2021 Indiana 100: Know-how, youthful clients are key to RV maker’s development
President and CEO
You can’t blame Thor Industries CEO Bob Martin for kicking back in one of the many recreational vehicles his company sells.
With his Elkhart-based company’s products launching at breakneck speed and the company’s recent quarterly sales at record levels, you’d think Martin could get it into cruise control.
But the 6-foot, 6-inch former Purdue University offensive lineman doesn’t play that kind of game. Instead, the Boilermaker graduate storms inward of the field like he’s six down and on a two-minute exercise.
His approach is not surprising to those who know him. Martin, 51, started his career 26 years ago with an entry-level job at Coachman RV and worked his way up rapidly.
Now he’s the boss of one of Indiana’s largest publicly traded companies, and instead of resting on his laurels, he’s creating technology-centric leadership positions at his company – with former Whirlpool Corp. CEO Josef Hjelmaker recently hired as Thor’s first chief innovation officer who wants to make great technological advances in Thor’s products, attracting a new generation of RV users in the process.
(Photo by Charles Jischke, courtesy Thor)
Thor currently has tremendous demand for its products. What do you attribute that to?
People forget that we had a very good start to 2020. We just see more people coming into the industry.
As the RV lifestyle becomes more popular with the younger population, we have continued to do well. The development of the product fits very well with the younger demographic that we are seeing.
The technology really appeals to younger buyers: features such as 4G WiFi antennas and cell phone boosters, electronic ones [tablet-like] Controllers, Smart TVs, and Multiple TVs. Today’s RVs simply have the technology that will appeal to younger buyers.
We also use things like custom-made interiors, high-quality closets and many other conveniences. Many of these functions do not only appeal to the younger population group. As we look at this year, it was up all year. Revenue was over $ 3 billion in the last quarter. Last year, [total] Sales were around $ 8 billion.
Did Thor get a boost from the pandemic?
We definitely did. People didn’t stay in hotels, take cruises, or go overseas. It was a 20% increase – probably not as big as people think.
Many of our existing customers have opted for a trade-up. We have had some new buyers who may not have quite found the right one with a tight inventory and have already come back to trade in one that better suits their lifestyle and family needs.
Now this is not a pandemic thing. We were able to attract younger people who developed the interest. The sooner we can get people down the funnel, the better for long-term business.
Thor recently created a new leadership position, the Chief Innovation Officer; Why is this an important role for the company?
Our leadership team has done a great job with the technology, but we have bigger things ahead of us. There are options that we need to pursue – everything right down to an electric vehicle that could even be autonomous. The dream of every motorhome is to enter an address, go to sleep and wake up in the campsite. There may still be a long way to go, but we want to keep pace and be ahead of everything that is to come.
There are also some things in the RVs themselves. There are more electronic features that we are adding every day.
There are many options for Joseph [the new chief innovation officer] focus on technological advancement. He has the background and expertise in automotive technology from Whirlpool where he has worked on connected devices. We see a great advantage in having many of these functions in our motorhomes.
Why was Josef Hjelmaker a good fit for this new role?
He has a lot of experience on both the product development side and the operations side. He has automotive experience from Delphi [Electronics & Safety]. He is from Sweden and speaks German and we have six companies in Germany. He worked on consumer products and a lot of his latest tech work was on connectivity, and that’s something we’re interested in. We see more and more opportunities in this.
His personality and values really suit this company. He’s very, very smart. He has increased the IQ of the office enormously. And his life and his passion is traveling.
He took one of our units, our new prototype, with him and is currently in the Smokey Mountains. He really brings the knowledge and passion for what we do together.
While at Whirlpool, Josef focused on smart and connected devices. Is that important to Thor?
We’ve been dealing with this for a couple of years, but Josef will take it to another level with his experience and background.
Many people use Thor’s products to get away and connect with nature. How can technology connect people with nature?
Even when I go on vacation, I take at least 30 minutes a day to work on my emails. If not, I’ll be lost in email when I get back. I’m not alone. With technology, people disconnect during the day, but it’s good to get caught at night. I probably wouldn’t sleep as well if I wasn’t a little connected and catching up.
And it also enables you to watch your TV show or a movie. You can go to some very remote places and be one with nature, but at the same time, being connected isn’t a terrible thing.
Do you expect some announcements in the coming months or years of Thor’s plans for technology initiatives or advancements for the company’s products?
Several projects will be showcased this fall, some of which are very fun and make significant technological advances.
Thor just announced a partnership with the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable to form the Together Outdoors Coalition, which is focused on making the outdoors more welcoming and inclusive. Why is this an important initiative?
We must be fully inclusive for everyone. RVing is something that everyone can enjoy. With all the changes over the past year, everyone is really looking outside and connecting with nature. And we want to reach out to everyone to welcome everyone.
When I visit campsites, they are very hospitable and we want to reflect that. This feels perfect after a pandemic with lots of social unrest last year. •
Check out more of IBJ’s ranking from. at Indy’s Fastest Growing Company.