We met Nicolas Rousseau, CEO of the Rapido Group: the family business has not stopped growing and today, in addition to Rapido, it controls several brands at various production sites, such as Westfalia in Germany, Giottiline in Italy and Roadtrek in Canada.
Words Antonio Mazzucchelli, photo Enrico Bona
At the head of the Rapido Group is a young manager who can already boast a deep knowledge of the market. His grandfather started the business, and Nicolas Rousseau is the third generation in the family-run business, one of a few companies still firmly in the hands of the founders.
We talked with him about the various brands that belong to Rapido Group today in France, Germany, Italy and also in North America: it has been a difficult period, due to the pandemic, but there are still opportunities for growth in all markets thanks, also, to emerging product types.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Can you tell us more about you and your experience in the family company?
Nicolas Rousseau: I am 34 and joined the family business in 2014 as a sales manager for France for the Rapido brand. Before that I had an education in international commerce and had internships and training in the automotive and aeronautical sectors. After my graduation I took 15 months to pass my professional pilot licence and then started working as export sales manager in the aeronautical sector for about 3 years. I felt it was important to have professional experience outside the family business, even though I always intended to join it. It was important for me to build my own character and meet other professionals and learn some things outside of the family business. When my father turned 60, he said I should tell him if I was interested or not, and I said ‘OK, why not?’ and when he was 61, I decided to join.
Aboutcamp BtoB: It is rare for a company to still be owned by the founder’s family, so what is the secret?
Nicolas Rousseau: I think the secret is our passion for the product. My grandfather was an orphan and was educated by a cabinetmaker, he bacame a very talented scultor and he is the inventor of the folding caravan Rapido. My father developed many products from the first motorhome to statics, and more recently vans. He is the man of growth. This passion passes through the generations which is what drives us. We love making the products. There are few jobs where you get to participate to the design of the product, produce them, be part of its distribution and its marketing etc. I can choose and put my mark on all these fields.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Is being the son of the owner and a highly regarded, famous entrepreneur an advantage or disadvantage, and how do you live with this situation?
Nicolas Rousseau: I think this is a chance to work with him and get to benefit from his experience and knowledge. When passing on such an industrial group with its responsabilities that it implies it takes some time to learn all the fields from production, to finance or management or even building new factories. I believe I am building myself solid foundations to be able to run the business further. Of course this is challenging but my father gives me the space I need and my responsabilities have been growing step by step as I started on the field as sales manager with the dealers and this helped me a lot in order to manage the group today.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How was the Caravan Salon in Düsseldorf and the Salone del Camper for Rapido?
Nicolas Rousseau: The Caravan Salon was a big success for us. Actually, we didn’t expect it to be such a success. Our sales were much better than at last year’s show. I think it was a combination of COVID, the positive communication that there has been around our industry, our products and, of course, that some other manufacturers were not there definitely benefited those who were at the show, which all made our sales numbers much higher, so that’s really good. So far, in the rest of our activities in France or other countries, sales are still very strong. There are many new customers, so now the production has to follow. Salone del Camper is about the same as last year. The dealers say there is a lot of interest from new customers and the sales are about the same, so, so far, so good. It’s not as strong as what we see in the German market, which has very impressive figures – plus 20 to 30 percent – which is incredible. I don’t think the Italian market will rise that much and neither will the French market.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How did you deal with the COVID-19 pandemic crisis?
Nicolas Rousseau: Most of our companies stopped for three or four weeks. At the Mayenne factory, for instance, we dedicated the first two weeks to prepare the restart and organise the purchasing and logistics of components, but also to create a sanitary plan, to find masks, etc., and reorganising the assembly lines and we started one line at a time so people wouldn’t be too close to each other. We made our own plans and discussed them with the unions and also local governments. It’s been a very difficult time. We forecasted really bad figures and we now have to increase very quickly. It’s been a tremendous exercise as we had to hire more workers again, train them and manage the supply chains. It’s been a tough time for suppliers, but maybe as we only closed for only three weeks was good. For some companies, like in the UK, they closed for two months, so restarting for them will be even more difficult.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What is the situation now for the Rapido Groupe, and what do you think the coming months will be like for it in France and the rest of Europe?
Nicolas Rousseau: The Rapido Groupe today is very healthy. All the production at our factories is almost sold out. We even have a one year delay for Westfalia models, so demand is very strong. The Rapido Groupe has been growing in France, now our objective is to grow our exports because we do 50 percent of our turnover in export countries, so definitely to be more European-wide and be more present in Italy, Germany and England through our factories. We also have some development plans to expand our factories or to build factories in these countries; and, of course, with Roadtrek (in Canada) we also want to take some of the B-class segment in North America – so we are going to be quite busy for the next two to three years.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How is your operation in North America going?
Nicolas Rousseau: The first year has been quite challenging because we were taking over a company that had gone bankrupt, so we had to relocate everything under one roof and re-hire people, stabilise the team, and train people, plus we’ve also had COVID, so had to restart the company again. So far, sales are very good. Production is increasing, demand is increasing, so I would say the second year seems much brighter than the first one.
Aboutcamp BtoB: If you look five or 10 years ahead, what do you predict will be the industry trends? Smaller vehicles? Electric vans? Slide-outs? Caravans no longer being produced?
Nicolas Rousseau: This is a very difficult question, as every two or three years the collection changes completely. I think this market has a great future and will continue to grow. I think there are some major trends that show that this market will evolve. I see that vans and pop-up roof cars will continue to grow, but it seems that the segmentation in the low profiles or fully-integrated vehicles will change. There will probably be more segments. Electrification of vehicles is something I doubt will ever happen for an RV as they are too heavy; however, for vans this could definitely happen much earlier, but then there’s the price and cost of the chassis, so we’ll have to see if there’s a market for it. I would say that the slow travelling, and tendency for being close to nature and be independent, to travel more frequently; COVID has definitely been a booster for these trends. I think this will continue. We will have to manufacture products that will be more car-like with features such as autonomy and quality wise. There have been a lot of changes in the last four or five years and our suppliers are also developing more new products, so there will be new materials, new things to produce vehicles which correspond to the needs of the future customers.
Aboutcamp BtoB: The trend this year is pop-up roofs. Why do you think that some things become so popular all of a sudden? After all, campervans, for example, are not a new idea, but now the trend is campervans with pop-up roofs. How can this phenomenon grow? Is this a real trend? Is it in response to customer demand, or are people changing how they enjoy the outdoor life?
Nicolas Rousseau: In Mayenne we manufacture Campérêve brand that is the market leader in France, these are mostly high end products and most of the time used for 2 people only. Then we have Dreamer that is entry to medium price level that correspond better to families with childrens, more active and outdoor people that need to have 4 sleeping spaces. We think it is important to differenciate a layout/product that is made for families and the ones that are just for a couple.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How is the Rapido Groupe preparing for the future? Are you still looking for new companies to acquire? Are you satisfied with the performance of your brands?
Nicolas Rousseau: Yes, we are satisfied with the performance of our brands. We are one of the only groups to grow so fast in France lately and, of course, we are always attentive to what is happening on the market and we may be interested to make more acquisitions. In the last five years, we have done five acquisitions so we are busy developing these companies at the moment.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Are you now well integrated with Giottiline in Italy? Is this acquisition fully operational now? What are the synergies for Rapido? Will you implement a twin model policy like other European groups?
Nicolas Rousseau: The Rapido Groupe never had an entry level brand. We were always medium or high level brands, so acquiring PLA and Giottiline allowed us to propose an offer for the entry-level market and also to establish a stronger position in the German market because PLA Giottiline sells 500 vehicles in that market, so now we have sales of about 1,300 to 1,400 in the German market. There is a strong know-how in the Italian caravan industry, so we also wanted to establish a foothold there and acquire some product that we could use Rapido know-how and distribute in other European markets. We are definitely happy and have made synergies, of course, and also produce some semi-integrated for Itineo in some countries.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Westfalia is a brand that has made history and has been an indomitable force until it reached the Rapido Groupe. Are you satisfied with its positioning? Is it performing in line with your expectations?
Nicolas Rousseau: It is very difficult to explain the Westfalia history. It has 175 years of history, passing from family to car manufacturers and to an RV manufacturer. Westfalia is probably my father’s most successful acquisition. It is a worldwide known brand and we have the greater objective and challenge to revive it. Westfalia has two activities, it is an OEM converter for Mercedes and Ford, and we made 7,000 vehicles for them, and we also produce our own products. We have three factories, two in Germany and one in France. Today, the total Westfalia vehicles, OEM and our own products, represent close to 9,000 units, so I would say it is a great success. There is still a lot to be done and we definitely need to increase our production capacity. This is definitely something to look at. We have to make it happen now. We are happy with what’s going on, but we have to do even more.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Do you also have an interest in the Asia market, and how is Rapido doing there?
Nicolas Rousseau: I have been to the Beijing show, I think it was two years ago, because our Italian PLA Giottiline company sells kits over there. There is quite an interesting market that is growing, mainly a caravan market, I believe, but maybe the culture of caravanning is not there yet, and the campsites are not well established and I think it will take time for the middle class Chinese people to see the camper or product as a way to spend a vacation or use them the way European people do. There are still questions that we need to answer. I think it will grow in the future, but we do not know when.
Aboutcamp BtoB: You come from different work experiences. How did you decide to join the family business?
Nicolas Rousseau: My father has his pilot licence, and I do too. When I was working in Paris I would take some days off to maintain my flying and fly with him to come to Düsseldorf and the Parma fair, and the Sweden fair. The flying experience with him and going to the fairs also made me want to come to the family company. For me it is not only the passion for the product, but to be part of the history of my family and to work with my dad and to share such great moments with our teams. It is a really beautiful job.