“We can say that, from the customers’ point of view, if they trust the future, the brand and us, they will come and buy our products. So, that level of trust is magical. But to get it you have to be consistent for many, many years. To lose the trust is a big mistake, and it’s gone. So we have to be aware of that.”
Words Antonio Mazzucchelli
Photo Enrico Bona
While we were at the Caravan Salon in Düsseldorf, we had the opportunity to sit in the new Adria Astella and interview Sonja Gole, the General Manager of Adria Mobil who has been running the business for almost 24 years, and is about to celebrate 40 years with the company.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How and when did you start your career at Adria?
Sonja Gole: My first job at Adria was in 1980. At the beginning, I went to lots of departments to get different experience, and worked in the export side of the business for five years. For the second five years I worked as a bookkeeper for our subsidiary companies in Europe. I spent the next five years involved in the financial book keeping department and, finally, before becoming General Manager in 1996, I was responsible for the economy of the company.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How did you manage to create a consolidated brand across Europe, competing with France, Germany, Italy where there are many well established and long-running motorhome and caravan brands?
Sonja Gole: It’s always important to establish a good brand image when in a very competitive environment, but it takes a lot of steps and time. What we can say for Adria is that we have almost 55 years experience. In the first 30 years, Adria was an export-oriented company. It was well known in Europe but did not have as good a reputation, as the company was from the Balkans, so we couldn’t charge our customers more for the good image of the brand. When I took on the role as General Manager in 1996, the position of the brand and company was pretty bad. We systematically started to define the strategy to rebuild and improve the image of the Adria brand in Europe. In my first decade we managed to improve Adria’s image with a common marketing strategy and the same marketing approach for different European markets. Even with differentiations of the products, we still wanted to build the sold image of Adria, create the high level of quality, rebuild the distribution network, have really competitive distributors in each European country to work with us to build the right marketing strategies for each market. In the last few years, we have been strategically building the image of the Adria brand to become one of the best and the most desirable brand names in the RV sector in Europe. That means that with the perfect product, quality, innovation, good distribution network, distribution partners, and with the best possible after sales service, we can really deliver the total customer experience.
Aboutcamp BtoB: You were the first in Europe to launch a van production series. How did this evolve and were you able to make the most of the advantage being the first?
Sonja Gole: Adria presented the first van product to the European market in Germany in 1998, together with Pössl. We developed a really good relationship with Pössl, increased sales through the years and reached really important volume, but only in Germany because we only sold the products in Germany at that time; but after five years we wanted to have all brands in this region too, so that’s why we said ok, Pössl will develop its own brand and we’ll continue with our own Adria brand. Then started to sell van models all over Europe, and today our van models represent a very important part of the motorhome range.
Aboutcamp BtoB: You are very strong in the caravan market, so are you still investing in this kind of vehicle? Do you believe the trend will be more and more towards motorhomes, or will the caravan survive and be a big part of your future?
Sonja Gole: Firstly, we think it’s good to cover all market segments, and the caravan segment is still one of the most important segments, even though the motorhome market is now bigger than caravans. The second thing is that Adria is coming from caravan segment. We have only had the motorhome division since 1997. So, the caravan segment was always important for Adria and the company would like to have a well-balanced product portfolio. That is our strategy for the caravans, motorhomes, vans, and also mobile homes that we produce in our subsidiary companies. We’ll keep this strategy in the future too. We’re aware that the caravan market will probably never be as big as it was before, but it will still exist, and we believe that it will catch the younger generation with a less money. We’ll offer them the right features in a caravan, then they will buy first the caravan and then maybe a van or motorhome. I think that we have to catch or motivate the young generation and to teach them how good and how nice holidays are in a caravan, van, motorhome or mobile home, to live with nature. This is our mission, and I believe connecting with nature will be more important in the future… that’s why we would like to keep a balanced product portfolio.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Let’s talk about Adria’s recent acquisition by Trigano. What is the Adria role in the group, and will it be repositioned? And what changes have you had to manage following this acquisition?
Sonja Gole: I have to say that I’m glad and satisfied that Adria has became a part of a bigger group and that this group is Trigano. Trigano has similar values to Adria, and that’s why we can cooperate very positively together. From the beginning, we got assurance from the owner, and today it is still so, that Adria keeps independency and autonomy in the group. This means it can have the right and possibilities to be unique on development, to be unique on marketing, sales and business models on one side, and to use the positive synergies from both sides of the group – and that exactly what is happening. We have some synergies on purchasing, on price positioning and so on, plus synergies with the market to exchange different knowledge from all the companies in the group. We have the synergy and the autonomy, yet we keep our business model without any changes in management. There is no involvement in development strategy or marketing decisions, so I can say that we’re very happy. What is also important, is that we don’t compete with other companies or brands in the group, because Adria is positioned in a higher price level than the other brands.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How does Adria fit within the caravan segment of the Trigano group?
Sonja Gole: Adria is important to Trigano because Trigano was not really focused on caravan segment before. So Adria brings an important benefit to the Trigano group.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What difficulties did you have to face in a male dominated world?
Sonja Gole: I’ve been in this position for more than 20 years, so I don’t see any differences between men and women. It is maybe just the fact that we have a different approach to leadership. Maybe women are more sensitive and men are more brave, but if you know how to combine these skills or approaches together, then this can be a successful formula, and I don’t have any problem about that.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What was the most difficult period in your career?
Sonja Gole: In a sense, each period is very difficult, but the beginning was very challenging because when I took on this role we were only producing 3300 caravans a year, which was not enough to survive; however, I’m proud that we made a profit in the first year that I took over the leadership. The economic crisis period was very difficult, but again I’m proud that we recognized the threat in advance, so we were prepared for the reaction when it came and we managed to motivate and involve all the stakeholders – from suppliers to employees – and we passed the crisis with positive results. I don’t think many companies managed in that time to control a 50 percent decrease in production and sales during that time. When we started the sale procedure of the company, it was a big challenge because we were not ready to do that. I’m glad that the procedure is finished and today I can say we are happy to be a part of the Trigano Group.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Among all the initiatives and decisions you have taken at Adria, which is the one you are most proud of?
Sonja Gole: I’m most proud of my team, because we took many decisions together, but at the end of the day, each decision, big or small, is very important, as it can have a negative effect if you don’t work together. I put all my trust in teamwork and I’m proud that we are aware in Adria that only working together for the same target brings the results we want. That’s definitely what I’m most proud of. Do you know what I’m also proud of? In the economic crisis period in 2008-2009, we had to make an agreement for 700 people who may or may not have any work. We made a joint decision, without any problems from anyone, and we survived the crisis. Otherwise, of course, every year we make good decisions for good products, and every year we are proud if the market confirms we have made the right decisions, with the right features and products for their needs.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What are the weak points of the market today? And what can be done to create a positive future, in your opinion?
Sonja Gole: I think that, as an industry, we still have to work on the marketing promotion and to motivate, and inspire the younger generation to start having holidays with RV products. That is what I think is a big challenge for some countries, and some countries, like, in my opinion, Germany, have made quite a good step in this direction, and also in UK; both countries have positive trends. It means that we have to inspire younger generation and take care of the middle-aged, because those customers are important customers in our sector, but they will not be if we do not inspire the younger generation today.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How important is your figure in the company, to guarantee continuity?
Sonja Gole: During the last 20 years, we have built a certain kind of culture, which I believe is the right one, the honest one, the one which motivates the team to go ahead on one side, but on the other side, I know that the environment is changing, so I believe that no matter who will be in this position in the future, the company will still be successful.