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Thule Brings its SMARTs to the RV Market

The company’s SMART RV Anchor Pods lets users attach a variety of products, including  the kitchen sink, to the outside of an RV.

An RV industry newcomer is betting on a palm-sized widget and its company name to make a big splash in an
economy that’s seen better days. For Thule, an international company known in the U.S. primarily for vehicle rack systems, its ingenious idea promises to bring more than just innovation to a struggling market; it also promises to bring new customers.

“We’ve played in a smaller box of leisure, you might say, with outdoor activities such as paddlesports, cycling, skiing, tent camping, and we’ve grown up with a consumer who’s been involved in all of those activities for the last 25 to 30 years,” says Chris Dannewitz, vice president of business development for Thule North America, the domestic unit of Swedish conglomerate Thule Group. “We’re at the beginning phases of a migration from tent to trailer.”

As Thule’s customers sought shelter in something more substantial than coated polyester, Dannewitz says RV manufacturers have been making inroads to his customers; witness the Outdoor Retailer Show debuts of the Airstream BaseCamp and the Dutchmen Topo lightweight travel trailers. The fact those products first appeared in an atypical RV setting – in other words, not Louisville – provided a starting point for Thule’s U.S.-developed SMART (Space Management And Recreational Travel) RV product campaign.

“We were part of the BaseCamp launch in 2005. We provided a rack system that went on the inside of it,” says Dannewitz, an outdoor product development veteran. “Airstream not only worked with Thule on developing some of the accessories for the vehicle, but it started to reach out to other companies in the outdoor industry. If you look at the back of the BaseCamp, there’s a tent structure that’s part of it that gives you more outdoor living space; Airstream partnered with Kelty, another leading brand in the outdoor channel. It made a lot of sense to launch it at the Outdoor Retailer Show.”

A few years later, during which Thule also teamed with Dutchmen to work on the Topo trailer, the time seemed right to introduce its space management solution to the RV aftermarket.

Pods Keep Attachments Firmly on RVs

“The heart of SMART RV are these little Anchor Pods that attach to the side of the vehicle,” he says. “We have a system called a Tracker, which mounts to a track on an SUV’s roof. It clicks on and off so you can easily take the rack system off when you’re not using it. Well, that rack system goes down the road with an 18-foot canoe mounted on top, for example, held securely. We use that same technology for SMART RV; we just modified it for the side of a vehicle instead of the roof of an SUV.”

Like the company’s market-leading rack products, the Pods are quite simple in appearance. Made of fiberglass-reinforced white nylon, a Pod has two bolt holes to attach it to an RV sidewall and a stainless-steel pin that allow a growing list of accessories to hook onto it. The system operates much like a large-scale Velcro fastener.

“That’s how we click on tables, countertops, TVs, sinks, you name it. All of these things click on, click off – easy for man, woman, child, young, old. It’s intuitive, it’s ergonomically correct, and it does all these things the consumer wants and the vehicle’s providing a lot of the value,” Dannewitz says. “What we’ve done is create a system of products that actually utilize the RV and take the benefits of the RV, a fixed structure that’s level and secure and then attaching to it and from it.”

For example, take Thule’s table. While a weatherproof surface and durable aren’t noteworthy today, the SMART RV version certainly is, as it’s firmly anchored at one end to an RV. “I’ve got the only anti-tip, kid-friendly table on the entire market,” says Dannewitz, a father of three. “It catches at two points; it cannot and will not tip over. As a parent, that’s important.” Combined with adjustable legs and a folding top, Thule’s table seems just about perfect for RVers.

Yet Dannewitz is quick to note the company’s great ideas weren’t invented in a lab; instead, Thule did what it has always done when it comes to product development: it talked to, and watched, its potential customers in action.

“When we were in the process of developing this program, we wanted to go out and capture the voice of the consumer and one of the voices that really came out loud and clear was Mom. Mom had a lot to say about the RV experience,” he says. “What she would describe is that most of the pre-packing falls on her. She told us once she gets to the campsite, she’d much rather just spend a little extra time doing some pre-packing and use things that would make it easier once she got to camp so she spent less time setting camp up.”

When Mom told Thule about endless trips between the indoors and out to set the table, company engineers created a convenient solution to eliminate the footwork.

“There’s a little soft-goods organizer called the Table Caddy that actually attaches to the arms that go up and anchor onto the Pods themselves for the table,” Dannewitz says. “There’s pocket for plates, knives, forks, and spoons. Mom asked if there was a way to keep bugs and moisture out if she left it outdoors overnight, so it’s got a zipper closure to do that.”

Noting that little things mean a lot to consumers, Dannewitz says Thule solved the nagging problem of where to put paper towel rolls that have a habit of rolling under a trailer or being out of a child’s reach during an outdoor meal.

“There’s two extremely simple little shock cords that connect to our countertop organizer and those go right down the tube of paper towel roll. Now it’s right down at kid level, provides easy access, doesn’t come off,” he says. “If you’re going to have a countertop, the organizer itself creates a real functional station, so now you’ve got a place for different things.”

Another clever Pod attachment is the SMART RV Trash Bin. Its design was a result of seeing campers tie garbage bags to awning arms, Dannewitz says.

“If you tie a garbage bag closed, a kid’s not going to use it. If you leave it open, you’ve got stuff all over camp,” he says. “It mounts to our Anchor Pod and it takes a standard kitchen garbage bag that mounts on the inside, but you don’t see it. It’s concealed inside of this nice, technical outdoor fabric. It’s got a hard plastic lid, so bugs stay out and smells stay in, but you flip the lid up, and it’s open for business.”

Customers are buying two of them, according to Dannewitz, then placing one outside for trash, and using the other inside, as Pods can be placed almost anywhere, for dirty clothes.

Thule’s focus has always been on helping its customers enjoy their outdoor activities, he says, and it’s obvious the company has succeeded; it owns a stunning 60-percent share of the vehicle rack market, while second-place competitor Yakima Products, Dannewitz’s former employer, has only 20 percent. Thule has been making rack systems since the 1960s; it entered North America in 1980.

“We’re different,” Dannewitz says. “Yes, we’re here to sell products, we all are. That’s what makes everything go around. However, what we’re really here to do is enhance the experience and help our customers, both the OEMs and our aftermarket partners, to provide elegantly simple products.”

Thor Opens the Door for Thule

Thule owes much of its RV market entry to Thor Industries. That’s the company that lent Dannewitz an ear when he came calling with the SMART RV concept three years ago.

“I made a phone call to Dicky Riegel, chief operating officer at Thor Industries, whom I knew through other people. I introduced myself and said, ‘I’ve got some technology for the RV channel that I think you’d be very interested in and if you’d give me an hour of your time, I will meet you anywhere in the country tomorrow,’” Dannewitz says. “He said he wouldn’t pass up that offer and told me to be there at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning at his office in New York City.”

Dannewitz recalls Riegel being so excited about the SMART RV system, he called in Wade Thompson, Thor’s chairman, to sit in on the presentation. Not long after Dannewitz began again, Riegel enthusiastically took over the meeting partway through to show Thule’s concepts to Thompson.

“He said, ‘This is exactly what we’ve been talking about, getting some fresh ideas from people on the outside and this is the perfect fit; it’s new technology, it’s innovation and it’s coupled with a very strong brand,’” Dannewitz says. “Next thing I know, Dicky’s back behind his desk and he’s banging out some e-mails to the presidents of each and every one of the Thor Industries companies.”

That resulted into a chance to speak with the management of each Thor subsidiary about rolling the SMART RV system into a product.

“Literally, within three days, I was in Indiana, doing presentations to top-level managers of all these organizations,” he says. “From the first meeting, the team at Dutchmen had the same response as Dicky. They got it. These guys were already innovators. They weren’t just looking for innovation, they had already been innovating.”

That meeting, of course, led to Thule’s inclusion in the development of Dutchmen’s Topo, a radically styled, lightweight towable that Dannewitz believes will appeal to buyers with smaller tow vehicles. Still, Thule faces an uphill road to success in the market, even when the economy improves.

“The biggest challenge for the RV channel, and it’s a big challenge right now given the economy and the state of the market, is that the industry is more comfortable selling relatively entry-level products and they don’t know how to sell premium technology,” he says.

To help parts departments improve their ability to sell a premium line, Thule has been working closely with distributors.

“The area of focus that still needs to be further developed by Thule is more of the in-store merchandising,” Dannewitz says. “What’s great is we’ve got some very strong partners in Stag-Parkway, NTP and Coast. All of them are in agreement that the technology is an extremely strong fit and very relevant to the market and the consumer.”

For Thule, point-of-purchase is a specialty, Dannewitz says. For proof, just walk into an REI store or other major outdoor retailer; Thule products are fairly easy to find.

“When you look at a footprint of your average RV parts department and showroom, it’s a little bit different than what we’re accustomed to working with, and so it’s really causing us to rethink the way that we use space,” he says. “We realize RV dealers don’t have as much space, but it also comes down to the dealer starting to make choices about how they’ve been using their space.”

Thule Expands Reach in Towing Market

Thule Group may not be widely known in the U.S. RV accessories market today, but make no mistake, the private Swedish parent of Thule North America has set it sights on becoming a bigger player in the near future. Over the last few years, it’s been quietly growing both domestically and abroad in preparation for bigger things.

In 2006, Thule purchased Valley Industries, a popular maker of towing products in the U.S., as well as Brink Towbars, a similar company that serves the European market. That same year, Nordic Capital-owned Thule also purchased SportRack, the No. 3 vehicle rack maker in America.

“We definitely are full believers that leisure is just part of the lifestyle Americans enjoy and that’s never going to fully go away,” says Chris Dannewitz, vice president of business development for Thule North America. “This industry is probably the most perfect match for Thule based on our vision and our brand statement. We’ve actually been in the RV channel for quite some time, we’ve just been on the tow vehicle.”

Thule has been creating vehicle racks for bicycles, canoes, skis, and other equipment in the U.S. since the 1980s and now leads the market by a considerable margin. It’s also tops in European RV accessories, through its Omnistor unit, which was purchased in 2005. Founded in 1977, Omnistor will be re-branded under the Thule name soon, and Dannewitz says many of the technologies used in that market will make the trip to the States next year.

In addition, Thule last year bought two other domestic manufacturers: Case Logic, well-known here for its vehicle interior organization products, and UWS, which offers truck boxes and accessories for the professional market.

Finally, Thule is a large cargo and utility trailer maker under its Thule Trailers and Brenderup lines. While its products also were sold in North America, Dannewitz says the company has temporarily exited the market. Still, if its recent activities are any indication, Thule will become a player in that segment, too.

– Mike Harbour

Thule Unveils Solar Awning Concept

During its short time in the RV industry, Thule has established itself as an innovator. The most recent example is the company’s announcement that it will partner with Dickson Textiles to develop a box awning with a solar panel integrated into the fabric. The product is not yet on the market.

According to Thule, this new technology can change the way electricity is generated for the RV, substantially increasing independence from generators and external power supplies while decreasing the impact on the environment. With electricity produced by solar cells, consumers reduce their impact on the environment, while improving their autonomy and enjoyment of the outdoor experience.

Roadtrek Motorhomes, which will exclusively offer Thule box awnings on its motorhomes, showcased the solar-powered awning concept on one of its RVs at the recent National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky