Q&A with Dutchmen RV’s Don Clark
Don Clark doesn’t skip a beat when asked what’s changed at Dutchmen RV in the past two years.
“There’s a renewed sense of life within these walls. People are now walking with a bounce in their step,” he says. “There’s just a sense of winning.”
As president of Dutchmen since April 2009, Clark has steered the venerable RV manufacturer through a dramatic restructuring that reduced its number of brands from 25 to just seven. Clark explains that, when the overall market went through a dramatic decline, it was vital that the RV maker eliminate niche products and focus on major segments where it knew it could be successful.
Photos courtesy of Dutchmen RV
It was a big gamble, but one that has paid off nicely for Dutchmen. Year-to-date, retail sales are up double digits and dealer purchases are up more than 30 percent compared to the same time last year – even though the RV maker now offers less than half the number of brands compared to last year. And Clark adds that the manufacturer is winning back many key dealers it lost in recent years in part because they approve of the company’s new direction.
Now Dutchmen is taking another big gamble: The company primarily known as a travel trailer manufacturer is ramping up its presence in the mid-profile and highline fifth wheel market. There are risks involved, but Clark sees the market segment as holding tremendous potential for Dutchmen.
In a recent interview with RV PRO, Clark talked at length about Dutchmen’s changing product mix, its focus on becoming a true nationwide RV manufacturer, and his expectations for Dutchmen and the larger industry in 2011.
RV PRO: You shook up Dutchmen after taking the helm in 2009 by significantly reducing product offerings. What’s your take on how that played out for the company?
Clark: We dropped a lot of brands, which always carries a level of risk. You lose volume when you drop brands – even if they’re insignificant players in the marketplace – they still add consolidated volume.
We knew that in the short-term we were going to take a hit in volume and change how we did business. We became lean and mean.
If you remember, two years ago when we began our restructuring, dealers were also streamlining their businesses. Dealers thinned down their own product offering and in many instances reduced the number of manufacturers they did business with in order to survive the downturn.
Dealers understood what we were trying to do, and understood that in the long run we were going to be a better partner. So they were supportive.
RV PRO: After scaling back to seven brands in 2009, Dutchmen has since added four additional models. What criteria did you employ when choosing to add brands?
Dutchmen RV’s leaders review schematics of the company’s new offerings. Pictured are (left-to-right): Steve Paul, vice president and general manager for Dutchmen and Aerolite; Ryan Thwaits, general manager for Kodiak and Aspen Trail; Clark; Nate Goldenberg, general manager for Denali, Voltage and Rubicon; and Rob Groover, general manager for Komfort and Infinity.
Clark: We knew we were only going to attack major segments in our industry. Previously, we had multiple entries in products that made up approximately 2 percent of the RV market. We’re not interested in playing in those very remote segments anymore.
We want to stay within the major segments of the market – the segments that really the dealers are focusing on and that are the larger profit centers for our dealers. … That was one major criteria.
Another criteria was: If we couldn’t be a dominant player we didn’t want to be involved. We didn’t just want to be a ‘me-too’ player; we didn’t want to have so-so brands in the industry.
RV PRO: Given the company’s long association with travel trailers, why has Dutchmen focused much of its recent efforts on the fifth wheel market segment?
Clark: Since its inception in 1988, Dutchmen has been known as a travel trailer company. In the past, 80-plus percent of Dutchmen sales have been in the travel trailer segment.
This left us with a huge sea of opportunity within the fifth wheel market. The fifth wheel market is a very healthy market, a very strong market in our industry. So, we have been very diligent in attacking the fifth wheel market.
And I can now state that with these new fifth wheel brands Dutchmen has by far the strongest fifth wheel lineup in our company’s 22-year history. And, best of all, we’ve stayed true to our ‘no clone’ philosophy.
RV PRO: Some might wonder why aggressively pursue the fifth wheel market now, given rising gas prices and the potential for renewed consumer interest in more fuel-efficient vehicles not suited for towing larger fifth wheels. Is that something you take into account?
Clark: We all face challenges with fuel prices as well as uncertainty with our economy. However, fifth wheel sales continue to be consistent. Most RV enthusiasts are not going to abandon the RV lifestyle just because fuel prices have risen. I don’t see many fifth wheel customers trading in their 37-foot luxury high-profile fifth wheel on an ultra-lightweight travel trailer just to save on fuel. They may stay closer to home, or adjust their usage, but they’re not going to abandon the lifestyle.
Dutchmen RV sees tremendous promise for its Voltage fifth wheel toy hauler, not only from off-road enthusiasts, but also from those who appreciate the extra living space it affords.
RV PRO: If you would, talk a bit about the Voltage, Dutchmen’s new highline fifth wheel toy hauler. Why did you choose to focus on this particular market segment?
Clark: In years past, the luxury toy hauler fifth wheel was a very small segment of the marketplace. Luxury toy haulers have dramatically grown in importance in today’s market. …
Today, toy hauler fifth wheels don’t just attract the off-road enthusiast; it’s become more of a mainstream player. Customers want the freedom to utilize their space to best meet their individual needs. They’re not just putting rail buggies and quads in it; they’re using it as additional living space and remodeling it however they want to.
With the Voltage product, we didn’t just develop a ‘me-too’ product – we took a risk. We developed a product that was a bit more money than the normal luxury toy hauler, but we developed it with a lot more features and added a rich, luxurious residential feel.
And frankly, it’s been a huge winner for our company and it’s been a great winner for our dealers. Since the Voltage has been introduced, according to Statistical Surveys, the Voltage is the only luxury fifth wheel toy hauler to achieve the Top 25 fifth wheel plateau in just three short months after its introduction. Voltage is beginning to dominate its segment in retail sales after the spring shows.
RV PRO: Some of your competitors market their toy haulers to specific market segments, such as the West Coast market or the Midwest and East Coast markets. Is this product targeted to any particular market?
Clark: It’s a great question. We didn’t market it toward any one region. We didn’t want to regionalize; when you regionalize something you hit a smaller niche and you’re developing a product for just a sliver of the market. …
We went out to the industry and we did a lot of research. We talked to the retail consumers. We did not rush the product to the market and strategically carved out our niche that addressed a strong buyer group. We knew we were playing in the upper end of the current price point and needed to give the consumer something special.
But with that, it’s all value for the dollar. With that, we were going to include things that no one else in the industry offered in a toy hauler. What we came up with in the Voltage appeals nationally. It appeals to the industry as a whole.
Dutchmen RV has high hopes for its new luxury Infinity fifth wheel. The product features a crowned roof, radius walls inside the coach, a Quiet Zone ventilation system and a walk-in closet in the bedroom.
RV PRO: Dutchmen also is about to make a splash with its new Infinity luxury fifth wheel. Why enter that segment of the market now?
Clark: Well, it was a huge void for our company. We were missing that luxury, full-timer coach. Luxury high-profile fifth wheels have grown to be a major segment in the fifth wheel marketplace. We didn’t have anything for our customers to trade up to without leaving the Dutchmen family.
RV PRO: It seems like plenty of manufacturers have jumped into the fifth wheel market lately. What do you feel makes your coach unique?
Clark: Distinctive features on the Infinity include an arched interior bedroom roof. When manufacturers incorporate an arched interior ceiling, they typically eliminate the ability to incorporate radius interior walls that appeal to today’s customers.
Infinity pioneered a process that allows us to do radius interior walls inside the coach area, which adds great appeal and flow to the floorplan. However, in the bedroom we’ve crowned the interior ceiling, adding 5 inches of additional headroom. Most competitors only have 6 feet, 3 inches, of bedroom headroom; Infinity offers 6 feet, 8 inches.
Another great Infinity exclusive feature is the “Quite Zone” ventilation system, which eliminates dumping cold air directly on the customer when they sleep and the irritating noise of an air conditioner above a bed.
RV PRO: Dutchmen has competed in the highline fifth wheel market previously. Why do you believe you will be successful this time around?
Clark: We didn’t just throw it against the wall to see if it stuck. This was something that we were very strategic about; we had careful planning. We recruited people that have expertise and previous successes in these segments. … We approached it in a very focused manner, with a dedicated product development and sales team.
It’s all about value for the dollar. In today’s market, if you can be unique and memorable and show that you’re giving superior value for the dollar, you’re going to win and attract these major dealers in the marketplace.
RV PRO: Is there any concern that this foray into the highline fifth wheel market puts you on a collision course with Redwood RV, which was formed by parent company Thor specifically to appeal customers seeking a premium fifth wheel?
Clark: No. Redwood is a fine product. While it also addresses the four-season coach, Infinity is positioned at the lower price point of the full-timer’s segment. The two brands are sure to compete; however, I am confident both brands will get their fair share.
RV PRO: You’ve also updated some of your existing brands, correct?
Clark: We’ve newly revitalized the Denali mid-profile fifth wheel. It’s a much more advanced mid-profile fifth wheel with great interior and exterior enhancements and it’s just now being introduced to the market.
At the Louisville RV Show in December, we introduced the Komfort high-profile fifth wheel, which has a contemporary interior and comes standard with a really unique front cap. It’s our entry into the gray fifth wheel business – a different colored fifth wheel instead of the traditional white.
Most high profile fifth wheels are very traditional in design. Komfort interiors are somewhat contemporary, but not so far to the left to keep it from appealing to the masses. It is a very distinctive, memorable coach that has a look unlike no other in the market.
So, with our lineup of Denali hitting the lighter-weight, mid-profile market; the Komfort attacking the contemporary high-profile market; the Infinity addressing the luxury fifth wheel market; and the Voltage attacking the luxury toy hauler market, you don’t have to look too hard to see that Dutchmen is serious about being a major player in the fifth wheel market.
RV PRO: Besides new products, are there other notable developments at Dutchmen in the past two years?
Clark: Probably what’s notable is our migration to the West Coast. … Now, with Komfort being under Dutchmen’s umbrella, we can begin to maximize the efficiency of our Clackamas, Ore., Komfort facility. This location now produces both our Komfort brand and our Denali products, which gives our western dealers a competitive edge out west.
RV PRO: You’ve described yourself as a “product guy.” How does that play out in terms of the overall success of Dutchmen?
Clark: One thing that I want to make very clear is that the growing success of our brands and Dutchmen as a company isn’t because of one person. I’m a product guy, but there’s no way that one person can focus on all of the different segments of our industry.
I am truly blessed to have what I think to be some of the most talented product people in our industry. We have extremely talented general managers that know their brands, as well as their competitors. They know what is moving and who is making waves and strides in the marketplace. Most importantly, all our GMs know how their product stacks up to their competitors.
RV PRO: Can you share any thoughts on what kind of year 2011 will be for Dutchmen?
Clark: Well, according to RVIA, the industry is expected to be up in trailers 9 percent and in fifth wheels roughly 8.5 percent. Who knows how accurate that’s going to be at the end of the year? I am optimistic, but there is no crystal ball.
Is Dutchmen going to have a good year? Yes, we’re having a good year now. We’ve had a lot of wood to chop, but I like what I see and like where we’re going as a company.