MIDDLEBURY — A group of local RV industry veterans is betting their reputations, their time and their money on a new business model for the industry.
“This is putting our money where our mouth is, and we never looked back” said Don Clark, president of Grand Design RV. Clark founded the company alongside Bill Fenech and Ron Fenech.
They left major positions in Thor Industries in the second half of 2011 and decided to start over. “We knew we wanted to create a special company, something that’s going to matter to the industry,” Clark said.
They have a 67-acre site north of Middlebury with 450,000 square feet of manufacturing space. Right now they have exactly one product with exactly one floor plan. They have exactly one dealer in any given market.
At the most, they plan to have six product lines, one for each market segment they’ll target.
That’s a big change from most of the industry, which sometimes has a dealer for one line just a few miles away from another dealer offering a line that may have a different name, but it may be the exact same product made by the same company.
Frank DeGellas, owner of Mike Thompson RV, the biggest RV dealer in California, said he’s glad to see Grand Design take that approach. “I really, really believe in it. It will make the salesmen believe in the product, it’ll make the dealers believe in the product, and the customer will believe in the product. That’s important, because at the end of the day I have to make the customer happy,” DeGellas said.
To Clark, he said, “Your timing looks like it couldn’t be better,” given the growth in the RV market.
When the Grand Design crew finished building the first prototype earlier in January, “all of the people in the plant knew we had something special,” Clark said, and they already knew they had dealer support, which was humbling and terrifying.
Clark said early indications are good and they expect a strong spring sales season. “The product is just getting out into the market,” he said.
When they went to the RV show in Tampa, Fla., last month and showed off Solitude, which Clark termed an entry level luxury fifth wheel, “it was amazing the response from the retail consumer.”
He said people guessed that the Solitude would cost from $10,000 to $20,000 more than it does. “It was amazing the response,” Clark said.
In building those, they got to hand-pick their crew, Clark said, and they wanted to be right here. “Middlebury’s got an incredible workforce base,” for one thing. The complex they bought fits their needs perfectly, and, most importantly, Clark said, “it’s home.”
He and the Fenechs “want to be part of the fabric of the community and very involved in it,” Clark said.
They’re taking things slowly. “We’re taking our time. Quality is our first concern,” Clark said.
They’re looking ahead to future expansion. “We’re poised to grow,” Clark said.
BIRTH OF AN RV COMPANY
July 2011: Ron Fenech and Bill Fenech announce plans to leave leadership positions in Thor Industries, Ron overseeing the RV division and Bill as head of Thor Motor Coach. Bill Fenech left at the end of the month, while Ron Fenech stayed through September.
November 2011: Don Clark leaves as head of Thor’s Dutchmen Group.
May 2012: The trio forms a company, Rolling Stone, though doesn’t begin operations.
July 2012: A real estate company is formed to look for a home for the future RV producer, which is on its second possible name: Black Bear.
August 2012: The trio buys a facility on C.R. 2 for $8 million.
October 2012: After multiple name changes, Grand Design RV officially starts operations north of Middlebury.
November 2012: The trio plans to unveil the company to about 50 dealers in Louisville, Ky. Hundreds show up.
January 2013: The company shows off its first two prototypes to consumers in Tampa, Fla. Later in the month it shipped the first unit to an RV dealer in Alabama.
February 2013: Grand Design ramps up production to two units a day, with plans to double that soon.