Don Clark says that launching rapidly growing towables manufacturer Grand Design RV has been the most rewarding accomplishment he’s experienced as a business leader – so far.
With more than 30 years in the industry under his belt, though, Clark isn’t ready to call it a day just yet.
“Hopefully, there will be other challenges and other examples of wins in the business world,” he says. And there likely will be, as Grand Design becomes an independent business unit within Winnebago Industries, and Clark joins Winnebago’s executive leadership team in addition to his role as president and CEO of Grand Design RV.
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One important task Clark sees himself retaining is serving as what he calls a “coach” for younger executives coming up through the ranks. Perhaps not surprisingly, he attributes a great deal of his success to building a great team and then letting those talented members do their thing, bound by shared goals and vision.
But, then, Clark says one of his earliest leadership influences was a high school wrestling coach.
“He taught me you did not loaf – that you gave it your all every day,” he says. “He pushed me to be everything I could possibly be in the arena of sports, but that also translates into life. I was very fortunate to have that kind of influence.”
The other person he gives credit to is his father, who at an early age put him to work in the family’s small construction business. From this, he learned not only a strong work ethic, but also the importance of being successful every day.
“Throughout my life, I’ve had various mentors who just reinforce what my dad taught me,” Clark says. “There’s no substitute for hard work and having a purpose in life. You have to have a vision and a goal and then work hard to achieve them.”
Notre Dame Win Spurs RV Career
However, it was the outcome of a football game that got Clark into the RV industry. As a college student, he was working in a small stereo store. The father of a friend thought he was wasting his time with such a job, bringing it up often enough that he eventually realized he was aggravating his son’s friend.
“One day he said, ‘I’ll tell you what, let’s bet on this football game, Notre Dame versus USC. If you win, I’ll never bring up the topic of your job again, but if you lose you have to interview with a company of my choice,’” Clark explains. “He said, ‘You don’t even have to take the job, Don, but you have to go for an interview.’
“I lost,” he adds. “It was one of the few times I’ve ever bet against Notre Dame. I went to an interview, and six-and-a-half hours later, I took a job at Coachmen.”
After starting in an entry-level position in the bill of materials department, Clark was promoted into purchasing, and then, after a couple years, joined the sales team.
“All through my career, I’ve had really strong people to look up to and learn from,” he says. “And, you learn from their decisions. Sometimes, I’d think to myself, ‘I can see that’s a way of making that decision, but given the opportunity I probably would not have made the same decision in the same way.”
Clark is quick to admit that being a Monday morning quarterback is easy, but he says that with the opportunity to look at how others make decisions, it’s still possible to learn from that proximity, and it definitely shaped his professional character.
“I also once heard – and very much believe – that reputations are made with the difficult decisions,” he says. “That has helped shape who and what I am, and what type of leader I’ve become in this industry, and in life in general.”
Still another realization that has shaped Clark’s thinking about leadership, he says, is that people don’t like to be micromanaged, because it stifles creativity. He adds that he was once guilty of this himself and he wishes he’d recognized that earlier in his career.
“People who excel or have the potential to excel in their field like to have their skill set used and they like to have their opinion heard,” he says. “You don’t have to follow their suggestions all the time, but they want to know their opinion makes a difference and is given careful consideration before a direction is taken.”
Early on, he explains his own aggressive nature would cause him to discount the information provided by his team in his desire to rush toward a goal, sometimes making avoidable mistakes along the way. It was only later that he learned to recruit what he calls high-performing individuals, then rely on their skills as much as his own.
“When you bring in those people who have the talent and ability to help drive a company forward, all you really need to do is make sure the company has a very well-thought-out direction, make sure you have team alignment regarding direction and goals, and let the collective team drive results,” Clark says. “I love to hire people who know more than I do in their various disciplines in business.”
It’s a philosophy that’s worked for Clark. He says some of his key employees – whom he calls, “extremely talented and strong business people” – have followed him as he has changed employers and now fill key roles with Grand Design.
It’s those same people, he adds that – along with business partners Ron and Bill Fenech – helped create the innovative business model and successful corporate culture that has made Grand Design one of the largest towables manufacturers in just a few short years.
Perhaps not surprisingly, these days Clark says his biggest challenge and greatest responsibility is to make sure the opportunities continue for both his senior people and those coming up to continue to grow.
“I have to keep our incredible business culture intact while not letting any of our people forget what brought us to the dance,” Clark says. “We’re a very, very strong company that values its people and is doing business in a different kind of way, which has served us well.”
To do that – and to keep from falling into an institutional mindset – Clark believes the key is to remain true to the company’s unique and (his word) disruptive business model.
“Our business model is one of the most unique things about Grand Design, and as long as the company and our individual managers stay true to that business model, we’ll continue to be
an innovative company in this industry,” he says.
Demanding But Fair
Clark offers several suggestions for young people who aspire to become business leaders. They include be demanding, but be fair; set goals; hold people accountable; and have patience.
And, he counsels, keep your eyes and ears open.
“Learn from those you can, and you can always learn from anyone,” he says. “You can learn what to do and you can learn what not to do, but learn from everyone you come in contact with.”
Clark says he takes a lot of inspiration from his own children – two daughters and a son – who have convinced him you can be kind and considerate and yet win in life. That realization, plus what he calls “professional maturity,” has encouraged him to devote more time to the coaching role he’s come to relish.
“I love to help others who want to succeed in the business world,” he says. “I’m always willing to lend an ear to their thoughts and ideas and give them a chance to talk about what they want to achieve down the road. It’s also a responsibility I take extremely seriously.”
Ultimately, Clark says he feels blessed to have had the opportunities he’s had in an industry that not only provides customers with an enhanced lifestyle, but has become more and more professional over the years, as well.
“I’ve come in contact with individuals who truly care about not just making the almighty dollar, but care about the growth and direction of our entire industry,” he concludes. “It’s a shame that all young adults starting in the business world can’t be equally exposed to such an amazing industry.”