The following is an article from the Des Moines (Iowa) Register offering a Q&A with Randy Potts, newly appointed CEO for Winnebago Industries Inc., as President Barack Obama plans to visit Iowa Tuesday (June 28).
Winnebago Industries, the Forest City manufacturer of recreational vehicles, has escaped one of the worst recessions in history and is on the hunt for new opportunities.
Leading the charge is CEO Randy Potts, 52, an Iowa native who has worked in manufacturing since graduating from Hawkeye Institute of Technology in Waterloo.
Potts follows Bob Olson, who remains the board chairman. Potts has spent nearly 28 years at the northern Iowa motor home manufacturing plant, working his way up from a senior tool designer to vice president of manufacturing to president in January and CEO last week.
Potts talked with the Des Moines Register as the White House announced President Barack Obama would visit Iowa on Tuesday to discuss the future of manufacturing.
Q. What would you like President Obama to do to help the manufacturing industry?
A. There’s only so much the government can do. A lot of regulatory, trade changes would help, but I’m not going to nitpick. Getting this country back on track is what matters. …
It’s saddening to see how many manufacturing jobs this country has lost. But with globalization of economies, the world is a much smaller place. Manufacturing jobs that involve a lot of labor, especially unskilled labor, will just keep going to cheaper sources. There’s nothing our government can do about that. Protectionism has failed. We all have to learn how to adapt in a changing world.
Q. What are important economic factors for Winnebago? Is it jobs, retirement funds?
A. It’s a multitude of factors. Just like the housing bubble, there was a bubble in the RV industry. … The industry has a long history of working on either side of normal, but sales spiked to 70,000 units in 2004. Looking back, the RV industry was overbuilding. Once the economy came undone, sales plummeted. The consumer base went from 70,000 to 20,000. But the dealer network was stocked with inventory for that higher sales level. Manufacturing was stacked up for the higher sales level. It took a long time to work itself out.
A lot of people ask when we’ll get back to normal, but we don’t know. We simply don’t know. Nobody knows.
We’ll continue to gain market share. We’ll take business away from our competition. But it’s a bigger piece of a smaller pie.
We need to look for long-term sources of revenue. The towable trailer manufacturer we purchased in Indiana (SunnyBrook RV) is a good sampling of what we have an appetite for.
Q. Will you look at buying more RV manufacturers?
A. It’s easier to create strategy around (purchasing a company like SunnyBrook), but there are other competencies that Winnebago has that would lend itself to other businesses.
We already do a lot of business out of CAPCO (Creative Aluminum Products Co., a Winnebago subsidiary in Forest City that makes aluminum framework for doors, windows and other products). … Another form of diversity is finding ways to sell excess capacity. We extrude aluminum, mold plastic, sew furniture. … It has to align with our core competencies.
Q. You said purchasing SunnyBrook has benefited both companies. How?
A. SunnyBrook RV was our first major acquisition, and our team did a very good job.
We brought a lot of things to the plate that will make that company, in its location and with its people, more prosperous than it’s ever been.
We could lend to it immediately the capital it needed to reinvigorate the brand in a stronger market. … And in a matter of months, we will introduce a Winnebago travel trailer. Winnebago has not produced a travel trailer in 30 years and we’re really excited about this. We have 200 dealers, and we’re confident a large portion will carry a new travel trailer. It’s got to be right. And we’ve done a lot of research.
SunnyBrook’s core values aligned with Winnebago. If that wasn’t the case, we would have walked away. We’re not interested in an acquisition where we’re fixing someone’s bad reputation.
Q. Will workers, analysts, others who follow Winnebago see a big change between your leadership and Bob Olson’s?
A. Bob was faced with a bottom falling out. He dealt with that very well. Many competitors went bankrupt. We survived and are strong. I’m looking ahead at a different chapter. We’re figuring out where we’re going to be in five years.
What we have to do now is more strategic. … Winnebago is over 50 years old. The culture of this company, the product, quality, everything about this company has taken years to evolve. We can’t be reckless. We have to be very careful.