Giuseppe Pinto has been the general manager of PLA Camper and Giottiline, the brands acquired by the French group Rapido at the end of 2016, for just over three years. This Italian manager tells us about his experience including the excellent results, innovations introduced and changes in the processes of design and production.
Words Antonio Mazzucchelli
The Rapido group has controlled PLA Camper and its Giottiline brand 100% since 2019. This Italian company is based in the Italian “camper valley”, in Colle di Val d’Elsa (Siena). Giuseppe Pinto (47) has extensive experience in the automotive sector. He graduated in management engineering with a production technology focus, and has a master’s degree in Lean manufacturing. He has dealt with most areas of operations: production, logistics, purchasing, etc. For 11 years he worked in the Fiat group. Aboutcamp BtoB interviewed him at the beginning of June. Here’s what he told us.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What is your training and what experience did you have before joining PLA?
Giuseppe Pinto: I arrived in this industry three and a half years ago. My entry into the company was managed directly by Pierre and Nicolas Rousseau, who hold the reins of the group. I really appreciated the opportunity that was given to me, because instead of looking for the classic general manager in the commercial field, who already knew the market and customers or in the financial field, they chose a figure who knew production and was Italian. This is something I underline the importance of, because it would have been easy to take a trusted person, perhaps French, from within the group, and put him in charge of the Italian activities, but instead they preferred to look for a local manager who would facilitate the integration of the company within the group.
I started working in the Fiat group, and also gained experience abroad: first in England and then almost two years in the U.S., before finally returning to Turin to take care of corporate projects that have also caused me to travel a lot. I have followed projects in the operations and supply chain of production plants throughout Europe, and then I was entrusted with the responsibility of an engine assembly operating unit in Turin, the NEF unit.
When I arrived in Tuscany, I was plant manager and director of one of the companies of the KME group before I went back to the automotive sector.
Aboutcamp BtoB: When did you join this company: what did you find and what opportunities did it offer for development, growth and organization?
Giuseppe Pinto: I found something stimulating, great skills and competence in the people brought together by Pierluigi Alinari – all experts in the sector. I found a genuineness in this sector. I still consider it a bit unbalanced between being artisanal rather than industrial, even if it is making great strides. I also found a great desire and energy on the part of Pierre and Nicolas and their team to establish itself as one of the major European players.
I liked this, as until then I had worked in structured multinational companies, with all that that entails in terms of control, but also because of the possibility of expressing one’s ideas and professionalism with great autonomy. Almost immediately I contributed with the curiosity and positive criticism of someone who “comes from outside”, pushing a bit on the application of basic principles of the automotive industry. I am helping to bring about this change, with a renewal of processes, and the results are being delivered: when I started they were producing 900/950 units, and now, after three years, we are going towards 1,700.
Aboutcamp BtoB: So you were at almost half the current production volume. Was this due to lower demand or because there was not enough production capacity?
Giuseppe Pinto: There was enormous potential not fully exploited. There was a tendency not to question the status quo and operating methods. Intervening on this front revealed significant pockets of productivity, so with the same lines we went from 900 to 1,700 units. And things will continue to improve as we are investing in a double track. Last year, we introduced a carpentry department, while we will soon have a mechanical traction production line with transversal campers, a more industrial solution.
There was enormous potential and choosing to no longer produce 40-50 different models really helped. Already in the first year we had dropped to 18-20 models. This allows for the improvement of standards, greater productivity, higher and immediately recognized quality: the market has noticed this and has begun to appreciate it. Having the Rapido group behind us has had enormous significance, and the attention of dealers and end customers has increased.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Let’s talk about this upcoming change. What have you specifically foreseen and when will it be final?
Giuseppe Pinto: The first production on the new assembly line will start as early as July, while we will finish the expansion of the area dedicated to changing rooms, offices and the canteen area, completing the works by the end of the summer. Immediately after the fairs, we plan to organize the actual inauguration, with the production line up and running. Basically, in the first phase of our plan, we added the carpentry unit to the current main site, and we stopped being just assemblers. I believe that this year we will be able to produce a good percentage of our kits internally, and this is helping us to bring back competence, flexibility and some new opportunities. It is a path that we have only recently embarked on, but it is absolutely winning.
In phase 2, in addition to the birth of the new production line, we have planned to move the warehouse to the main site. To date, we have operated in three different structures: the main one in Pian dell’Olmino, one in Belvedere, where we have been producing two van models since last year, and then a third site dedicated to the warehouse, which we plan to leave before the end of the summer. From a logistical point of view, receiving all the goods on an external site means moving them at least three times before use. Keeping it at the main site, next to the assembly line, will help a lot.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How did you manage the most critical phase of the pandemic and what were the repercussions?
Giuseppe Pinto: Very well: we had introduced the Covid protocols early, and everyone was already equipped with masks. We had identified a series of internal rules which we then updated by signing the agreement with the trade unions. This allowed us not to waste even a minute of production: we only had to stop from 20 March 2020 because we were considered “non-essential”, otherwise we would have continued. The workers, it seems to me, appreciated the fact that we had already distributed masks inside and had the thermometers available at the entrance to the sites. We had already filled out questionnaires at the entrance, in short, we had already done a lot to make everyone feel in a “safe” place. Some repercussions came later: during this year we had several absences for precautionary isolation for positive close contacts, we also had some positive cases, fortunately without any serious problems.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How does the phase of euphoria that Europe is now going through affect you?
Giuseppe Pinto: It concerns us a lot because we are very export oriented. We export over 80% of our production, in particular to Germany, Spain, and France. Right now the demand is very strong. It has really increased everywhere, and we are sorry that sometimes we are not able to satisfy all requests.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Regarding suppliers of the base vehicles, you were among the first to believe in alternative brands to Fiat, such as Citroën. What is the balance now and how do you intend to proceed after the creation of the Stellantis group?
Giuseppe Pinto: We certainly had an excellent intuition. Credit must be given to Pierluigi Alinari, but even earlier to the old Giottiline for having seen in the long term. Back then it was a way to differentiate ourselves: we were the first to propose this alternative and it has undoubtedly proved successful. We are recognized by Peugeot-Citroën itself for having given a big boost to their RV market.
The birth of Stellantis is still to be discovered and experienced, but luckily I have an excellent relationship with everyone from my past in the Fiat group. The thought of staying with only one supplier, even if with the strongest and most reliable, creates a bit of concern for me. For the moment, however, things are going very well, and now that Roberto Fumarola has become the head of the Stellantis motorhome division I feel like I’m playing at home. I hope I don’t have to open the door to some other mechanics supplier, but I can’t rule it out.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Fewer and fewer companies are engaged in the lower end of the market, do you still believe that it can give satisfactory results?
Giuseppe Pinto: We are sure of it. Given that being present in the lower end of the market is very difficult, I think that perhaps this explains why fewer and fewer companies are present: it is not for everyone!
In any case, the decision to acquire PLA and Giottiline by the Rousseau family was made precisely to complete the Group’s portfolio, which was not present in the entry-level range. In addition, looking at the market, I believe that both the generational change and this renewed sensitivity towards the camper – both for the traditional camper and for the van – are pushing and will continue to push young, new people who are approaching these for the first time. The entry-level offers greater peace of mind: it is clean, functional, under warranty, in short, much preferable to a used one.
Pierluigi Alinari was here with us almost all of my first two years, and he often repeated to me that we had to offer the camper for everyone. In my opinion, he was right. I am also convinced that in Italy, just as we are good at building utility cars, we can also make a camper for everyone.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Are you planning to redefine your product range?
Giuseppe Pinto: Absolutely, yes. The market is constantly evolving and increasingly demanding. Customers needs change and we want to be ready to satisfy them; for next season we have completely revisited the entire Siena range and we will launch a completely new model in which I personally believe very much; in addition, we worked on the third layout of the campervans, which for us are a new range only introduced in the current season. And next year there will be further developments that we are already working on.
Aboutcamp BtoB: You entered the campervan segment last year, and now you will add another model. How much will it contribute as a percentage of the turnover of your brands? Is it a product that you cannot fail to have, or do you believe in it and think it is an important development?
Giuseppe Pinto: We strongly believe in it. In the budget for the season that is about to begin with vans, we plan to reach 30% of our forecast volumes, and it will already be much more than the current season, almost double. I think campervans are really going to be on par with motorhomes. It is not a fad, it is something that will continue in the medium to long term. We’ll be there.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What are the relationships and synergies with the Rapido group?
Giuseppe Pinto: In my opinion, a perfect harmony has been generated. In the initial phase there was a lot of help from the group towards us, and it is absolutely normal to have to help us change the course a little. But appetite comes with eating, so beautiful ideas of Italian creativity and the skills we have here have also allowed us to create a return flow, which is giving great benefits.
Here in Italy, for example, we now produce profiles for Itineo, a brand that is typically produced in Mayenne – next season we will make four models – and we are having very positive feedback. We have gained confidence and interest is growing which pleases me very much. Conversely, with the launch of the campervans, we had a great deal of support from the technical office of our French colleagues: we started from a typically Rapido project base on which we then did all the work that belongs to us, maintaining an important quality of that project, but looking for opportunities to contain the cost and meet the expectations of our markets.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Are you able to estimate how many PLA and Giottiline motorhomes are currently on the roads of Europe?
Giuseppe Pinto: Speaking only of PLA, from 2010 to today, I would say that there is hardly a scrapped vehicle yet, so all the products are circulating. In my opinion we do not reach 10,000 vehicles: the first years were from 300-400 units and after my arrival we broke through 1,000, but we are only talking about the last three years.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How did you set up the after-sales service and spare parts management?
Giuseppe Pinto: After-sales service is essential and we are doing a lot of work on it. We have a long way ahead of us, but I am convinced that structuring a good after-sales service will help us develop brands on the market and grow even more in the definition of our products. Furthermore: the sooner and better critical situations are managed, and the sooner the customer returns satisfied, and perhaps chooses to buy a new Giottiline camper. This generates good word of mouth.
Aboutcamp BtoB: The pandemic has called into question the effectiveness of some consolidated promotion and sales tools, such as trade fairs, printed catalogs, direct sales in showrooms. What are your thoughts on this?
Giuseppe Pinto: I am a bit conservative on this issue. On the one hand, I personally continue to appreciate the traditional catalogue, the paper, the photo and the tranquility with which it is possible to search for things of your interest; on the other hand, I am not entirely convinced that the web tool alone is sufficient for promotion and sale. On too many occasions at the fair we meet people who go into total panic when we propose to read the technical data sheet via mobile phone. And this is a pan-European thing.
In addition, last year at the various discussion tables with other manufacturers, I helped push for fairs, as they are still too important a way to “touch” the quality of our products and the solutions offered. I continue to be convinced of this, so much so, that from now on I can confirm our participation in the traditional fairs in this sector.