2021 Indiana 100: Tech, younger customers key to RV maker’s growth

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Bob Martin
Thor Industries
president and CEO

You couldn’t blame Thor Industries CEO Bob Martin for reclining in one of the many recreational vehicles his company sells.

With his Elkhart-based company’s products rolling off the lot at breakneck speeds and the company’s most recent quarterly revenue at a record level, you might think Martin could put it in cruise control.

But the 6-foot, 6-inch former Purdue University offensive lineman doesn’t play that kind of game. Instead, the Boilermaker grad is charging downfield like he’s down six and on a two-minute drill.

His approach isn’t surprising for those who know him. Martin, 51, started his career with an entry-level job for Coachman RV 26 years ago and furiously worked his way up the ladder.

Now, he’s the head of one of the biggest publicly traded companies in Indiana and, instead of resting on his laurels, he’s creating technology-oriented executive roles within his company—with former Whirlpool Corp. executive Josef Hjelmaker recently hired as Thor’s first chief innovation officer, looking to make big technological advancements in Thor’s products and attract a new generation of RV users in the process.

(Photo by Charles Jischke, courtesy of Thor)

Thor has a tremendous demand for its products right now. To what do you attribute that?

People forget we were off to a very good start in 2020. We are just seeing more people coming to the industry.

As the RV lifestyle has grown in popularity with the younger demographic, we’ve continued to do well. The evolution of the product fits very well with the younger demographic we see come in.

The technology really speaks to the younger buyer: features like 4G Wi-Fi antennas and cell phone boosters, electronic [tablet-like] controllers, smart TVs and multiple TVs. Today’s RVs simply have the technology that appeals to younger buyers.

We’re also putting in things like custom interiors, high-end cabinetry and a lot of other amenities. Many of those features appeal to more than just the younger demographic. As we’re looking at this year, it’s been upward the entire year. Sales were over $3 billion for the last quarter. Last year, [total] sales were at about $8 billion.

Did Thor get a boost from the pandemic?

We certainly did. People weren’t staying in hotels, going on cruises or going overseas. It was a 20% boost—probably not as big as people would think.

A lot of our existing customers decided to trade up. We had some new buyers who, with scarce inventory, maybe didn’t quite get the right one and have already come back to trade in for one that more fits their lifestyle and family needs.

This is now not a pandemic thing. We’ve been able to attract younger people who have developed the interest. The sooner we can get people into the funnel, the better it is for the long-term of the business.

Thor recently created a new leadership position, chief innovation officer; why is that an important role for the company?

Our leadership team has done a great job with technology, but we see bigger things coming. There are opportunities we need to be pursuing—everything up to an electric vehicle that could even be autonomous. Every RVers’ dream is to plug in an address, go to sleep and wake up at the campsite. That may be a ways down the road, but we want to stay up with and be out front of everything coming.

There are also some things within the RVs themselves. There are more electronic features we’re adding every day.

There are many opportunities for Josef [the new chief innovation officer] to focus on technological advances. He has the automobile technology background and expertise from Whirlpool where he worked on connected appliances. We see a great advantage of having many of these features in our RVs.

Why was Josef Hjelmaker a good fit for that new role?

He has much experience on the product-development side as well as the operations side. He has automotive experience coming out of Delphi [Electronics & Safety]. He’s from Sweden and speaks German and we own six companies in Germany. He worked on consumer goods and a lot of his latest technology work was in connectivity, and that’s something we have interest in. We see more and more opportunities in that.

His personality and values really fit this company. He’s very, very smart. He’s raised the IQ of the office tremendously. And his life and passion is traveling.

He’s taken one of our units, our new prototype, and is in the Smokey Mountains right now. He really brings the knowledge and passion of what we’re doing together.

While working at Whirlpool, Josef focused on smart and connected devices. Is that important to Thor?

We’ve been into that for a couple years, but Josef will take it to another level with his experience and background.

Many people use Thor’s products to get away and connect with nature. How can technology connect people to nature?

Even when I go on vacation, I carve out at least 30 minutes a day to go through my email. If not, I’m buried in emails when I get back. I’m not alone. With technology, people disconnect during the day, but at night it’s good to get caught up. I probably wouldn’t sleep as well if I wasn’t connected a little bit and caught up.

And it also allows you to watch your TV shows or a movie. You can go to some very remote places and be one with nature but at the same time being connected is not a horrible thing.

Do you expect some announcements of Thor’s plans with respect to technological initiatives or advancements for the company’s products in the coming months or year?

Several projects will be unveiled this fall, some very fun and major technological advancements.

Thor just announced a partnership with Outdoor Recreation Roundtable to form the Together Outdoors Coalition, which focuses on making the outdoors more welcoming and inclusive. Why is this an important initiative?

We need to be totally inclusive to everyone. RVing is something everyone can enjoy. With all the changes of the last year, everyone really is looking to get outside and connect with nature. And we want to reach out to welcome everyone.

As I go to campgrounds, they’re very welcoming, and we want to reflect that. This feels like a perfect thing to do coming out of a pandemic with a lot of social unrest over the last year.•

Check out more of IBJ’s ranking of Indy’s fastest-growing companies.

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