20 July 2022
20 July 2022, Comments Comments Off on Alexander Leopold – Erwin Hymer Group
Alexander Leopold - Erwin Hymer Group

A four-pillar strategy for a complete range

Alexander Leopold is the CEO of Dethleffs and will be the next CEO of Erwin Hymer Group. Here are his views on how the historic German company Dethleffs is facing important challenges in all market segments

Words Antonio Mazzucchelli

How is Dethleffs managing one of the most complex yet challenging moments in history for the RV industry? That’s what we asked Alexander Leopold, who has been the company’s CEO for several years. As one of the major producers in this sector, a pillar of the Erwin Hymer Group (EHG) and an integral part of the THOR Industries group, the German company, Dethleffs, respects its over 90 year history, but moves decisively forward towards the future. Alongside a consolidated production of traditional caravans and motorhomes, it also competes well in the campervan and urban camper segment, and is experimenting with various solutions in the field of electric vehicles.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Dethleffs is one of the most historic companies in the European RV sector. What were the main stages in the evolution of the company?
Alexander Leopold: Dethleffs was a pioneer of caravanning when Arist Dethleffs invented the caravan in 1931 and thereby launched the German caravanning industry. Since then, the company has grown constantly, developing an ever-increasing range of caravans. In 1977, it was amongst the first companies to begin producing motorhomes. Further important milestones were the foundation of MC Rent and Sunlight, around 17 years ago. Both are now successful brands of the Erwin Hymer Group.
In 2004, Dethleffs started the development and production of camper vans for Pössl. In 2017, our pioneering spirit saw us launch a fully electric-propelled motorhome, the “E.Home”. This in turn led to the first electric-propelled caravan in 2021. Another important step was the launch of the new Crosscamp brand in 2019. That marked our highly successful move into the digitization of sales processes, together with a completely new dealer network.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Can you give us a current overview of Dethleffs?
Alexander Leopold: Dethleffs is a brand of the Erwin Hymer Group, which was bought in 2019 by THOR Industries based in Elkhart, Indiana, USA – the world’s largest manufacturer of recreational vehicles.
We produce our vehicles in Isny in southern Germany, and at a new plant close to Isny. In addition, some Dethleffs caravan ranges and a small number of motorhomes are produced further north in Sassenberg, which supports our production capacity in Isny.
We offer a full range of caravans, from entry-level models to premium and mainstream motorhomes, and we are proud of having produced almost 60,000 campervans in Isny.
Finally, I’d like to highlight our deep knowledge of compact campervans. But we are not solely focused on production; service is also a key aspect of our offering. That’s why we’ve invested a lot in service processes and employee training.

Aboutcamp BtoB: What is Dethleffs’ current corporate structure? How does it fit into the wider Erwin Hymer Group and, beyond that, the THOR group?
Alexander Leopold: We have three managing directors. My colleague Thomas Bischofberger looks after finance and IT, Günther Wank is in charge of operations, and I take care of sales, HR and strategy. General services like IT or purchasing are shared with EHG and we create synergies in R&D and other departments.

Aboutcamp BtoB: What are the synergies and differences with Bürstner and LMC, the two brands of the Erwin Hymer Group that operate in a market segment similar to Dethleffs?
Alexander Leopold: Our brands are differentiated according to different types of customers and their preferences. We positioned Dethleffs as a full-line manufacturer of caravans, motorhomes, camper vans and an urban camper for the so-called “harmonizers” and “traditionalists”. Design, layout and product specification are managed individually by each of the brands and are entirely unique. However, we use opportunities when, for example, developing a motorhome on a new chassis. We split the development of shared parts that are not brand-specific among EHG brands. That saves costs, increases quality and dramatically accelerates time-to-market.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Which are the main markets for Dethleffs?
Alexander Leopold: The main market for Dethleffs is western Europe. Over the past three years, we’ve also seen significant growth in eastern Europe where our dealers and importers have done an excellent job in representing and selling our products. And let’s not forget New Zealand, South Korea and Japan. Currently, we’re also working on a promising project for the Chinese market. Our goal is to be always one step ahead.

Aboutcamp BtoB: What are your most recent investments, and do you have anymore planned?
Alexander Leopold: In 2017, we built a new plant for camper vans and urban campers in Isny. This was followed by a new site for Dethleffs Camper vans in 2021 about 30 km to the north of Isny. Last year, we moved our entire service department into a new building next to our factory. During this time, we also invested in our parts logistic processes to significantly improve delivery times and to boost efficiency and delivery quality. Over the next few years, we expect to expand the plant in Isny to increase our capacity to stock chassis and other parts.

Aboutcamp BtoB: You mentioned that you have a very wide range of products: caravans, motorhomes, camper vans and the urban camper. How does that mix work for you and does it involve a great deal of time and resources?
Alexander Leopold: We developed our Dethleffs four-pillar-strategy. All four product segments are important for us and we focus on them individually. Our whole organization and dealer network development is based on this strategy and it’s proving highly successful in providing our dealers plenty of business opportunities. They can offer a broad variety of different products to meet the customer’s needs and expectations as well as offering a comprehensive service and parts service from a single reliable and well-known source. This enables dealers to upsell and find the right product for our customers in different family situations, which is a great way to build and sustain long-term customer relationships.
With our Crosscamp brand, we are focusing on a very different target group – hedonists and adventurers. The products, marketing and sales network are different from Dethleffs, which helps us to expand our potential market.
Of course, this product complexity does represent a challenge. But it’s a question of organization and of intelligent product design. If you have a professional team and coach them in the right way, the complexity is manageable even if it’s hard work.

Aboutcamp BtoB: In recent years, there has been rapid growth in the campervan market segment, but also compact campervans (mini-campervans) with pop-up roofs: how did you manage this phenomenon?
Alexander Leopold: Since we started design and production for Pössl in 2004, we have been following this market and its development very carefully. In 2017, we built a highly efficient plant specifically for these products and, with Crosscamp, we launched a brand that offers urban campers built on Toyota and Opel chassis. This was done to meet the growth demands we anticipated seeing in this segment.
At the same time, our dealers were increasingly demanding Dethleffs-branded camper vans and urban campers, so in 2021 we launched production of the Dethleffs campervan “Globetrail” and the Dethleffs “Globevan” urban camper on a Ford chassis. New products are set to follow. We will soon started working with Nissan and have now developed an exclusive product for them. Nissan is currently selling that through their dealer network in Germany, and who knows what else will come… Our revised business approach ensures that the Dethleffs and Crosscamp dealer network will have enough campervan production capacity in future. Supporting that, our experienced campervan and urban camper R&D team has been fully dedicated to Dethleffs and Crosscamp branded products for the last two years.

Aboutcamp BtoB: You have presented some fascinating vehicles that use alternative sources both for propulsion and for powering the on-board utilities. How have they developed and do you have any other news in that area?
Alexander Leopold: Our fully electric driven E-home was a concept that we presented in 2017. We knew that it was too early and too expensive to be commercially viable, but we gained masses of experience. Since then, we have been consistently exploring this path further with recreational vehicles. In 2021, this led to the first self-propelled caravan crossing of the Alps without re-charging either the towing electric car or the E-Home caravan. With the key support of EHG colleagues and ZF, we successfully proved that a journey of that scale is technically possible.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Is the campervan phenomenon destined to undergo transformations in the medium-term future? If so, how?
Alexander Leopold: I don’t think so. It is still the fastest-growing market segment in Europe, with over 40% growth in 2021. I’m more concerned about bigger motorhomes.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Unlike other European manufacturers, Dethleffs has not abandoned the caravan segment: why?
Alexander Leopold: Why would we want to give up the DNA of our brand, which dates back to 1931, when there is still a relatively stable market? The products are well established and enjoy a reputation for high quality. This year, largely for logistical reasons, we were not able to produce as many vehicles as the market requested – so demand is not our problem. We are very successful in the caravan segment and expect to make further inroads into numerous markets around the world. We are passionate about caravans.

Aboutcamp BtoB: What do you think is the future of the caravan? Do you anticipate a decrease in demand for caravans, together with a further weakening caused by the disappearance of diesel engines?
Alexander Leopold: The caravan is still the cheapest way into the world of caravanning for a young family. If you speak with caravan customers, it’s impossible to miss the real passion they have for caravans. And even with the rapid development of alternative drives, diesel engines will still be playing a major role in mobility for a long time to come. It’s a totally robust technology that is ideal for passionate caravan customers.

Aboutcamp BtoB: In the past, Dethleffs built its reputation for inventiveness and quality on products or concept vehicles with a strong innovative value: the AeroStyle and Coco caravans, for example, but also the Evan mini-motorhome. Do you see potential in the future for the development of such distinctive but also expensive projects?
Alexander Leopold: There’s no rule to say that innovative concepts and products need to be expensive. We are working on numerous different product developments as we want to remain pioneers in the industry.

Aboutcamp BtoB: How has Dethleffs responded to major events such as the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war? What measures have you taken to deal with such unpredictable situations?
Alexander Leopold: We have learned to organize ourselves according to the changing situation in the past. The key has been achieving an effective balance between our excellent and motivated employees, highly flexible production operations and a creative approach to management, all of which has enabled us to rapidly respond to the major challenges we are faced with. I’m proud of our management and their teams. We remain optimistic and we continue to look for opportunities, of which there are many. But, as ever, these chances do not come without risk.

Aboutcamp BtoB: How are you managing to compensate for the lack of raw materials, components and chassis, for example?
Alexander Leopold: This is indeed an almost daily challenge. It helps that we have the backing of EHG and an excellent relationship with all our suppliers. We are all in the same boat – manufacturers and suppliers – so we need to work together in a trusting and pragmatic manner. One practical response has been to further standardize our products so that we are less exposed to supply fluctuations. We decided very early to expand the number of chassis suppliers, even if that meant additional complexity. And our four-pillar-strategy will provide a structure to help our dealers and ourselves to remain successful in the months and years ahead.