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Q&A with Redwood's Don Emahiser

It’s not every day that Thor Industries launches a new highline fifth wheel manufacturing operation. So when the company did just that in June 2010 with its new Redwood RV division, it turned to industry veteran and former Carriage RV President and CEO Don Emahiser to put all the pieces together.

Emahiser didn’t lose any time getting started. He promptly hired key managers; acquired a 105,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Syracuse, Ind., that had been owned by defunct manufacturer Ameri-Camp; staffed up the manufacturing operation to roughly 50 employees; and, notably, had three Redwood RV models ready to show dealers in November at the 2010 National RV Trade Show in Louisville.

Currently, Redwood is producing two units a day and is offering its fifth wheels in four floorplans, but Emahiser has ambitious plans for the manufacturer in terms of expanded product offerings. Overseeing production and building up a dealer network for a new RV manufacturer is no small task, but in Emahiser’s case it’s just one of his jobs; in late 2010 he was also given the additional position as president of sister company CrossRoads RV in Topeka, Ind.

Redwood RV President Don Emahiser is pictured on the company’s production floor. With the launch of Redwood in 2010, parent company Thor Industries’ is seeking to aggressively compete in the highline fifth wheel market. Photos by Steve Toepp/ Midwest Photography

Recently, Emahiser spoke with RV PRO at length about his decision to join Redwood, what it’s been like to start a manufacturing operation from the ground up, how the company is seeking to differentiate itself in a market where a number of high-profile competitors already exist, and his hopes and expectations for the company moving forward.

RV PRO: Can you talk about the factors behind parent company Thor Industries’ decision to found Redwood RV?

Emahiser: Thousands of customers are ready to take that next step, and they (Thor) never had an offering to give them. Ever. And that’s what Redwood RV is designed to do – to finally give these customers a chance to stay in the Thor family that they’ve been with their whole lives.

Before they would go to DRV or Carriage or some of these other brands. We worked too hard to keep them; why lose them now?

RV PRO: So why was Redwood RV established as a stand-alone company, versus a highline division of, say, Dutchmen, or Keystone, or CrossRoads?

Emahiser: You know, that’s a good question. The bottom line is the same reason people who have Chevys their whole life end up buying a Cadillac; it’s the same reason that Toyota has Lexus. 

Some of the other companies have tried before, but when you’re talking about the last or second-to-last RV people are going to buy, they want something from a boutique builder whose whole goal is to provide that sort of product. And, the other (Thor) companies are so diversified in all of the other markets that it’s so hard for them to focus and cater to the needs of that consumer that want maybe special treatment. … They save up for years to buy this last fifth wheel. 

These are the people that maybe plan to retire and spend three months over the winter in it. They prefer to buy it from somebody whose whole goal is to make sure they enjoy those three months.

RV PRO: Before you took this job you were president and CEO of Carriage, manufacturer of one of the most respected and sought-after brands of highline fifth wheels. What was it that attracted you to take this new post at Redwood RV?

Emahiser: You know, Carriage is a wonderful company; it has a great culture, great people. But when you have a chance to do something truly as special as start a new market that Thor has never really been in with two feet, and start something from the ground up, that’s exciting. 

I’m a guy who likes challenges. And to work with the likes of Ron (Fenech, president of Thor RV Group) and the rest of the team at Thor, I’m not sure you could ask for a better situation. …

This is something special; the chance to do something really great. I wanted to see if we could do it, and right now, Redwood has exceeded my expectations. You always expect to do well, but we’re doing even better than I thought we would.

RV PRO: So what has it been like to start a company from the ground up?

Emahiser: It’s been really crazy (laughs). And when you throw the challenges of the CrossRoads side in, instead of spending every minute of every day at Redwood, now I have to divide and conquer a little bit. But fortunately, when we were laying out Redwood, we made a decision to hire a great staff – from Dan Kreider, V.P. of manufacturing; to Ray Patterson, the head engineer; to Tom Montague, who is heading up the sales end. If I didn’t have that kind of talent at Redwood there’s no way I’d be able to do what I’m doing today with both companies. …

Redwood RV is currently building four floorplans, all with luxurious interiors. The manufacturer has plans to increase the number of floorplans to eight by the fall.

But, it’s a lot of long days. You know, I want to get out and see the dealers. That’s just one thing I haven’t been able to do as much, just to see what the customers’ reception is. I can’t get away to do that yet, but hopefully soon.

RV PRO: Any specific challenges you can share? Maybe finding a facility? Or the right people?

Emahiser: Yeah, and I’m not an expert in all of those. Far from it. But what you do is go out and find the right people to do that, so they know what’s necessary to go from scratch. 

We also found the right building. This was a building from another manufacturer that they just built. … It’s so new the wrapper is still on the building! It was almost set up, between the scaffolding and the tracks and everything, where we had very little set up with regard to the actual manufacturing facility. So that gave us a nice advantage.

And the vendors around here were all onboard, because they’re excited about the opportunity for Thor go into a new market. … So the vendors were very helpful in assisting us with this venture. We got a lot of help. Even our sister companies provided a lot of help to make sure Redwood was successful.

RV PRO: It sounds like things came together well for your startup company. Still, did you ever think that maybe 2010 wasn’t a great year to start a highline fifth wheel company given the then still fragile state of the economy?

Emahiser: Based upon my experience with my previous employer, I knew there was a demand for the product. The demographics are working in this price point’s favor with all of the baby boomers coming into the wheelhouse demographic, who this product is designed for. So even if the economy isn’t what it could be, there’s a market out there.

RV PRO: What kind of prep work did you do before launching Redwood? 

Emahiser: When we started Redwood, we spent a lot of time just researching: What do customers want? What do they not want? What do customers like? What do they not like? It gave us the opportunity to dial in on 8-10 key features to bring into the coach that really resonate with the retail customer.

And we’re really seeing that as we go through show season here, it really is resonating with them. You know, it’s something as simple as putting a trash can in the kitchen. There really was never a spot in all of these other products to put a kitchen-size trash can. Well, now every Redwood has one. People love them.

You wouldn’t think a trash can would be that big of a deal. But for these people who say, ‘I’m going to spend – not just a weekend, but spending months in this thing – I need a place to put my trash.’

Redwood RV is particularly proud of its Fit Falcon Frame chassis, which it manufactures in-house. Redwood says its chassis is stronger, yet lighter weight, than those of its’ competitors in the highline fifth wheel market. Redwood is currently producing two units a day at its facility in Syracuse, Ind.

Then there’s the bedroom. How can you make the bedroom more residential? How can you make it easier for them to use the space? 

So we went to several rallies and just talked to customers with competitive coaches. We asked them about likes and dislikes. 

By the time we got to Redwood we had a whole list of things that we said, ‘OK, now how do we put all of those things into a coach and build it?’ Because that’s the other part. These things need to be almost commercial-grade when you build them, because they (customers) don’t just go 100 miles to the campground, they put thousands of miles on these coaches every year. 

RV PRO: On that note, can you elaborate on what makes Redwood notable from a product point of view?

Emahiser: Well, the (Diamond Residential Furniture Collection) is a great example. … We looked at it from the point of view of: People are going to be spending months in these things. How do we make this furniture as comfortable as what they have at home? So instead of using what traditional recreational furniture is – of having basically a wood-base with cushions on top – we sprung all of our seating. No different than what high-end furniture has; it’s comfortable, it’s softer, it springs, it’s more resilient. 

To do that, we had to give up the hide-a-bed. Now, some say you’ve got to have a hide-a-bed. Well, our customers very rarely have guests come over. When they do, we’re including an optional inflatable mattress that they can blow up and use. 

But, there’s trade-offs. We’d rather be comfortable for 95 percent of the days they have, and have to make some small concessions a few times. That’s what led to the Diamond Furniture.

RV PRO: Redwood also is touting its Fit Falcon Frame chassis. Can you explain what makes it notable?

Emahiser: Well, let’s go back to the fact that we had the luxury of starting Redwood from nothing. There’s no legacy that comes with it. That’s good and bad. The bad part is we don’t have 40 years of history like some of our competitors do. 

The good part (for us) is that they have 40 years of baggage; we don’t. They do things a certain way and they always have. It’s critical to their core and their culture. 

It allowed us to say, ‘That might have been great back in 1984, but does it really apply now?’ And if not, has technology progressed to where you can do a better mousetrap?

That led to the Fit chassis. We’ve developed a stronger, yet lighter-weight chassis than what our competitors have. … Because weight is relevant, especially with diesel being $3.50 a gallon. So the more weight you pull, the more it costs you to pull it.

RV PRO: Can you talk a bit about floorplan offerings?

Emahiser: Currently, we’re building four floorplans. We hope to have eight floorplans, probably by fall.

Redwood RV’s top managers are pictured on the production floor. The managers are (left-to-right): Dan Patterson, head engineer; Emahiser; Tom Montague, national sales manager; and Dan Krieder, vice president of engineering. 

We’ve got one floorplan coming out in April that’s going to put a sliding glass door in a luxury fifth wheel, which doesn’t exist right now. Imagine having this beautiful open sliding glass door that allows the same benefits we get at home. Now you can bring that to the table in a residential luxury fifth wheel.

Another one we’re going to build is going to have a 4-foot bonus room in the back of it – great for bikes, grills, a shed, an extra room for mom’s sewing room or an office, or a den. Either way, it’s a utility space in a luxury fifth wheel that allows these people to take stuff with them that they normally couldn’t take in a different brand.

We know we need to stay in the box, but we also want to get out of it. Sometimes we’ll burn the box down just to see what comes out of it – what’s marketable.

RV PRO: Given all of the amenities included in these products, and the cost that comes with it, is it fair to say this is a fairly niche product?

Emahiser: Definitely. When you get above the $50,000 mark, there is a significant drop-off in volume in terms of the market – but there’s still enough for us to carve out a real nice chunk of business. 

And based upon the boomers that are coming, we believe that market is growing. It’s a wave that has worked its way through our industry in the last 20 years; it’s now hitting the luxury products – it’s now hitting motorhomes and towables, the luxury segments of those markets. So we expect that market to grow over the next five or 10 years, as those boomers come in and retire.

RV PRO: Given that there are already several strong players in the market, how is Redwood seeking to differentiate itself?

Emahiser: When you look at the other competitors in the field, none of them — at the point we decided to do Redwood — had the backing of a company the size of Thor to weather the good and the bad. …

We just came out of a recession that was the worst, some would say, all the way back to the Great Depression. You know, coming from one of those companies – Carriage lived through it; it took a lot of work one everyone’s part – but there was a lot of strain on the company, not that there wasn’t some at Thor. But when you’ve got a bigger war chest you can ride into battle a lot longer. …

Plus, (customers) know that if they’re investing money in Thor going down the road they’re always going to be taken care of. The dealers, likewise, know that the warranty and the parts are always going to be taken care of, because Thor is always going to be around as long as there is an RV industry. And the other companies really can’t say that.

RV PRO: Finally, any thoughts on what 2011 will hold for the industry? And for Redwood in particular?

Emahiser: I’m optimistic about this year. We can only control those things that we can control. Gas prices, I worry about them, but outside of that there’s not a lot I can do. So we’re just going to try and continue to grow. 

I keep telling everyone, even though we’re not a championship team yet, I want us to develop championship habits. So we’re doing the right things now so that when production goes from two a day – to three a day, four a day, five a day, six a day – those things are second nature to us. They’re not things we’re going to implement later. 

The market is going to be what it is. If we’ve got the product right and the price right we’ll get the business we need to be successful.