Dave Thomas was appointed joint MD of Auto-Trail, one of the UK’s volume producers of motorhomes, in 2006. When his fellow MD retired in 2016, he was left on his own to drive the company forward. We caught up with Dave at Auto-Trail’s manufacturing facility in Grimsby, UK
Words Terry Owen
Since becoming part of the Trigano Group in 1999 Auto-Trail has gone from strength to strength, helped by a new factory that has already been extended twice. Occupying some 16,000 square metres on a 6.5-hectare (16 acre) site, it is staffed by around 200 employees. Dave is a quiet, unassuming, chap who leaves no doubt that he’s the right man for the job. In his 25 years at Auto-Trail he’s built up a vast knowledge of the business and how it operates. After gaining a degree in vehicle design at Lanchester polytechnic in 1982, he held a variety of posts within the automotive industry before joining Auto-Trail as Design Director in 1995. Dave’s a family man with a son and granddaughter.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How is the Covid 19 pandemic affecting sales and production?
Dave Thomas: The first Covid lockdown hit us hard and we had to close the factory on the 23rd of March 2020, as all our retail outlets were closed. We started back in late May after creating a safe working environment for our employees. Thankfully retail sales from early June 2020 have been very buoyant, with staycations and a new type of customer coming into the marketplace.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Have you had to slow down much, and what about Brexit?
Dave Thomas: We had already slowed somewhat prior to the Covid 19 restrictions. In the summer of 2019, dealer stocks of all brands were high in the UK, and customer confidence as we approached Brexit was waning. Retail sales were slowing and the Birmingham show in October was below normal retail volumes. As a result, we had to release around 50 staff in November 2019 and slow production down. We only build sold orders (dealer or retail), as building for stock when we offer so much customer choice is dangerous.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Are some components difficult to get?
Dave Thomas: Supplies had been fine up until the week before Christmas. Then UK ports became congested, as companies and suppliers tried to get goods in and out of the country before the end of December transition deadline. It became even more difficult in January, as ports and freight forwarders were being inundated with extra paperwork and requirements. We are hoping that this will settle down as everyone becomes more familiar with the new rules. Covid has had an impact with some of our supply base and two have called “Force Majeure” having been hit hard with the virus. We take great pride in paying them on time, no matter how difficult the economic conditions are. This builds confidence with our supplier base and we have a very good relationship with them in the UK, Europe and worldwide.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Have any employees had to be laid off or placed on the Government’s furlough scheme?
Dave Thomas: Since we acted with the market downturn in November 2019, we have not had to lay off any staff. However, in the first lockdown we furloughed around 90% of staff, in line with most of the industry, as we had no outlet for vehicles. Thankfully, things have been fairly smooth since we restarted the business last May.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How else has the business been affected?
Dave Thomas: Since the Brexit vote, sterling has weakened and, as a high percentage of our components come from Europe, it has meant that our costs have risen. Running up to the Brexit leave date of December 2019, we could see a turn down in customer confidence which ran through into early 2020, and then we were hit with Covid. The traditional Auto-Trail customers are aged circa 55+ and are investors who take their time when buying a high value product of any type. Motorhomes are no exception and, if there is any uncertainty, they wait until things become clearer.
Aboutcamp BtoB: With dealerships shut until further notice what provision are you making for customers to get familiar with your products?
Dave Thomas: When Covid hit we were halfway through our plans to launch revised models for the 2021 season, including our new ‘A ‘class range and low-profile Tracker. Many manufacturers chose to roll over the previous season’s models with cosmetic changes, but we already had chassis on order and were gearing up for the change, so carrying over was not really an option. This resulted in our photography and web site being late coming together since, either the vehicles were not available, or we had restrictions on photography. Then the October NEC show was cancelled. Our customers look forward to attending the show and seeing models in the flesh since it’s a rare chance to see all the Auto-Trail models under one roof. We therefore had to rethink our strategy. Given that vehicles are a dynamic product, we felt that a traditional brochure did not portray the true feeling of space or overall design. So, this year we’ve focussed on 360-degree flythrough camera views and exterior drone footage for our web site, to give as much information as we can. Of course, this does not replace a physical viewing, but it is as close as we can get to make the buying choice more informative.
Aboutcamp BtoB: The need for social distancing and staycations is bringing first time buyers to our industry. Do you think they’ll stay once it’s all over?
Dave Thomas: I hope that many of them will stay, once they have experienced the motorhome way of vacationing. However, we will no doubt see some fall off as other holiday options come back on board. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see so many first-time buyers, particularly buying smaller vehicles. A lot will no doubt be buying a small motorhome instead of buying a replacement second car. Taking a young family on holiday in a motorhome is an adventure, particularly when every day is a new place to explore, and it realigns family values with nature and the environment, something I believe we all need to do.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What do you see as the main challenges facing Auto Trail and the industry at the moment?
Dave Thomas: I guess in the short term it’s getting used to the new rules around Brexit – for the business as well as our customers. Fortunately, the industry has always been very adaptable and development lead times are relatively short when compared to other industries. That’s what makes it so dynamic. Beyond that, the environment is going to be a big factor, and whilst camping is ‘green’, there are other challenges with chassis propulsion and raw materials that need to be solved. The industry is not afraid to try new things, so it has a secure future.
Aboutcamp BtoB: The all-electric motorhome has arrived. When will Auto Trail join the party?
Dave Thomas: Obviously, we are in continuous contact with our two current chassis suppliers on all aspects of vehicle technology. We are also working with another vehicle manufacturer that is at the forefront of EV and autonomous systems. Electric cars are picking up volume in retail very quickly, as more charging points and models become available. Commercial vehicles are also starting along this path and I am sure there will be dramatic developments in the next few years. Of course, campsites will have to be upgraded to charge RV’s as well as supply power for the habitation area. As more charging points become available, ‘range anxiety’ will diminish. It’s a known fact that, as people get older, they worry more.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How do you see motorhome design evolving over the next few years?
Dave Thomas: I see the future of motorhome design being very exciting, as new fuels, materials and technology come into our industry. I believe the all-electric vehicle for propulsion and habitation will come to fruition in the near future. With chassis choice and supply from the main players condensing, I believe there could be a trend for the larger Groups to buy individual components to build their own complete vehicles. Arguably, electrification makes this easier, by having a battery pack with drive to each wheel, rather than a combustion engine mounted in the front. Autonomous driving will no doubt come into motorhomes, once it’s established in cars. I think we will also see more integration of habitation systems for cooling, heating, security and lighting, all controllable from a phone app.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How do you see the medium to long term sales trends for RV’s?
Dave Thomas: I believe the Covid crisis has opened people’s eyes to appreciate the fundamental and simple things in life. I therefore believe the RV sales trend will be very positive. Certainly, in the past year, the sales trend for smaller lighter vehicles, particularly van conversions, has accelerated; whilst the larger, heavier vehicles have slowed. Many of these smaller vehicle sales have been to newcomers to our industry. I believe this is for two main reasons. The first is that some owners who can drive over 3500 kg are reducing to it, so their offspring can take advantage. Secondly, larger vehicles are becoming more anti-social as roads get busier. Taking an eight metre plus vehicle on UK roads, particularly in the countryside, is not easy. I think this explains why smaller vehicles have become more popular over the years. However, we still sell a high percentage of large vehicles to Australia.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Auto Trail has dealerships in Australia and New Zealand – are you planning others elsewhere?
Dave Thomas: Not at this moment in time, as we are focussing on the UK and other right-hand drive countries. We are one of the few foreign manufacturers, if not the only one, to have full approval to sell in that country. Australia has many specific requirements that must be adhered to, particularly on chassis, heating systems, gas and electrics. We go to great lengths to build vehicles to meet these needs and have an enthusiastic importer who has four outlets.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Auto Trail has long offered factory tours to prospective customers and others. What benefit do you think you get from them?
Dave Thomas: We have always encouraged factory tours and we are very open as a company. Customers or potential customers can ask any questions they like, and a tour normally takes up to two hours. We try to educate customers on the complexities of making a motorhome and show the skill and care we take in creating our vehicles. We are unusual at Auto-Trail in that we build the body away from the chassis, before uniting them in the ‘marriage’. It’s always an exciting thing for visitors to watch.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Why does Auto-Trail build all its bodies away from the chassis?
Dave Thomas: The practice dates back to founder Bill Boasman’s time at Auto-Trail. The first reason was to quickly generate cashflow, building the body early and when the chassis arrived it could be invoiced. The second was, and still is, that building a body direct onto a chassis can sometimes lead to twisting of the structure. Building it separately makes it easier to build a square and rigid body. When the two are bolted and bonded together the result is a more structurally integrated motorhome, which reduces NVH.
Aboutcamp BtoB: It must be good to have the backing of a big organisation such as Trigano but can you be really agile with design and other matters?
Dave Thomas: We are wholly owned by Trigano and the Group operates in a very stand-off way. Whilst we co-operate on various projects, which allows us to cross reference and learn from each other, the Group believes in every business unit having its own identity. We may standardise on components under the skin (seat frames, chassis extensions etc) but what the customer sees and feels with each brand is individual to that brand.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Last year you celebrated 25 years with Auto Trail. What changes have you seen in that time?
Dave Thomas: I joined Auto-Trail when we were part of ABI Caravans and we were based in Immingham. The business was still operating from its original premises and comprised a series of units that had been knocked through to create one factory. They had very skilled people, but the product was dated, and ABI had not invested in the business. There were no formal drawings or information for the factory, as each individual kept their own notebooks on models and as a result, there was no official design department. We invested in CAD and I recruited a pattern maker who is still with me today as Director of R&D. We had to move fast as the brand was dying against the competition at that time. With the demise of ABI, the next big change was the management buyout with CI of Italy. Then, shortly after, Trigano bought the assets of CI and we became part of the large, French, listed Group. With the backing of Trigano, we moved to Europarc (Grimsby) in 2002, into a purpose-built factory and have never looked back. In these 25 years Auto-Trail has changed in all areas immensely, with new operating systems, materials, processes and machinery.
Aboutcamp BtoB: You have a very modern factory – what steps have you taken to ensure it’s as green as it can be?
Dave Thomas: Since moving here to Europarc in 2002, we have extended the factory building twice. At each stage we have looked to invest in new, efficient, and cleaner technology. We have LED lighting everywhere and harvest rainwater to flush our toilets. We’ve also installed a biomass boiler to burn our wood waste. This includes off cuts from plywood, pallets and other wood waste. This heats part of the factory and saves on land fill costs, plus we get a feed in tariff from the government.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What gets you out of bed in a morning?
Dave Thomas: I really enjoy coming to work so that’s half the battle. I’m in the office for 06:45 hrs and don’t leave until about 17:45 hrs. I find the industry dynamic and exiting to work in and that’s what drives me forward.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What has been your most satisfying moment in business? And your worst?
Dave Thomas: That is a difficult one, but I always got a buzz from seeing vehicles I designed on the road, especially when you see them in far off places. Remembering where we came from in a rundown factory in Immingham, to where we are now, is very satisfying. The worst time was the crash in 2008, where the whole industry hit a wall and we had to slash our production numbers. Releasing staff is always difficult but you must do it to ensure the business survives. In 2008 we had to halve the employee count. We lost some good people who had been with us for many years, which was very hard.