Rapido Group owners Pierre Rousseau and son Nicolas manned the Roadtrek display during September’s Elkhart Open House Week, meeting many of their key dealer partners for the first time.
The father-son duo of the France-based parent company put a face on the names of the new owners of Roadtrek – once North America’s top Class B motorhome manufacturer.
The Rousseaus acquired the Cambridge, Ontario, Canada-based RV maker from court receivership earlier this year after it closed unexpectedly amid reports of financial irregularities under its previous Erwin Hymer Group North American management team. When EHGNA closed its Roadtrek operation, some 850 people lost their jobs and 900 creditors were owed nearly $300 million.
During Open House Week, the Rousseaus shared their passion for RVs and Roadtrek to anyone who would stop to listen at their display along Executive Parkway near the RV/MH Hall of Fame.
“We are very fond of the product,” Pierre Rousseau, president, shared with RV PRO at the outset of the weeklong show. “North America is a new market for Rapido. We will make our best effort to comply with the demands of our customers.”
He says dealers “are very pleased the company and the name Roadtrek will stay on the market.” They’re telling him in essence, “We are confident and will help you restart,” he adds.
As for the former Roadtrek suppliers, “Even though they lost some money, they are confident in Roadtrek. Ninety-five percent of them have agreed to work with the new company,” he says.
The senior Rousseau says he sees no reason why the Roadtrek brand cannot become one of Rapido’s top three sales units. Rapido Group’s annual sales are around 500 million Euros ($540 million U.S.), and the company currently sells 11 different brands in Europe.
He adds that he is confident Roadtrek can become profitable during the second year of its rebirth.
But he did not understate the differences between the two markets.
“It’s quite a new market. North America is not Europe. I would say that we will make our best effort to understand and comply with the demands of the customer, and when we talk in one or two years, you will see we are like American!”
Walk First, Then Run
Mike Reuer, the general director for Rapido’s Westfalia brand and overseer of Roadtrek’s revival, expanded upon the Rousseaus’ vision for Roadtrek during an interview with RV PRO prior to Open House.
Reuer orchestrated Westfalia’s rebound from bankruptcy earlier in this decade and plans to implement some of the same principles in the Roadtrek rebirth.
He stresses, “We have to walk before we can run,” which means Roadtrek will start out slowly. A projected production force of 100 to 120 workers – many of them veterans under the previous ownership – were to begin production in early-to-mid October at the 255,000-square-foot fac- tory in Cambridge, Ontario. The leased facility is located 50 miles west of Toronto.
“We want to grow to between 200 and 300 people in about one-year’s time,” Reuer says. “It’s not like you turn on a switch or turn a key. It needs to be slowly ramped up to make sure we have all the parts.”
Shipments to dealers were expected to begin in November or December. Reuer projects production and deliveries to dealers will reach 500 to 600 units by next August.
Model year 2020 Roadtreks will be available on as many as three platforms. Two of those – the Dodge Ram ProMaster and the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter short wheelbase – are longtime Roadtrek chassis. Reuer sees the ProMaster chassis being the lead chassis for now, followed by the Mercedes.
A third could be a Ford Transit Van chassis, either the 2.0-liter EcoBlue bi-turbo diesel-powered version or the 3.5-liter gas-powered PFDi V6.
“I’m not sure whether it will be diesel or gas,” Reuer says. “It will be whatever the sales department wants. With our European mindset, we always think about diesel because almost every RV over here is built on a diesel engine. We really don’t have experience on the gas engines.”
Here’s where the Rapido management will put its trust in its dealer network for a key start-up decision. Reuer indicated the Roadtrek sales staff, headed by 30-year industry veteran Len McDougall, head of sales and service, would sample dealer thoughts at the Elkhart Open House and take the input back to Cambridge, where a final choice will be made. Production on the Transit Van chassis of choice would launch in time for the fall 2020 show season.
“If we want to be successful again … we cannot sit apart from the market and from the customers. The dealers are the ones talking to the customers every day,” Reuer says.
Roadtrek representatives have already spoken with many of the 290 dealers who carried the brand before the former company’s operations shut down and they generally seem eager to rejoin the network, according to Reuer. The Rousseaus’ presence at the Elkhart Open House surely helped the company transition away from the challenging past year.
Reuer hoped to have MSRPs on all 2020 Roadtrek models in place by Open House Week.
Why the delay?
Roadtrek staff has had to recalculate the cost of every part and component used in every vehicle.
“We are not certain if previous calculations had been done correctly,” Reuer says. “We want to make sure it’s a solid and reliable base we’re putting prices on.”
Save for the models built on Ford Transit Van chassis, the 2020 models will have the traditional Roadtrek look, according to Reuer.
“In the beginning, they will look like traditional Roadtreks, but we will implement quality measures similar to what we do over here to ensure quality and increase quality compared to what it’s been before, and introduce slight modifications where we or our dealers will think they can be introduced and transferred from the European product to the North American product,” Reuer says. “But we have to be careful on that.”
He concedes there are “some distinctive differences in taste, expectations, touch and feel” between the European and North American consumers, and “it’s always important to consider what the American or Canadian customers want and need in the vehicle.”
So, the addition of any European nuance will be slow and calculated.
“It won’t be something like a list of 15 points we want to add to the vehicle right away,” Reuer says.
Meanwhile, Roadtrek discontinued the Popular models built on the Chevy chassis, as well as the Simplicity models built on the ProMaster, but the RV manufacturer will build on Sprinter platforms going forward.
Roadtrek: New CEO/ Former CEO
In mid-October, Roadtrek named industry veteran Dane Found as its new CEO. His experience in the RV industry spans more than three decades in both Canada and United States. Notably, in 2006, he co-founded Pacific Coach- works, a towable manufacturing company based in Riverside, Calif.
“We are pleased to announce that Dane Found has accepted the position of CEO and will be leading the day-to-day operations in North America,” says Nicolas Rousseau. “Dane brings to the company a wealth of industry experience across retail, wholesale and manufacturing and has a vision for the future of the brand that aligns with the entire group.”
Speaking of CEOs, the new Roadtrek management met several times earlier this year with former Roadtrek owner and CEO Jeff Hanemaayer to learn about Roadtrek history, production, his insights into the Class B market, and to get feedback on some individuals working for the company, Reuer says.
“Jeff was very helpful, very open, and told us what he thinks could be improved or should be improved. It was very good starting out for us,” Reuer says. “We knew Roadtrek was a great player and a good product but that was about it. We knew about what had happened. It was good to get the inside story from Jeff and it was quite helpful.”
Plotting Roadtrek’s Rebirth
There are several parallels between Rapido’s revival of the Westfalia brand in Europe and its purchase of the Roadtrek assets.
Westfalia, a manufacturer dating from 1932, had success in the past, but ended up in receivership after failure under private equity owners. Rapido Group stepped up in 2010 and bought the German-based company.
“As an innovation leader in van conversion, Westfalia is the perfect addition to our product portfolio in the Rapido Group,” CEO Pierre Rousseau said at the time. He went on to explain that Westfalia is not only a brand with prestige but also a synonym for innovation and quality. “We are very confident we can soon lead the company back to its former strength again.”
“It was a turnaround case parallel to what we see at Roadtrek,” says Reuer, who was chosen to revive the Westfalia brand. “Great name, great product, very good reputation so that makes it a little bit easier to restructure the brand.”
Under Reuer’s leadership, Rapido renovated the Westfalia product line, identified the key markets and rebuilt the dealer network.
By the second full business year under Rapido ownership, Westfalia was profitable again.
“We can apply some of the same systematics to Roadtrek as well without changing the DNA of Roadtrek because that’s important to the customer that the brand doesn’t change and become something totally new. It should have its own DNA that must remain in the company and the product,” he says.
Today, Westfalia is part of a strong organization under the umbrella of Rapido, which formed in 1961 and has since utilized a brand creation / acquisition strategy to become one of the biggest RV groups in Europe. Rapido is based in Mayenne, France, and employs about 1,500 employees across its various plants in France, Germany, Italy and Great Britain. Rapido remains 100 percent family-run, with Pierre Rousseau acting as president of the company and his son Nicolas Rousseau acting as deputy general director.
Since Rapido’s acquisition of Roadtrek, company executives worked hard to get the new operation up and running while also addressing outstanding issues related to the former company’s customers. As part of that, Rapido has worked out a compromise to the warranty issue that had vexed existing Roadtrek owners and dealers when the former company closed in January.
The new Roadtrek will not honor the previous six-year warranty, but it has arranged for partial coverage on those existing units.
“Warranty claims will be honored for a two-year period commencing on the date of purchase – up to a maximum warranty claim amount of $1,500 per unit,” Reuer says. “New units will have a two-year warranty.”
Canada’s Once (and Future?) King B
Roadtrek Motorhomes was once the undisputed North American leader in the Class B segment.
So, is it realistic to think the new Roadtrek can ever attain that level of success again?
“I think it’s not unrealistic,” Reuer says carefully, adding, “It would be a great effort because there has been no market activity for the past eight months. It (the plant closing in January) created a vacuum. Others have stepped in and filled the gap.
“It will be hard work to regain that market share, but if it’s a positively perceived brand in customers’ minds, we have a good chance to achieve that if we do things right – and that’s what we are going for,” Reuer says. “We aren’t going for minor shares; we are going for major shares.
“We’d like to bring our market share up to 25 percent or greater,” he adds.
Rapido builds 7,000 Westfalias annually to serve all of Europe and its population of about 750 million, which is about twice the population of North America. So, Reuer’s forecast does not seem unreasonable.
“It’s a little bit like looking into a glass (crystal) ball,” he says. “You never know whether the markets are turning around. … I think it will be realistic to do about 1,500 units a year. Ideally, I would like to target 2,000 units, depending upon how new models are perceived in the marketplace.”
Through July, the Class B retail market was still enjoying a tiny headwind, finishing the first seven months of the year up 3.4 percent over a year ago. Winnebago dominated with a 40.4 percent market share, with the former Erwin Hymer/ Roadtrek a distant second with a 23 percent market share.
“For us, the Rapido Group, it’s a great opportunity. We love the (Roadtrek) brand. We are quite excited about it,” Reuer says. “We will not hesitate to do the necessary investments for that to drive it forward and bring it up.”