The Road Less Traveled

Grand Design’s Don Clark took a unique route to establish a standout company.

Where some company owners see products and profits as their primary goals, Don Clark, president, CEO and co-founder of Grand Design RV, sees things differently. It’s the people that matter the most, he says.

“What we do is more than just building an RV and making money,” he says. “We’re creating a vehicle for customers to build memories, travel the country and participate in an exciting lifestyle.”

Despite being captivated by the industry for 40-plus years, he says he entered it after losing a bet. A family friend encouraging him to enter the RV industry said they would wager on the Notre Dame football game. Should Clark lose, Clark had to interview with the RV company of his friend’s choice.

Obviously, Clark lost. He interviewed with Coachmen RV and the rest is history. “I immediately fell in love with the products we built and the customers,” he says. “I just loved talking with customers about the product and the lifestyle. It captivated me and drew me in.”

Stepping Outside the Box

Clark and brothers Bill and Ron French joined forces to launch Grand Design RV in 2012. The three became friends while working at Coachmen RV, then moved to Keystone RV together, where they worked their way up to management positions. Clark was named president of Dutchmen, Bill president of Thor Motor Coach and Ron senior group president of THOR Industries.

The three began dreaming of a new kind of RV company. One that focused on high-end travel trailers and fifth wheels, delivered amazing customer service and valued all employees.

Eventually, they stepped out of their leadership roles to build a company with an enduring mission, vision and core values. The mission is “Helping to create memorable stories for those who dare to dream.”

The company’s vison is connected to the mission, Clark says. “It is ‘Working together in the relentless pursuit of a positive RV ownership experience.’”

The company’s core values play off the Grand in Grand Design: Gratitude, Respect, Accountability, Innovation and Drive.

“The core values are our North Star,” Clark says. “When we drift, we always return to what makes us Grand Design. What makes us special and different is our mission, our vision and our core values. It’s what we strive for each day.”

Living It Out

“I’ve never worked in an organization where company culture is so ingrained in everything we do,” he says. “It’s not just a plaque on a breakroom wall. It’s ingrained in our people.”

The Grand Design recruiting and hiring process is the first step in integrating its 2,000-plus employees into this culture. When hiring, Clark explains the company values attitude as much as skills, talent and ability.

“We consider if applicants are just there to collect a paycheck or if they will care about our customer,” he says. “We might be an OEM, but we are dealer-centric and customer-focused.”

He believes in hiring experts in their field. This spans everything from ability, education and skills to leadership style.

“I like to say that we hire the best people we can find and put them in a canoe. Then we give them a paddle to get to where we’re going,” he says. “But we do not tell them what stroke to use. The stroke is up to them. As long as everyone forges ahead together in the same direction, we will accomplish our goals.”

This freedom empowers people to generate innovative ideas. “It’s vital to listen to your people and get alignment,” he says. “It’s amazing to see what people can accomplish when they have ownership.”

Grand Design also gets rid of office politics and siloed work. “When companies allow silos to move in, they stifle growth and they are hard to get rid of,” he says.

Grand Design ensures a constant stream of quality individuals seeking employment. Though the job market is competitive in Elkhart, Indiana, and nearby areas, Grand Design has a pool of qualified candidates eager to work there.

The appeal is in the aspiration to work for a company that respects its employees, offers good pay and prioritizes work-life balance, according to Clark. He says it is better for team members when their loved ones support their career, and that the career should also support the family. Grand Design makes sure both happen by shutting down production on weekends.

“We have garnered a reputation for being one of the best places to work in Elkhart County,” he says. In fact, the company has won the Michiana Best Place to Work award in the manufacturing segment and in the management and administration segment. “That’s all of Michiana, which is a big deal,” he says, noting Michiana spans northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan.

The company’s impressive performance in the national RV Dealers Association (RVDA) Dealer Satisfaction Index has earned it a high score and multiple RVDA Circle of Excellence awards. “As far as I know, we are the only manufacturer to have every brand receive this award consistently throughout our years in business,” he says. “Our people take immense pride in that. When I say people, I mean people on the line, in operations, management and sales.”

A Better Business Model

Grand Design prioritizes creating separate brands for every segment of the travel trailer, fifth wheel and toy hauler markets. These brands are given names that capture the emotional desires of customers: Transcend, Imagine, Reflection, Solitude and Momentum.

“So many companies try to be all things to all people and therefore focus on nothing,” he says. “They are the jack of all trades but the master of none. We have chosen to major in the majors. We focus on the 95th percentile of what customers will buy and what dealers will stock. That gives us laser focus on every single brand we offer.”

The company’s approach is unique as it only partners with a single dealer in each market, he adds. “Most manufacturers have clone products that compete with their sister brands,” he explains. “Then they go into a marketplace and sign three or four dealers that compete with one another. We do not want that. We want a close, trusting relationship with our dealers. Our dealers have a strong connection with us and our brands, which extends to the retail customer.”

Standout Service & Quality

Grand Design has placed a premium on service and quality — it’s where excellence is delivered, according to Clark. When he helped start the company, there was only one guy he wanted to lead service operations: Jerry McCarthy. “He was just so customer oriented,” he says. “I wanted that type of commitment to the customer.”

McCarthy had a few demands when he was recruited. He wanted a service center in place before the company began producing RVs, to create a comprehensive, easily understood service manual for customers and to implement a warranty before RVs were sold.

Clark readily agreed: “You only have one opportunity to make a great first impression. Usually, when a company launches, you get a great salesperson to sell a product then figure out how to service it later. We had that all done before we started to ship products.”

To ensure quality, the company sends products to a pre-delivery inspection department that checks over 300 points before shipping to dealers. “If they catch anything, the plant makes the fix before shipping out the RV,” he says.

Keeping Customers Close

Customers play an active role in the construction of every new coach by Grand Design, Clark says.

“We ask our customers what they want because they know more about the lifestyle than we do,” he says. “We constantly ask for feedback. We ask them, ‘What do you love about your current unit? What do you hate? What are your pain points?’”

Grand Design is renowned for its customer rallies, which sell out in minutes and attract hundreds of coaches each time.

Paving the Road to the Future

“People are still discovering the RV lifestyle and that won’t stop,” he says. “But if the industry wants to keep delivering on that lifestyle, it will need more RV technicians.”

He says the industry desperately needs RV technicians who can do more than simply turn a wrench. “Customers expect to push buttons in their RVs and have those buttons work,” he says. “To grow as an industry, we are going to need to grow the experience level of technicians. Not just at the dealership level but at the OEM level, too.”

Clark believes this so strongly that he sat on the founding board of the RV Technical Institute (RVTI). “I volunteered to serve because I feel it is so important that we give our customers the service they deserve,” he says. “Today’s coaches are a bit more complicated with onboard electronics and diagnostics systems. We need technicians who can service those products and get our customers back on the road.”

Grand Design also formed a Service Response Team, which is dedicated to nationwide service training, repairs assistance and keeping dealers informed about new product systems and repair processes. Grand Design gives staff on this team a single guideline to follow: If they see a stranded RV, they are to stop and help get that RV on the road. “Even if the RV is a competitor’s product, we do not charge for this,” he says. “We just want RVers to have an enjoyable time and love the lifestyle.”

When it comes to the company, Clark foresees steady growth. Winnebago took over Grand Design in 2016, and that has paved the way, he says. “I expect growth in our towables segment when the economy gains strength, and we are excited to announce our entrance into the motorized segment.”

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