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By all accounts, 2018 is starting off as another banner year for the RV market – and nowhere is that more evident
than at Keystone RV, which market data firm Statistical Surveys estimates is retailing about one out of every four new travel trailers and fifth wheels.
By market segment, Keystone travel trailers (including units produced by subsidiaries CrossRoads RV and Dutchmen Mfg.) accounted for 24 percent of travel trailers sold during the 12-month period ending December 2017, while Keystone fifth wheels accounted for 32 percent of all fifth wheels sold during the same time period, according to Statistical Surveys. No other RV company brand comes close to rivaling Keystone’s prominence in the towables segment.
Meanwhile, Keystone is notching some impressive mileposts: The company manufactured its 100,000th Montana unit last summer and is projected to build its 150,000th Cougar towable this spring.
“Those milestones speak volumes about the confidence our dealers and customers have in our brands,” says Keystone CEO Matt Zimmerman, whose duties include overseeing the CrossRoads, Dutchmen and Keystone nameplates.
Zimmerman stresses that the growth Keystone is experiencing didn’t happen by chance. Instead, he says, it was the result of some very deliberate actions by the RV division’s executive leadership team.
For example, he points to a years-in-the-making major revamp of the subsidiary, which involved keeping the Keystone, CrossRoads and Dutchmen identities intact while streamlining some internal operations.
“We decided to merge certain functions, such as service and accounting, to make it easier for the dealers, while leaving others completely separate,” Zimmerman says, “like product development, sales, engineering, manufacturing and marketing, which remain independent at the division level, led by division presidents.”
It was important that Keystone have the right leadership team in place, Zimmerman says, so it turned to three industry veterans: Jeff Runels to oversee Keystone, Ryan Juday to oversee CrossRoads and Troy James to oversee Dutchmen.
A Building Boom
To keep pace with the demand Keystone is experiencing, the RV maker has built four new factories during the past 24 months and modified three existing production facilities.
For 2018, Keystone expects to build two additional 78,000-square-foot facilities: one in Goshen, Ind., and the other in Syracuse, Ind. Both are expected to be operational by autumn. The RV maker also is increasing the size of its 200-plus member service team and adding more than 35,000 square feet to its customer service facility in Goshen.
The three manufacturing units under the Keystone umbrella – which is parent company Thor Industries’ largest single subsidiary – together employ about 6,600 workers.
As the RV industry has roared back from the Great Recession, the pool of available labor in northern Indiana has gotten much tighter. Still, Zimmerman says Keystone continues to be a big believer in the local workforce and so plans to continue to locate facilities in the region.
“What we always come back to is: This area has one of the best work ethics there is in manufacturing. This community knows manufacturing. They work hard,” he says. “We are proud of the labor force we have here, so we’ve made the decision to continue to grow here.”
Quality as Well as Quantity
While being the No. 1 producer of fifth wheels and a leading manufacturer of travel trailers is a point of pride for Keystone, Zimmerman says it’s his belief that the company’s long-term success rests with building quality products and standing behind them. To further that objective, the company implemented a three-year limited structural warranty on all Keystone, Dutchmen and Cross-Roads RVs manufactured on or after Sept. 1, 2017.
The warranty covers the structural components of the RV, including the roof, roof materials, installation, floor, walls, cap, internal framing and chassis. This is in addition to Keystone’s base warranty during the first year of ownership.
The three-year warranty is “more than slapping a sticker on the sidewall,” Zimmerman stresses. “It’s a badge of honor.”
He adds, “We clearly defined our warranty, so there is no guessing what is and what is not covered. We then challenged ourselves to make sure that we covered things that a lot of other OEMs don’t cover for various reasons. We didn’t want this warranty to be one of these warranties that … covers stuff that never fails – something where, you’re just putting a sticker on.’
“We asked ourselves in this process: ‘Should it fail … or shouldn’t it?’ We then pulled down all of our warranty claims and looked at them line by line. We started from the top saying, ‘That’s a problem. We should address that problem and we should stand behind it.’ …
“Faded front caps? It shouldn’t happen in three years – especially the way we’re doing it, so we’re going to cover it,” Zimmerman says. “We’re challenging ourselves to do it differently and do it better. Now that customers are seeing it firsthand, it’s being accepted extremely well.”
At the same time, Keystone has raised the bar on how it engineers and builds its RVs, according to Zimmerman.
“This is one thing we are very passionate about. We are setting the standard on how things should be built, like color-coded and numbered wiring for all units,” he says, noting Keystone and dealership service departments tasked with repairing units benefit from such advancements. “We’re the only towable RV company to do it.
“We’re also offering innovative Tuf-Lock thermoplastic AC duct couplers, which we just introduced this fall that are a permanent, crush-resistant seal on our air conditioning ducts and improve AC efficiency. We spent well over a year developing an answer to a known problem and then implemented it in every single product across our entire organization.”
And Keystone also continues to adopt other new technologies specifically designed to enhance the RVing experience. One such example is the new generation of iN-Command Control Systems from ASA Electronics. Dubbed Global Connect, this version will allow RVers to control functions of their RV from anywhere in the world using an App on their smartphone. The companies also will incorporate RV-C communication to this new generation of systems, giving the RV owner even more control.
ASA displayed the new technology at the 2017 National RV Trade Show and will be announcing more details in late spring.
Investing in Tech & Training
Keystone also has made a significant investment in its online parts systems and updated visual catalog. The catalog contains more than 112,000 detail photos of parts Keystone offers, which Zimmerman says makes ordering parts almost mistake-proof for dealers and has directly resulted in helping Keystone raise its dealer satisfaction levels.
Additionally, many of these parts can be ordered by a floorplan schematic, further reducing the guesswork.
“That’s a big deal, because now there is no more searching for specific items and sizes within a brand,” Zimmerman says. “Now, a dealer can go to the brand, then the floorplan, and select the item in the floorplan that they need. …
“We continue to evolve it to make it easier for dealers and more efficient, because as our industry continues to grow, that’s the most critical component – taking care of our customers. We have to find new ways to make it easier and get faster,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Zimmerman says Keystone is working to make sure that dealership technicians and sales personnel have the training they need to be up-to-date on the RV maker’s products. In February, the company launched its Technical Training Academy for Keystone, Dutchmen and CrossRoads dealerships nationwide. The Academy offers three-day training courses for entry-level technicians as well as advanced-level, certified/ master-certified technicians.
Technicians completing the course receive credit for continuing education hours if already certified through the RV Industry Association. The program will continue to evolve, with hopes that vendor reps will eventually join in on the presentations.
For dealership sales personnel, each Keystone division is conducting live webinars on the latest models and cataloging them for later reference.
Meanwhile, to generate interest for Keystone products at the consumer level, Keystone is tapping into parent company Thor Industries’ new “Go Your Own Way” marketing program.
“It’s a powerful addition to Keystone’s marketing efforts and helps expand beyond what we as an individual company can do,” Zimmerman says. “It’s driving those early shoppers to our brands. We are excited to see the success that Thor’s initiative has and look forward to seeing it grow in the future.”
Bullish on 2018
Zimmerman says he is bullish on the prospects for the industry as a whole – and for Keystone in particular – for the balance of the year.
“We look at two things. One is dealer optimism. They (dealers) are on the ground level handling demand. And there’s certainly a lot of optimism through the dealer body on what 2018 should be,” he says. “I think everyone is anticipating growth over 2017. The percentage of growth varies, depending upon whom you talk to. Generally speaking, most feel that we’re going to be somewhere in the single-digit growth rate.
“Secondly we look at shows. Our early shows have been very successful,” he adds. “When we judge a show’s success we evaluate two things: traffic – how many people are coming through the gate – and there’s without a doubt record traffic coming through these gates at the early shows. And we also look at sales, and how dealers performed as a whole year over year – not only with our brands, but also with their entire displays. We’re seeing numbers that would support dealer optimism. With record traffic and increased sales from dealerships at the shows it would certainly validate everyone’s belief that 2018 should be very good year again for the RV industry.”