Thanks to considerable experience acquired in the RV sector and her perfect knowledge of Italian as well as German, Ute Hofmann was chosen as Managing Director of Laika with responsibility for sales, marketing, service and product departments. Aboutcamp BtoB talked with her about the future of the company and the issues related to the Covid-19 emergency.
Words Renato Antonini
Since 2007, Ute Hofmann has worked in various companies of the Erwin Hymer Group. Last year she returned to Laika where she has assumed the role of Managing Director alongside André Miethe, just as the company became part of the Thor Group. Despite being German, Ute Hofmann has lived in Italy a lot and can also boast a deep knowledge of the RV sector at a European level.
After studying Sociology, Communication Sciences and Advertising Psychology in Munich, Bologna and Florence, Ute Hofmann first joined Laika in 2003 (while she was still studying at the University). She was initially in marketing, then became a Project Manager, and subsequently had various positions in Germany within the Erwin Hymer Group where she worked in a dynamic environment with an international vision of the market.
AboutcampBtoB discussed various issues with Ute Hofmann, including the company’s non-participation in the September trade shows and the possibilities offered by modern digital communication campaigns.
Aboutcamp BtoB: You came from Germany several years ago, stayed in Italy for some time, and then returned to Germany to work for various companies of the Erwin Hymer Group. Now you are back in Italy: was this experience varied and constructive for you?
Ute Hofmann: At the start, I entered the RV sector almost by mistake. I was looking for a company to perfect my Italian and I saw more chances of doing this in an Italian company with strong ties to Germany, like Laika. I lived in Italy for 11 years, first to study and then for work. I joined Laika in 2003, then in 2014 I had an offer from the parent company to develop the growing brands of Carado and Sunlight, so I returned to Germany; to be precise – Leutkirch in Baden-Württemberg. Later, I moved to the Erwin Hymer Group headquarters in Bad Waldsee, and also spent two years at Movera dealing with the accessories segment. Finally, they called me back to Italy in 2019 and I returned to Laika. I have had many interesting experiences. Each time I had to deal with a new team, face new challenges and find solutions quickly. Every single path has enriched my training: I have worked in marketing, sales, customer service and in the world of accessories … If you lead a varied path, you acquire great experience.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How has Laika changed since you left it in 2014 and your return last year?
Ute Hofmann: The headquarters, production plant and offices have changed, and that’s no small feat. When I left Laika in 2014, work on the new factory had started but we hadn’t moved into it yet and were still working in at least five factories scattered throughout the region. Now, we are in one large factory that is modern and efficient, as well as very elegant. Returning to Laika after five years, it was nice to meet my colleagues again, but I also met new people as, in the meantime, the number of staff had almost doubled. Laika has grown a lot in recent years.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Many customers and some dealers think that Laika should only be at the high end of the market, without going below €65,000. Do you agree?
Ute Hofmann: In the past, Laika has had models in the medium-high range of the market. For example, think of the X-series from a few years ago, first proposed on a Ford basis, then on a Fiat chassis from 2009. This price range was subsequently abandoned for a period, but since 2018 the Kosmo series has given a concrete answer to those markets that asked for products with a not too high price. I believe that the inclusion of a medium-high-end product in our range was an appropriate move because it allowed many customers to access the Laika brand, especially in some markets. It also brought other advantages as we were able to expand the portfolio of the sales network, without the dealers turning to other brands. With the Kosmo range we approached some dealers who were not yet selling Laika: it was a starting point to then add the other higher level ranges. Kosmo has greatly helped Laika’s growth. It is certainly more appreciated in foreign markets, while in Italy the Ecovip is still strong. But, I must say, that a new, young clientele is also appearing on the domestic market who appreciate the Kosmo range.
Aboutcamp BtoB: The Laika plant inaugurated five years ago was a significant investment in terms of facilities, machinery and human resources. Was this an investment that perhaps happened at the wrong time, between the economic crisis, change of ownership and the Covid emergency?
Ute Hofmann: The new plant represents the future of the company. The situation we had previously was unsuitable for efficient and growth-oriented production. Of course, the times did not help us, and there were challenges to be faced in building the structure, and then the crisis happened. However, despite the prolonged crisis in the RV sector in Italy, the new plant has allowed us to enter foreign markets. We have stepped up our activities in France, Germany and the Nordic countries. The new plant has certainly helped us and allowed us to stabilize throughout Europe. We have also recently brought the entire Etrusco production to our factory.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What is the role of this plant within the Erwin Hymer Group? Will there be any changes in the future?
Ute Hofmann: In the San Casciano Val di Pesa (FI) plant we specialize in the construction of all Laika and Etrusco models. For the Erwin Hymer Group, this plant is strategic and can count on the fact that many suppliers operate in the San Casciano area and there is also a large pool of skilled labour. In the beginning, we also built vehicles for other companies of the Erwin Hymer Group, but now we need the production capacity for the two brands Laika and Etrusco.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Recently there have been some changes in Laika’s key roles: how has its management been redefined?
Ute Hofmann: Currently, Andrè Miethe, a colleague from my previous experience in Laika, and I are the two managing directors of the company: he is responsible for the Finance and Production part, I take care of Sales, Marketing, Customer Service and Product. Christian Striebel, on the other hand, is Etrusco’s brand manager and works in a small detached team in Germany. After Olaf Sacker moved to Burstner, the new Plant Manager is Domenico Sofrà, who comes from a company that builds special vehicles and in addition to his experience, he has the great advantage of being Italian-German. Finally, we have a new Product Manager, Michel Vuillermoz. We are a good team, there has been a changes in a short time, but we all have a lot of experience and this helps us to carry out new projects.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Laika followed the directive of its parent company regarding the Covid emergency and did not participate in the Caravan Salon in Düsseldorf or the Salone del Camper in Parma, avoiding international scenario and being at home at the Italian fair. Now Laika will not be able to participate in the CMT in Stuttgart either as it has been cancelled. Are these too many absences from exhibitions for Laika?
Ute Hofmann: At first we thought only about the Caravan Salon in Düsseldorf, then we decided not to participate in the other European fairs as well because the situation was constantly changing for the worse. We decided not to participate in order to protect both our employees and our customers. It did not seem right to propose a concept of a peaceful and free holiday in a very difficult context; we preferred to start a communication campaign to bring customers, in small groups, to our dealerships throughout Europe. We were sorry not to present the new Ecovip at the fairs in September, but the communications campaign we started has been good. It was essential to plan the action in advance: Laika’s marketing group, together with the marketing group of the various EHG companies, created a campaign on various social channels to contact customers and invite them to dealership forecourts for one-to-one appointments. It is always difficult to perceive exactly the advantages of a digital campaign compared to exhibiting at a fair, but what has been done has given some surprising results. It was a great challenge, because, I must confess, we did not yet have a high degree of digitization at EHG, but in a short time, a huge amount of work was done which is bringing concrete results. Of course, it’s not the same as being at a fair: customers don’t arrive condensed in 10days, so the results are seen over a longer period. We will continue on this path in the coming months, and will try to implement operations that the automotive sector has already been experimenting with for some time. In short, the Covid emergency has accelerated the timings: the communication project was defined, but we had to implement it quickly. This does not mean that we will not return to the fairs. There will be joint activities between trade fairs and social to be even closer to our customers.
Aboutcamp BtoB: In addition to implementing communication campaigns, how did you decide to present your products to the end customer in a period, like the current one, fraught with problems but also showing a certain euphoria?
Ute Hofmann: We tried to maximize sampling as much as possible, but we couldn’t do much because the lockdown reduced production. We have implemented an online configurator on our website. There is also a specific configurator for our dealers. Thanks to the enhancement of the 3D tours it is possible to see all models, with all the finishes, shades of wood and fabric: one feels almost inside the vehicle. Unfortunately, customers will have to get used to longer delivery times throughout the RV industry. We are gearing up to increase production capacity, we have hired new staff and working on more shifts instead of two. But we must respect a security protocol for the Covid situation, so that we can maintain distances and work safely.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Is the use of platforms common to various brands also inevitable for Laika? Isn’t there a risk of losing the Laika identity by creating vehicles that are too similar to other models from the Erwin Hymer Group?
Ute Hofmann: In certain price ranges and on some markets, it is certainly an opportunity and a solution that brings advantages. The common platforms are developed jointly by various technical offices in the group, including Laika. But it is not necessarily an advantage for every type of vehicle: for example, the new Ecovip has been entirely developed by Laika.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What changes did joining the Thor Group bring, and what will it bring in the future?
Ute Hofmann: The merger with the Thor Group has brought opportunities, stability and positivity, both to the Erwin Hymer Group and to Laika. We have seen that American managers are used to working in groups, they know how to manage the various corporate structures without changing the brand’s identity: this is a strength of Thor and also lucky for us. I think it’s positive that we have been bought by a group in the sector and not by a non-sector financial group, for example. The greatest synergies will be especially at the level of Erwin Hymer Group in Europe, while with the Thor Group there will certainly be synergies for purchasing.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Italy, Germany and the rest of Europe: where does Laika want to commit itself most in the coming years?
Ute Hofmann: We are growing a lot in France, Spain, Italy, Norway and Sweden, but Germany is also developing well. Then we see a positive opening of Eastern Europe: Poland, the Czech Republic, but Romania and Hungary are no longer satellite markets of Germany and take on their own identity; they are still in the starting phase but they will certainly grow. I see a growing structuring of these Eastern European markets, both from the demands of end customers and from the organization of dealers, which is a key element for stable development. As for the UK, the market is recovering, but no one can know exactly what will happen after January 1, when the new post-Brexit measures from the European Union will be applied and the transitional period ends.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Overcabs, semi-integrated, motorhomes and camper vans: different types, different market choices, but also strategic construction choices. What direction is Laika taking with this?
Ute Hofmann: As we know, the segment that is growing a lot in Europe is that of the campervan: with Laika and Etrusco we have been able to foresee this development and we have had valid products in this market segment for a couple of years. In spring, the Ecovip campervan will also arrive, which will join the Kosmo campervan. We obviously want to participate in this market trend. Many new customers are approaching the RV world with campervans because they feel more comfortable with compact and versatile vehicles. The premium range, however, will continue to exist and will see us committed to it. Of course, the requests for overcabs, with which Laika had great success in the past, have decreased; unfortunately, it seems that today overcabs are fading in popularity, replaced by the semi-integrated models equipped with a drop-down bed. However, the market will also be influenced by new taxes introduced in some countries for CO2 emissions: Laika will have to make proposals that take these changes into account. At the production level, with our premium range we have decided to stop just before the liner class, because the so-called “liners” have very different production needs. We feel Ecovip, a product on which we focus a lot, is in a strong position. As for campervans, we try to increase our portfolio step by step.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Good design and Italian style: are they enough to decisively define Laika?
Ute Hofmann: We are working on a product that will take a decisive step forward: it will be seen in the spring and it will be a product of excellence that will make the most of our experience of over 50 years. We want to create a different, technologically advanced product with an Italian design. We have also started working with a well-known Italian design house; this collaboration will soon be made official.