‘Future is Bright,’ Airstream’s Wheeler Reports
Airstream Inc.’s senior management presented a solid picture of business growth over the past year for the Jackson Center, Ohio-based division of Thor Industries Inc. during last week’s 2013 National Dealer Meeting in Reno, Nev. The company reported positive trends in terms of sales, inventories, retail turns, production hikes, dealer body growth, international sales and first-time buyer ratios along with a key new model debut on tap for later this year of the company’s highly publicized, high-end Land Yacht travel trailer.
First shown to dealers as a concept vehicle at last winter’s Louisville Show, the 28-foot Land Yacht, retailing for “just north of $140,000,” will go into production in August with most of the same interior touches originally developed by Airstream in conjunction with Italian yacht designer Mauro Micheli, best known for his work with Riva Yachts and Italian cabinet maker Technoform S.p.A.
“We’re very pleased with the results of the meeting – both the dealer council, which is more of a roundtable dialogue about a broad range of issues, and the general dealer meeting, which is an overall presentation of what’s happened in the last 12 months and what we expect to have in the next 12,” reported Airstream President and CEO Bob Wheeler of the May 15-17 event at Reno’s Peppermill Casino & Resort.
“We were very grateful to have our special guests – Phil Ingrassia from the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) and Craig Kirby from the Recreation vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) – and to hear their perspectives about the industry,” Wheeler told RVBUSINESS.com after the meeting. “All in all, I think our dealers got a lot out of it. We received many compliments about the quality of the meeting and the takeaways that the dealers had from what we presented. It was a great chance to reconnect with our dealers and to talk about different issues and maintain those partnerships that are so essential to our success.”
The meeting also included remarks from Bob Martin, president and COO of Elkhart-based Thor Industries Inc., plus presentations by Airstream’s Justin Humphreys, vice president of sales; Bruce Bannister, vice president of product development and engineering; Mollie Hansen, vice president of marketing; and Tim Garner, general manager of Touring Coaches.
Other highlights included:
• Airstream’s total dealer count is back to 78 globally – 68 in North America — for its travel trailer and Interstate Class B “Touring Coach” lines combined compared to a peak of about 90 in 2004-2006 and a recessionary low of about 50.
• Airstream’s retail turns today substantially exceed industry OEM averages, according to information provided to the company by floorplan lender GE Capital Solutions and presented at the meeting.
• Field inventories currently stand at fewer than 1,000 units, whereas, back in the benchmark years of 2006 and 2007, Airstream had almost 1,400 pieces in dealers’ showrooms. Given the current retail climate, however, Wheeler views that as a good thing. “Today, we’re under 1,000 (units) with greater velocity, greater turns, and we’re satisfied with that,” he said.
• In 2006, Wheeler noted, 18% of Airstream’s buyers were new to RVing. Today, nearly 50% of their buyers are first-time buyers.
• Corporate employment rosters today are at close to 335 workers versus 425 at the company’s modern peak and 160 in the pit of the global downturn. Airstream is currently in the process of hiring 50 to 60 people to keep pace with growing demand. “We can build more with 335 than we could with more than 400 previously because of process efficiencies that we’ve put in place,” said Wheeler. “I don’t expect to get back to 425 because we don’t need to. We can build a lot more with fewer people.”
• Among those employees, Airstream has experienced less than 1% turnover with 30% of its workers logging 20 years experience or greater.
According to Airstream management, the company has been on somewhat of a roll lately when looking at 2012’s pace of business versus 2011 as well as the first quarter of 2013. “We’ve had a fantastic run,” Wheeler told the crowd on Thursday (May 16) morning. “Overall, wholesale sales were up 21%, as were retails. So, on a year-over-year basis, it’s just been phenomenal for us. We’ve been rebuilding our dealer base very slowly and selectively. We lost a lot of really good dealers, so we’ve been very carefully and selectively adding the right dealers in the right markets.
“I think we’re approaching the (pre-recessionary) dealer count, and we’re very happy to see most of those faces here today,” said Wheeler. “By acclimating to the new normal, we’ve been able to survive and thrive and position ourselves for future growth. Today, we’re a leaner and more nimble company than we were before the recession. And, internally, we’ve made a lot quality and process improvements. We’ve really streamlined our operations to support the growth that we’ve seen and that we expect to see in the future.”
Airstream, Thor’s first acquisition back in 1980 when the late Wade Thompson and current Chairman Peter Orthwein first formed the company, also continues to expand into foreign markets like China, South Korea and Australia.
“So, why does it matter to you folks in North America?,” Wheeler asked the dealers. “Our strength globally helps make us a stronger company. It helps us offset downturns in the economy and production here in the U.S. and also helps with seasonal fluctuations. The more we can maintain our work force, the more we can maintain steady production across the year. So, we’re very proud of the fact that this little brand called Airstream from near Dayton, Ohio, has power in Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and Sydney. It’s a global brand and we’re just starting now to take advantage of that.”
“The future is very bright,” said Wheeler. “I’m so happy to be able to stand up here and say that the best years of this company are ahead of it, and that creates a tremendous sense of optimism among everyone who works at Airstream. I hope you get that same sense here today.”
In addition to honoring 25-year Airstream sales exec Tom Parnell upon his retirement, the following travel trailer sales volume leaders (in order) were recognized in Reno: Colonial Airstream, Lakewood, N.J.; Airstream Adventures Northwest, Covington, Wash.; Airstream Adventures Northwest, Gladstone, Ore., Airstream Los Angeles, San Gabriel, Calif.; Windish RV Center, Lakewood, Colo.; Toscano Recreation, Los Bano, Calif.; Camper Clinic II, Buda, Texas; Bates RV, Dover, Fla.; George M Sutton RV, Eugene, Ore.; Airstream Adventures Northwest, Nampa, Idaho. Touring Coach (Interstate Class B) sales leaders were Colonial Airstream; Camper Clinic II; Bates RV; Dave Arbogast RV, Troy, Ohio; Vogt Motor Home Center, Fort Worth, Texas; Schumacher European, Scottsdale, Ariz.; Airstream Adventures Northwest; Crain RV Supercenter, Little Rock, Ark.; Airstream of Chicago, Joliet, Ill.; Wagon Trail RV, Las Vegas. (There was a tie for 4th and a 4-way tie for 7th).
The “Top Service Dealerships” were Colonial Airstream and Woodland Travel Center, Grand Rapids, Mich., and the “Top Parts Dealer” was Out of Doors Mart in Colfax, N.C.