28 March 2022
28 March 2022, Comments Comments Off on Todd Woelfer – THOR Industries
Todd Woelfer - THOR Industries

Next-generation thinking

THOR Industries’ Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Todd Woelfer shares his insights on the future of RV design as an influx of new buyers and an evolving manufacturing landscape change the way RVs are made.

Words Craig Ritchie

Thinking about tomorrow is something that comes naturally for Todd Woelfer, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer (COO) at global RV giant, THOR Industries.
Since joining the company in August 2012 as its General Counsel, Woelfer has emerged as a key player in driving THOR’s business forward, leading its innovation, data strategy and corporate sustainability initiatives. With his appointment as COO in December, Woelfer will play a critical role in the future success of the company by leading operational technologies, advancements and marketing operations while championing digital strategies across the THOR family of companies – including flagship US RV brands like Airstream, Dutchmen, Jayco, Keystone, KZ and Starcraft.

He recently spoke with AboutCamp BtoB about emerging trends in RV design, and how both RV builders and consumers alike are shaping the product of tomorrow.

Aboutcamp BtoB: How are first-time buyers influencing the design of RVs?
Todd Woelfer: First-time RVers under the age of 40 currently represent the highest percentage of buyers in the history of this industry. And what that’s meant for the industry is an opportunity to rethink design of what we offer to RVers and think about how we can drive the user experience in a direction that appeals to a broader base of users.
If you look at the products today and you compare the design, not just of our products but across the industry, you’ll find features in those units today that make them markedly different than what we were delivering to the market just five years ago, especially in terms of smart and connected aspects. Today’s buyers want to be connected to the rest of the world.
The growth in demand, partially due to an influx of pandemic-driven buyers, has been a great eye opener to the industry, and it’s created an opportunity to drive designs that are markedly different than what we were putting out just a few years ago.

Aboutcamp BtoB: So how does that translate to the plant floor? Do these new designs impact the way RVs are manufactured?
Todd Woelfer: This shift has impacted our production because it’s forced us to reconsider our processes, so that we can continue to drive higher quality as we push these new design features in our units.
There are a number of ways that we’ve done that, including our own internal processes and quality control checks and procedures. It’s caused companies like ours to consider how we simplify not just the content that is going in, but the content that forms the shell and the substrate of the unit. So we created a number of different innovations that help drive our design process today that help simplify our production process, which in turn, allows us to be more capable in terms of delivering the high-quality units that users today expect.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Would that extend to things like replacing traditional stick-and-tin construction with more prefabricated panels, as an example?
Todd Woelfer: The labour cost associated with producing stick-and-tin RVs is very high, so as we look to the future, we’ve been evaluating opportunities to evolve that form of production. There are other considerations as well, such as implications for long-term durability. There is a balance between delivering a cost-efficient product that buyers can afford, versus the opportunity to improve the content in the units that we’re producing.
In the last year we acquired a small composite manufacturer who had developed a composite substrate that was beginning to be utilized by some of our companies in place of classic luan. We’re trying to reduce the wood content in our units and our goal is to grow that business, expand the offerings and make that composite substrate available to the entire industry. We think it’s a more environmentally sustainable solution. We also think it will dramatically impact weight, improve quality, and improve the labor-intensive nature of producing the classic stick-and-tin units.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Weight management must be a greater consideration now, especially with more electrical content in RVs and as we start to move into electric motorized units.
Todd Woelfer: Weight is a topic of conversation and a focus of future designs like never before, especially in North America. When we acquired Erwin Hymer Group in 2019, we experienced firsthand how product and design that has been focused on weight can result in very high-quality products. We have been going through our own process of learning from our European companies about how to produce high quality lighter-weight units.
In the US and in Canada, we expect that regulations around weight will catch up to the European regulations. And we expect that the weight restrictions will impact design and impact what we can offer to users. That being the case, we’re investing now in long-term strategic initiatives to help reduce weight in units. We’re also investing appropriately in companies that are related to electrification, to help drive innovation that will result in increasing the efficiency of batteries which, in turn, will reduce the weight required to operate the units through the electric drive train. Even though the challenge isn’t here in North America today, it will be here in a couple of years so we’re very focused on our weight reduction initiatives right now.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Would that provide an opportunity to shift RV production from less of a continental business to one which uses more international platforms? Certainly the cost of building units to different standards worldwide must be higher than if it were more standardised?
Todd Woelfer: Yes, because clearly as the units demanded by users begin to normalize between Europe and North America, there are opportunities to achieve greater efficiencies. Right now in the US, towables represent 70% of the market and motorised 30%, while in Europe it’s essentially the inverse. And in large part that’s due to how the European weight restrictions have impacted that market. People can’t haul a large towable RV in Europe, it’s simply not legal.
As regulations and consumer demand normalise between Europe and the US, the opportunity to have shared design initiatives which benefit production in both Europe and North America will become very real. We’re already utilizing some of the strategies that we have developed in conjunction with our European company, Erwin Hymer Group. We’ve begun adopting some of those, so at a small scale, what you’ve asked is already starting to become reality.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Next-generation product like the Thor Vision Vehicle (TVV) would absolutely suggest that operating model, it just cries out as a product that would have universal appeal.
Todd Woelfer: We’re excited about where we are with the TVV. We showed the full working prototype in Tampa, of course, and now we’re doing some validation studies to gain data so that we can continue to improve the design and the feature set.
When that type of product ultimately comes to market is a trickier question because it’s not solely up to the OEMs. We have to have an infrastructure in place to support widespread electrification. That means public charging stations and private campground charging stations. There are some great conversations happening across North America and in Europe right now around the need to build the infrastructure for the RV industry. We’re happy to participate in those conversations because that infrastructure has to be robust enough to support our user’s experience before we can have a meaningful strategy of industrialization of electrified RVs.
On our side, we’re going to be ready to be in the market with the TVV by the end of calendar year 2023. But whether or not the infrastructure will be there at a level to drive any level of mass production remains to be seen.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Would that infrastructure development potentially skew market demand toward more motorised units? One can imagine it being much easier to find a single charging station for a Class B than to have to find tandem spots for an electric trailer and its electric tow vehicle.
Todd Woelfer: Yes, I think you are probably right. On the trailer side, it depends on the advancement of those technologies. It becomes a much more cumbersome process to have to charge your electric tow vehicle and your electric trailer compared to just plugging in a Class B van. It seems the timing of electrification and the explosion of the Class B market suggests very strongly that Class Bs will continue to be a dominant part of the growth of our industry once electrification takes hold.

Aboutcamp BtoB: One of the features in the TVV is the voice-activated communication. For a manufacturer like THOR, is it better to try and develop that functionality in-house, or to partner with a technology company like a Microsoft or a Google, which might enable more of a continuous user experience from the home to the RV?
Todd Woelfer: Our goal has to be to maximize the user experience. And I believe there’s opportunity for a proprietary system that will offer the best solution for RVers. No major producer in the digital space will be focused on an RV-specific experience, where THOR and our competitors would be. I believe that the opportunity is there to have a best-in-class solution that is self-developed.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Is that because of just the RV environment having unique requirements?
Todd Woelfer: Exactly. Consumers at home don’t ask their virtual assistant about the status of their holding tanks, for example. The RV experience is unique from anything else anyone does in their life, and the needs and the expectation of RVers on a trip are also unique. That is why we believe a software solution specifically designed for that RV experience may well be the solution to deliver a better consumer experience than if you just have a standard plug-and-play solution.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Does this shift to increased levels of electrification and connectivity impact planning cycles and product life cycles then? Does it accelerate them?
Todd Woelfer: I think it changes things, most definitely. One thing our industry has always been is incredibly nimble. And I think it’s the strength that is shared by almost all competitors in the space. Our design teams at the operating company level can adjust designs more quickly than any industry that I’ve ever experienced, and they can do it in a high-quality manner in direct response to feedback from dealers and users. They can adjust designs to improve the user experience in a multitude of ways very quickly, we’ve seen it again and again over the years.
I think the reality is these changes will happen quickly, because it’s just easier than it ever has been to update and improve a product through software downloads. I happen to be a Tesla owner, and I get regular software updates. Tesla is as much of a software machine as it is an automaker, and I think people who really value that digital experience expect that. You can’t come out one year with the best in class solution and not continue to evolve. Otherwise, it’ll soon not be the best in class anymore.
We are living in the most technologically-disruptive time in the history of our industry, with all manner of emerging technologies and multiple disruptive technologies coming to the forefront at the same time. There has never been anything like this before.
The opportunity to truly leverage our scale and to lean into our innovation strategy by making ,the long-term investments designed to maximize the user experience is what makes this such an incredible time for our industry. Part of that is what we can do now that we couldn’t do before, and part is looking at what will be possible in the very near term. We invest a great deal of time and effort into exploring how we can leverage new technologies to improve the user’s experience. I think we have to expect this rapid pace of change will only continue, making it imperative we plan upgradability into our designs. That extends a product’s life cycle because new technology doesn’t necessarily leave it behind.

Aboutcamp BtoB: That’s an exciting strategy shift, but what’s really driving it? Is it expectation from end-users who are accustomed to downloading software updates for their electric vehicles and mobile phones? Or is it something being pushed from the top down by manufacturers who spot an opportunity? I believe it was Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs who said that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Is that the case here?
Todd Woelfer: I think that’s part of it. Henry Ford made a similar observation even years earlier, saying that if he had asked consumers what they wanted him to do, they would have said “build a faster horse.” A lot of times people may know what they want when they see it, it’s envisioning that idea to begin with that’s the difficult part.
So in that sense what Steve Jobs and Henry Ford said is true, and we’re blessed in that we can see these technologies on our horizon and our job is to align our product offerings in a way that maximizes the user experience.
As manufacturers, we made the choice a few years ago to make the long-term investment that will put us in the position to offer that best-in-class user experience. Once we strapped in for that ride, we positioned ourselves in an incredible way to not necessarily do what Steve Jobs or Henry Ford did, but to leverage the value and the impact of emerging technologies in a way that allows us to deliver unique and exceptional value to RVers.
We invest a great deal of time and effort toward truly understanding the needs of our end-users. In terms of design, our job is to understand consumer expectations and balance those against the opportunities afforded by current and emerging technology in order to deliver. Being such a dynamic environment today, it’s a wonderful time to be in this industry, there’s a whole world of opportunity opening up all at once. I can’t wait to see where it takes us next.