Bob Martin Uses Gridiron Lessons to Run Thor
Running a company with annual sales over $3.2 billion and 8,300 employees may seem challenging. But, according to the report by Investors’ Business Daily, Bob Martin withstood an even greater challenge more than 20 years ago.
“There’s almost nothing in business that’s as hard as college football practice,” said Martin, 44, chief executive of recreational vehicle maker Thor Industries Inc. Martin played football for four years at Purdue University, and he says the grueling experience has shaped his leadership.
He recalls that football season began two weeks before classes started. The team sometimes practiced three times a day.
“It’s physically and mentally draining,” he said. “But it has helped me take in stressful situations in business. In football, you have to quickly assess obstacles or problems. Things change quickly. And being part of a team is how I manage at Thor — with a coaching, mentoring style.”
After graduating from college, Martin joined Coachmen Industries as a sales trainee and eventually moved to Keystone RV Co. He advanced through a series of jobs, from product manager to vice president of sales to COO to president of a Thor unit.
Given his broad experience in the industry, Martin can empathize with many of Thor’s workers. To coach his team, he often cites cases when he overcame adversity.
“I tell them I’ve been there through bad times and I’ve seen the other side,” he said.
In the late 1990s, for example, Cougar was a newly launched RV line with what Martin calls “early quality issues.” Assigned the job of turning around the struggling brand, Martin spent a year listening to customers, tightening quality control and paying close attention to detail. Cougar not only survived but also prospered, and it’s now a market leader.
A longtime RV lover, Martin can identify with Thor’s customers. He’s owned five motorhomes and he embraces the RV lifestyle. When he sent a photo of his motorhome to a manager, it wound up circulating among RV dealers.
“At our Dealer Open House, I had dealers come up to me and say, ‘I saw a picture of your Palazzo,’ ” Martin said. “Our (sales managers) would tell the dealers, ‘See this photo. Our CEO owns a Thor motor coach.’”
According to Investors’ Business Daily, Martin credits Thor’s success in large part to its decentralized structure. The Elkhart, Ind.-based firm consists of what Martin calls “eight different companies with eight different managers.”
The eight management teams compete to innovate and beat each other’s financial results. While Thor establishes controls and parameters for all its divisions, top executives at each unit exercise significant decision-making autonomy. Martin likes to say, “They can dent the ship but they can’t sink it.”
“Many people think we should centralize the company,” Martin said. “But when you homogenize everything, you lose your uniqueness.”