re no longer cloning motorhomes.
“Add in creating a strong towable business with the Winnebago and Grand Design brands, and we can deliver a one-two punch to the industry and the market,” said Happe. “We have an opportunity to feed off the synergy and share best practices among our companies.”
Happe doesn’t see a problem with Grand Design towables competing head-to-head with Winnebago towables because the firms target different types of owners. It also allows the firms to learn from each other as to what works in the market so both companies can place greater emphasis on building from that platform.
He’s pleased with the executive team that is in place and he’s confident in their ability to move the company forward. The team is contemplating some new inside and outside ideas and developing strategies to implement them in 2018.
“We have a lot of talented people who will be instrumental in restoring greatness to an iconic brand,” he explained.
Happe has been successful in recruiting key leaders from other industries, a move he says will give Winnebago a broader perspective on the future and serve as a catalyst for change to fine-tune the organization. Although Happe’s office is located in Minneapolis, he makes frequent trips to all the factory locations, which now includes eight campuses in four states.
“The goal of our management team is to give craftsmen the best tools to work smartly, safely and productively,” he explained.