Focus on hard work is what led Randy Potts from his roots in Waterloo to his new position as president of Winnebago Industries Inc.
And, he said, it’s that same focus that will continue to lead the iconic motorhome manufacturer out of a financial funk that first gripped the RV industry two years ago and forced some major cutbacks, the Waterloo Cedar Falls (Iowa) Courier reported.
“I’ve always tried to stay focused,” Potts said. “Early in my career, I always tried to stay in the technical side of the manufacturing environment. I love the manufacturing environment. I enjoy it to this day.”
Now, he’ll have a chance to focus on wider responsibilities.
Potts, 52, a 1977 graduate of Waterloo West High School and son of Larry and Eunice Potts, who still reside in Waterloo, was elected Forest City-based Winnebago’s president Jan. 18 by the company’s board of directors.
Potts is the second Waterloo native in recent years to head up the company, which employs more than 2,000 workers in Forest City and Charles City. Waterloo’s Ed Barker had served as company president until his retirement in 2007. Potts follows Osage native Bob Olson as president. Olson stepped down in order to concentrate on his responsibilities as chairman and CEOat Winnebago.
“It’s kind of a strange coincidence,” he said of the Waterloo heritage developed in Winnebago’s president’s chair. “I talk to him about our Waterloo roots.”
Skills developed in hometown
Potts honed his manufacturing skills around Waterloo even before his graduation from Hawkeye Institute of Technology — now Hawkeye Community College. He started with Schultz Manufacturing in Waterloo, and then took his skills into a senior tool designer position at Black Hawk Engineering, which numbered Deere & Co. among its clients.
It was his experience at the latter company that first exposed him to Winnebago, he said.
“What brought me here was tough times in Waterloo, the farm crisis of the early 1980s,” he said. “I was working for Black Hawk Engineering, and the farm crisis had put hard times on John Deere. Times were tough and, consequently, things were very slow at Black Hawk Engineering.”
The Waterloo company dispatched Potts to Winnebago on temporary assignment as a tool designer.
“I was really impressed with Winnebago and the town of Forest City. I saw a lot of opportunity here, so I pursued a full-time position.”
He landed a full-time job at Winnebago in 1988 as senior tool designer and never looked back. Since joining the company, he has filled various engineering and management positions. In 2006, Potts was appointed vice president of manufacturing and, in November 2009, he was promoted to senior vice president for strategic planning, responsible for new business development for the company.
“Randy has a great working knowledge of the company and its operations, having worked in senior management positions within Winnebago Industries for over a decade,” Olson said in a news release.
A more diverse company
Olson credited Potts with guiding Winnebago’s recent move toward diversification, which led to formation of a new Winnebago of Indiana LLC subsidiary, which will build SunnyBrook and Winnebago brand towable products.
Moving up in the company has given Potts a chance to take a wider view of its mission, he said.
“When I became vice president of manufacturing, that’s when I had to look at things more globally and take a broader view than just a technical side,” he said. “That was a good step to where I am now. I’ve been challenged over many years to look at the company as a whole, look at it from big picture, and that’s where I am now as president.”
Potts also has had to help the company work through tough times. When fuel prices spiked in 2008 and the recession first swept through the area, it hit the RV industry particularly hard, according to industry analysts. Winnebago was forced to cut back, closing one of its plants in Charles City and laying off hundreds of workers both in Charles City and Forest City. In Charles City alone, the company trimmed its work force from about 400-500 to about 135.
“The entire RV industry in the financial crisis really saw unprecedented declines,” Potts said. “Our company, through Bob Olson’s leadership, had to do a lot of very tough things to endure that. They’re tough but necessary. So I think it’s a testament to Bob’s leadership and the entire company that here we are today, having survived the toughest times in the history of the company and now in a position where we’re already displaying profitability.”
The company has remained debt-free, Potts noted.
“Our strategy going forward, of course, is one of rebuilding,” he said. “The market is still quite soft, but it’s coming back. We want to make sure that we have fresh products out there, that we have very appealing products and that our brand is stronger than ever.”
Stock on rebound
After hitting its five-year peak at $35.08 in November 2006, Winnebago shares began to slide, eventually bottoming out at $3.23 per share in March 2009. The stock started to climb slowly, reaching its 2010 high at $17.43. Shares have been trading in the $15 range of late, showing an air of stability that was notably absent during the down years, Potts said.
One reason is that the company doesn’t build an inventory it doesn’t know it will sell, he said.
“We’re an order-driven company and essentially don’t build to speculation, and that’s part of the reason we’ve managed to stay healthy,” he said. “That’s a requirement in the modern manufacturing environment.”
As orders pick up, hiring will increase, Potts said.
“So, as the orders for our product pick up, we’ll staff accordingly,” he said. “We have fortunately been able to increase our production staffing as things have improved and essentially maintained our salaried staffing levels. We just have to be vigilant and stay appropriately staffed to the market conditions and, hopefully, that market will continue to improve.”
Potts and wife Pam, also a West graduate, have two sons — Andrew, 27, and Landon, 22.