Winnebago Industries Inc. will call its new Winnebago of Indiana LLC towable subsidiary in Middlebury, Ind., ”Winnebago Industries Towables” following its December purchase of SunnyBrook RV Manufacturing Inc.
The SunnyBrook name will continue as a Winnebago Industries Towable brand.
”SunnyBrook RV is now ‘Winnebago Industries Towables,”’ a Winnebago spokesman said Monday (March 29). ”This is a subsidiary of Winnebago Industries and will operate as such. Under Winnebago Industries Towables, we will continue to produce the SunnyBrook line of towable RVs and also introduce a new line of Winnebago brand towable RVs.”
Winnebago purchased SunnyBrook for $5.7 million in cash while retaining SunnyBrook founder and President Elvie Frey as the subsidiary’s president.
The company anticipates establishing Winnebago as a major towable brand that will complement its motorized lineup. ”The Winnebago brand is very strong, not only the product, but the services that we offer,” said Winnebago President Randy Potts, vice president of strategic planning before being promoted to president in January. ”We think that brand philosophy will carry over into towables where we are going to parallel our success in motorized.”
Potts said that Winnebago Industries Towables will operate independently from its parent company.
Frey reported that Winnebago travel trailers will be in production by July, and will be offered first to existing Winnebago motorized dealers.
”We will be starting out with travel trailers,” said Frey, whose northern Indiana company was the 13th largest towable maker last year. ”That will be our immediate focus. Fifth-wheels are part of the plan for the future.”
Initially, Winnebago Industries Towables products will be aimed at the ”sweet spot” of the travel trailer range in lengths of 28 to 32 feet, Frey said, declining to discuss specifics. ”We already are working on prints and putting together floorplans,” he reported ”From there, we will just keep branching out.”
Winnebago last built a towable RV in 1981.
”We were founded as a towable manufacturer and we went back and forth a couple of times,” Potts said. ”Every time we went into the towable business, it was a copy of how we had done it before.
”In the strategic planning process, I looked at all the things that I thought led us to fail in the towable markets previously. That’s the reason this attempt is so different than when we’ve been in the towable market before. It’s an acquisition, and SunnyBrook is a smaller company with experience and in good standing with the RV community.”
Acquiring a smaller company based in Indiana made sense from several standpoints, particularly during the financial environment of the last couple of years, Potts said.
”All of the strategic planning was going on at a time of a lot of uncertainty in the RV industry, and we were holding onto our money pretty tightly,” he said. ”I didn’t think there would be an appetite (on Winnebago’s board) to buy into a larger company. With a small acquisition, there would be less risk.”
Admirers of all things RV can fill that particular thrill in Elkhart County, Ind., where more than 20 RV manufacturers offer factory tours.
Elkhart County is the recreational vehicle capital of the world with one of every two RVs being made in that county, according to amishcountry.org.
Fascinated by how things are made, I love factory tours, so I chose three for Best-Ever Friend Dave and me to visit. Dave owned a Winnebago 30 years ago so he was interested to see how things had changed.
First stop: Renegade RV, 52216 State Road 15 in Bristol, a 14-year-old company founded by Chuck McKibbin for the auto racing industry. Here, sales manager Danny Lagunas ushered us onto the factory floor where employees were working on several custom units. The smallest unit they build is about 32 feet, Danny said. Most of their vehicles are made for people who have owned several RVs and now want to design one to their own specifications.
We climbed up into these huge RVs to see the work in progress. We saw granite countertops, flat-screen TVs ready for installation — even one on the outside of the vehicle — granite floors, space-efficient layouts and unique storage solutions. Impressive!
Second stop: Jayco, 903 S. Main St. in Middlebury. You can’t miss Jayco because you’ll see hundreds of white travel-trailers in the factory lot.
But watch carefully for the Visitors Center sign. Inside the center, a renovated 1880s farmhouse, John MacDonald, marketing services manager, invited us to look around the center or to go outside and look at the vehicles on display while we waited for our noon tour. We did both.
A video told us about founders Lloyd and Bertha Bontrager, who started the company in a chicken coop in 1968. They quickly outgrew that and are now the largest privately owned RV manufacturer.
Judy Swihart, visitors center coordinator, took us in a trolley back to the building where they make about 11 fifth-wheels per day.
Then we went to the cavernous and fascinating sewing room. We watched a machine quilting two yards of material every 45 seconds. The material is used for bedspreads and pillow shams.
We watched as employee Deb Lafary filled a pillow cover with a foam cushion. If you’ve done that, you know it can be challenging. But not at Jayco.
Deb placed the foam cushion on a vacuum machine, covered it with plastic, turned the machine on and, instantly, it shrank. She popped it inside the covering and, in a nano-second, it re-inflated and filled the covering.
After Jayco, we had lunch at Village Inn, 107 S. Main St. in Middlebury. This is where locals gather to talk about the weather, a hot topic this winter. So we chose comfort food: cups of sweet, tomatoey chili; creamy and tender chicken and noodles; and homemade pie for dessert, pecan for me, cherry for Dave.
Our final stop was SunnyBrook RV, 201 14th St., Middlebury, which just last December became Winnebago of Indiana LLC. Jeff Baker, sales representative, took us and a group of insurance agents on the tour, explaining the manufacturing process from the naked chassis stage to the finished product, whether a fifth-wheel or a travel-trailer.
With the insurance agents asking questions, Jeff told us all the things RV manufacturers do to avoid problems for the consumers. We learned about glues, insulation, windows, awnings and the craftsmanship.
Most impressive for me was the outdoor kitchen on one of the vehicles. You pop up the cover to find a tiny sink, refrigerator and stove.
This day of “RVs Unwrapped” is a great way to learn about RVs before purchasing one or just to be impressed with manufacturing innovations. It also answered my ever-present question: “How do they do that?”
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.