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Q&A with Huw Bower

President, Winnebago Outdoors

When I caught up with Huw Bower last month, he was prepping for his family’s relocation from Chicago to Minnesota after accepting, in October, the role as president of Winnebago Outdoors. The new job ends his 15-year run with Brunswick Corp., where he most recently was president of the Boat Group.

Bower and his family were also about to set off in one of the 63-year-old Winnebago company’s latest offerings — the Solis camper van — for a trip that would take them south on an extended vacation into Florida before the move to the Gopher State.

The executive spent his formative years in Southeast Asia with his family, returning to his native England at age 12 to attend boarding school and college, then begin his service in the British Army.

We talked about the challenges of going from one iconic brand to another; Winnebago’s push into the virtual show space; the company’s environmental, social and corporate governance commitments; and the leadership skills he honed in the military.

Did you grow up spending time in the outdoors?

Yes, I did. I was brought up in Singapore for six years as a kid, so my early activities included sailing and boating around the Changi Sailing Club. And then when I came back to the U.K., I was in boarding school. That gave me an opportunity to do a lot of camping and walking up in Wales and Scotland. So from a very early age, I had a very strong outdoor exposure and just passion for it. It was a big part of my life. And then, of course, stepping into the army gives you a lot of outdoor opportunities, not just on exercise but also in sailing, skiing and adventure training. It’s been an important part of my life ever since I was a very young kid.

Winnebago’s Forest City, Iowa, facility is the world’s largest motor home manufacturing plant. 

Winnebago’s Forest City, Iowa, facility is the world’s largest motor home manufacturing plant. 

And why were you in Singapore?

My father was a civil engineer, so he spent most of of traveled around the world, mostly in Asia and in Singapore, but also South Africa and Antigua. I came back to boarding school when I was 12 and stayed in the U.K. from really 12 onward.

What skills did you learn in the army that you still use today?

My family has a strong military connection, so it was always an ambition of mine to get into the military. After I went to the University of Edinburgh University, I went into the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst to do my officer training. After that, I joined the artillery and spent seven years in the army. I was based out of Germany and out of the U.K., but I did lots of active service. I was in Bosnia and Kosovo on peacekeeping missions in the late ’90s. And then, of course, deployed with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. I saw a lot of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You asked about leadership frameworks or skills that I deployed; it’s actually very simple to me. The foundational element of leadership is trust. You have to make sure that your soldiers or your employees trust that you’re going to look after them. You have a duty of care in terms of their well-being, their training, their readiness to deploy. That’s foundational to any team. There’s also a second level of trust, earned trust, that they know you’re going to make sound decisions and judgments, right? So they need to know you’re technically proficient and capable, and you instill confidence.

And then thirdly, they have to trust you’re going to be consistent in your expectations and standards and that you don’t jump from priority to priority. Those three elements work together. And if you’ve got those three elements of trust, you’ve got a powerful and mutually respecting team. I think the principles are the same in business as in a small team in a military environment.

You spent 15 years in brand leadership and other executive roles at Brunswick Corp. What are you most proud of from your time there?

Many things. Brunswick was a fantastic career opportunity for me. I joined straight after doing an MBA. Very fond memories of my time there. I had the opportunity to run my first business, and turning it profitable after the financial crisis was a big deal for me, a huge learning experience. So stepping into that leadership role and making sure you can align a team around a financial goal and then execute it was phenomenal. I also had the enormous privilege of running one of the most iconic brands in the world — Boston Whaler — and working with a brilliant team.

But then, more fundamentally, I got to a point in my career where I realized that running a good business has a profound impact on individual lives and the communities that we serve. We are big employers in small communities in very many cases, so running a successful business and delivering growth and profit is one measure of success. But another measure is the fact that you’re developing people. You’re giving people meaningful careers. And it was driven home to me when I was at one of my businesses and an employee came up to me and said, “You know what? The confidence I have in this business, in our product line, our brand, our story, our growth and in my career means that I feel confident to propose to my fiancé. I’m going to buy a house. I’m going to start a family.”

You affect individual lives in really meaningful ways. Similarly, you affect communities in meaningful ways, and that part of business, I think, was something I had underappreciated until that moment in time. So that’s meaningful, and I get a great deal of joy out of that. Everywhere I’ve been, and my family has been with me, I’ve enjoyed that aspect of the community impact we have.

At Brunswick, I also had the opportunity to bring out great products and see how it resonates with consumers. Fundamentally, these businesses … we make people happy, right? Going on a rendezvous, I love meeting with consumers. And it’s looking at them use our product and realizing the joy we’re bringing into those families and those lives, because we design and engineer great, safe and innovative products. That’s really appealing.

The Class B Revel is diesel-powered and built on a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis. For off-grid 
activities, it has two, 125-amp-hour LiFePO batteries, a hydronic heating system and 4WD capability.

The Class B Revel is diesel-powered and built on a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis. For off-grid activities, it has two, 125-amp-hour LiFePO batteries, a hydronic heating system and 4WD capability.

Winnebago is also an iconic brand. What is the same about overseeing strategic planning and business development there?

The Winnebago brand, the flying “W,” is iconic — arguably one of the most recognized and iconic brands in the outdoor space — so that was a significant part of the attraction for me.

The industries are fundamentally similar in the design and engineering complexity of the product; the operational requirements; the preferences of consumers in terms of quality, connectivity, electrification; and that we sell through a dealer channel. These products are also emotional purchases, and it’s important how the brand resonates in the consumer psyche about this aspiration. … “I want to safely experience the great outdoors with my family and friends.” That’s consistent between the two business areas. And employees are really passionate about these brands and invested in making their brands great.

So brands matter in these spaces. And if you’ve got the strongest brand, you can really drive success, and that’s an exciting opportunity for me. It’s a fragmented playing field, and brand strength and scale matters in these two industries.

Let’s talk about Winnebago’s portfolio of RVs. Would you break down the segments?

We have a presence right across the RV spectrum. We build both in the traditional Class A motor homes, which are the large, 30-plus-foot motor home segment. We have a really compelling, vibrant lineup in the Class Bs, which include the [Mercedes-Benz] Sprinter chassis. They’re catering to a different sort of consumer, and they’re exploding and actually driving a lot of the growth. And the traditional Class Cs — we have a great lineup in Class Cs. We also have towables, fifth wheels and traditional travel trailers, so we span the entire cross section. We have led the development of the Class B segment and hold leading share.

I think the team is proud of the fact that our new product consistently delights our core consumers while redefining segments and creating new consumers. The purpose of businesses is to create new consumers and new consumer segments, and that’s what we’ve done in those areas. Take the Revel, take the Ekko, take the Journey — it’s just incredible new product that is creating tremendous demand.

Winnebago calls the new Ekko an ultracompact Class C motor home. 

Winnebago calls the new Ekko an ultracompact Class C motor home. 

Where are you seeing the most growth?

We’re seeing a lot of growth in both Class B and C. And we’re driving the majority of that growth. In fact, we fully anticipate that other people are going to come into that segment as a result of our success.

They’re really versatile platforms. They look great. They’re small. They’re agile. There’s also a big off-the-grid component to this, so they’re efficient. And four-wheel-drive capability just opens up opportunities. Very exciting.

How have facility closures affected business? Are production lines still playing catch-up from last year’s incredible demand?

I was at Brunswick when Covid hit. But nevertheless, the impact was similar in the RV industry. In the month of March, we suspended production at Winnebago. We took the time to implement leading protocols in terms of health and safety controls to ensure that we can operate in a safe environment for our employees when they did return. Employees returned in early May. And since then, of course, the retail change has been dramatic. We went from a complete shutdown in late March and April, with very low levels of retail, and then it exploded during the summer. That demand has continued.

We’re seeing a lot of people flock to the great outdoors, in terms of both boats and RVs, and it’s been unprecedented demand. So when you shut down facilities and then are faced with enormous demand, [you’re] playing catch-up. Inventory at dealerships are at record lows. We have been consistently ramping up our facilities over the last few months. We’ve been adding production. We’ve been hiring and training a lot of new people.

We’ve done an excellent job in engineering our manufacturing lines to significantly increase production while adding new lines at the same time, so I’m very proud of the team and how agile and nimble we have been throughout this whole process. Underpinning all this is the safety and health of our employees, and we have continued to mature our strong operating protocols to scale safely.

In addition to 30-plus-foot Class A motor homes, Winnebago also builds fifth 
wheels and traditional travel trailers. 

In addition to 30-plus-foot Class A motor homes, Winnebago also builds fifth wheels and traditional travel trailers. 

What other types of challenges is Winnebago facing?

Our supply-chain partners have done a really good job in increasing their production and keeping up. There are obviously points of constraint, and we’re partnering very closely to make sure we unlock as much capacity as we can while maintaining quality.

As I mentioned, we’re also hiring a lot of people. So we are constantly looking at the culture we have. We’re making sure we are providing the right opportunities for new employees as they come in, offering them the right training programs and incentives and benefits. The hiring aspect is a very real challenge, as we operate in communities with low unemployment, and we’re doing it in a very sustainable, thoughtful, intentional way.

How has Winnebago adapted to a world without in-person RV and boat shows?

When I joined the business, one of the first things we did was a virtual product launch. I had no part in its planning or execution, but this virtual launch was the single best executed digital event I’ve seen. The team did a phenomenal job. It had the sense of anticipation as we were leading up to it. It had an enormous number of consumers who attended. Dealers were trained and prepared for the chat room breakout sessions. And then, we had a very authentic engagement between consumers and our leadership team as they revealed new product, had one-on-one interviews, and led deep walkthroughs on the product. And off the strength of those virtual releases, we secured enormous — both wholesale and retail — demand. So a fantastic pivot from a traditional show. We’ll do more things like that.

But we’ve also continued to participate at the shows that do go ahead. The Florida RV SuperShow went ahead [in January, in Tampa] for us. That was a great opportunity for us to really show our consumers and dealers how we can safely engage in this environment.

We sent our safety manager from Winnebago to the show to make sure that the protocols we put in place in our facilities were also put in place in our display. We’re keeping our employees safe. We’re keeping our customers safe when they walk into the display. We’re keeping our dealer representatives safe, as well. I was, and am, really proud of that.

Not only did we have a knockout display, our products looked fantastic and we were all energized and ready to go in a really safe way. Safety is one of the core pillars of our brand. So we are engaging in shows, but we’re also developing this new muscle and this new digital capability, and it’s very exciting and yielding good results.

When the pandemic hit, families flocked to the RV and boating lifestyles as a means of escape.

When the pandemic hit, families flocked to the RV and boating lifestyles as a means of escape.

We are coming off a year of incredible growth in boating and RVs. How do we retain the newcomers?

We’ve got this wonderful opportunity where people are yearning to get outside, be with family, be with friends and socialize safely in an outdoor space. They’re flocking into the RV lifestyle, which is phenomenal. But new consumers in this space do have different challenges. There are different opportunities for us to engage. So we’ve taken the whole concept of customer journey mapping, from that moment we meet the customer online through to the point of sale, through to the point of delivery and early experiences with the vehicle. How do we rapidly familiarize and empower our customers? How do we make it intuitive — the systems and the operations?

We’re approaching this consumer engagement in a very structured and smart way. One: Develop the customer journey map’s end-to-end experience. Two: Identify those touch points where we can make that experience memorable, pleasurable, easy and intuitive. And three: Develop and execute around those initiatives. We already lead in this space and have a phenomenal repertoire of videos in our “How To Solis,” “How To Revel” sites. If you buy a Solis or a Revel, you’ve got instant access to archives of videos that make operating the vehicle easy and intuitive. We’ve focused very strongly on the service and delivery aspect internally to our dealers, then from our dealers to these customers. That helps them get back on the road if they do need any warranty or service or repair or support.

And the final thing is the sense of belonging, right? When you buy one of these vehicles, it’s a significant investment. You’re buying into a community, and so making those social and community connections, that sense of belonging that Winnebago is so well-known for, is an important part of that early experience, as well. So along a number of dimensions, we’re really embracing the new customer and trying to make it as easy and welcoming as possible into the lifestyle.

What crossover do you see in Winnebago’s marine and RV systems?

The new Ekko, the Revel, they embody that off-the-grid lifestyle. They have great lithium-ion batteries that can run the systems for considerable periods of time, and solar recharging capability, as well. There’s a lot of things we’re putting into our vehicles to make sure that people can enjoy an off-the-grid lifestyle, a sustainable lifestyle. We’re also heavily invested in electrification opportunities. Within Winnebago, we have a specialty vehicles division, which is really leading the way in terms of commercializing electric shells. We have several vehicles out in the marketplace.

For example, UCLA bought a mobile, surgical instrumentation sterilization lab. They needed an electric vehicle because the vehicle parks outside their facilities, and the vehicle moves to different facilities, and there are anti-idling laws, so we created a mission-specific, all-electric vehicle for them to use. We also created a custom, all-electric preschool vehicle used in Vail [Colorado] that moves to several different facilities. And because the vehicles are parked in residential areas, an all-electric vehicle means no emissions, no noise. So we’re stepping into those opportunities in a very intentional way and leading the industry. Our specialty-vehicles division is really a hidden gem in the Winnebago crown.

How is Winnebago looking to decrease its carbon footprint, and how important is that effort?

It’s absolutely critical and central to what we do. We have a very keen and sincere focus on continuous improvement in all of our facilities. We have improvement goals that reduce our energy and water consumption per unit of production, and those are embedded in our continuous improvement teams at our facilities. We’ve examined our waste minimization efforts. We did a waste characterization study last year, and we have a focus and energy around increasing reuse, increasing recycling, and reducing or eliminating the waste we send to landfills.

We’ve also got a flagship — or halo project — around alternative energy to enhance operational efficiency. Beginning this year, we’re going to move one of our operating units to convert the majority of its manufacturing to solar power. Part of the whole environmental, social and corporate governance framework is not only reducing energy waste; we also contribute significantly to our community. I really appreciate the giving and community aspect of the Winnebago brand. We’ve made significant financial contributions, product donations, volunteer hours, and we continue to make [these efforts] in the community.

We also have a clear focus on our diversity initiatives in our business and organization. We’re expanding training and awareness. We’re expanding the leadership effort and focus in every operation, in every area, in order to make our businesses as attractive and welcoming as possible to everybody in our communities — places where people feel heard, respected, appreciated and are excited about how the enormous opportunities ahead of us can translate into meaningful, rewarding careers. Championing diversity, equity and inclusion is an intrinsic part of who we are and what we strive to become. 

This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue.


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