The RV Lifestyle: Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt

Something is always broken. This from a post that I came across on the Newmar Dutch Star Owners Facebook group:

For the last month, my wife and I have been planning our new RV life. We found a 2016 DS 4369 that was just what we wanted. There were a few things that needed repairs, nothing major, and the dealer agreed to take care of them and make sure we were ready to go. Being new and never having owned an RV before and just entering retirement we wanted to learn everything we could before heading out on our own. It has been a little over a month since we decided on the DS and while waiting for the repairs to be completed I have watched every Youtube video I can find and joined every online group related to Newmar and diesel pushers that I can find. Sadly, the more I watched and read the more concerned I became. It seems that something is always broken and that every dealer is poor at best. Almost to the man, everything I read is negative about the quality of the motorhomes no matter what brand or how much you pay. I realize that most posts will be about problems but there is no shortage of problems and no stories about being happy with the quality and reliability of the product. After postponing the closing twice because the repairs were not completed, I finally decided to walk away, thinking that if this is as good as it gets, when we are all alone broken down on the side of the road it won’t be the adventure we were hoping for. Not asking for anything just offering a perspective from a Newbee’s point of view.

We have owned our coach for over three years now. We have experienced many issues with the coach. You can read about some of them here. Aside from the random deployment of a Girard awning while the coach was in motion — that issue stranded us for almost six weeks — we have travelled extensively around North America without a breakdown on the side of the road. But it could happen. That’s just the way it is.

We love our coach and we love the RV lifestyle however the RV industry is nowhere near the automotive industry in terms of quality and reliability. My view is that there will always be issues with our coach. The only question is whether an issue is highly disruptive or merely inconvenient.

Aside from the awning issue, our problems have been minor and inconvenient.

We come across people that buy into the lifestyle without doing the research. They make a significant purchase of a motorhome only to walk away after a few months because of mechanical issues. Or they get angry and frustrated because they do not expect to have any issues with their motorhome and that anger and frustration distorts the wonderful adventures that most enjoy while being on the road.

The poster walked away from the deal out of fear. Fear that something could go wrong. That the RV lifestyle would be difficult.

This quote, from The Road Less Traveled, is relevant:

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

NewWinnie Q4 Results

What’s up with the Newmar Winnebago deal lately? Winnebago shares. WGO is up, way up. There is a lot more to share about Winnebago and Newmar but let’s take a look at how the shares have performed since the beginning of the year:

At the beginning of the year, the stock was trading in the low 20s. And now? 49.24 at the close of market yesterday.

Shareholders have been well rewarded by Winnebago this year.

I listened in to the analyst call for Winnebago’s latest quarterly report. Aside from all of the financial blah, blah — which I expect is of little interest to most — there were a few interesting comments from President and CEO Michael Happe.

First up was a comment on Winnebago’s motorhome segment.

Revenues in this segment? Down almost 18 percent from last year.

Turning to the Motorhome segment; reestablishing a premium leadership position in this business remains a key priority for us and the launch of new products and designs continues to provide customers with an enhanced lineup of high quality innovative products. For the full year, revenues were down 17.9% from fiscal 2018, in line with the industry, and adjusted EBITDA margin of 3.9% contracted by 20 basis points.

Second, on the transition of Class-A diesel from Oregon to Iowa. Note that this is yet to include the Newmar acquisition. There is another way of saying the company negatively “affected both product availability and gross margin” — we screwed up. But, with high stock prices comes happy shareholders. Management gets cut some slack.

The Motorhome team has dedicated a considerable amount of energy and resources to positioning the business for sustained profitability. One source of market and financial pressure for the Motorhome segment has come from the Class-A Diesel category where our manufacturing and supply chain challenges surrounding our Oregon to Iowa assembly transition affected both product availability and our gross margins.

Where does Newmar fit into Winnebago’s plan to consolidate and centralize the diesel business? Not clear right now. The move to consolidate the Winnebago brand appears to be focused strictly on operational efficiency.

Executing on our plan to consolidate and centralize the Winnebago brand diesel business will improve our overall efficiency and financial strength. Additionally, the acquisition of Newmar, which is the fastest growing brand of Class-A Diesel RVs, aligns with our strategy to reenergize our Motorhome business by enhancing our position and capabilities in the motorhome market and building on the progress we have made driving growth and innovation across our offerings.

Looks like executing on this plan has not gone well. Struggling is the key word here. Happe did not clarify what he meant by the phrase “because of what we’ve done to ourselves” so we can only imagine what that might mean.

The Class A segment is where we have been struggling in part because of what we’ve done to ourselves with the diesel transition from Oregon to Iowa. It will come online with our new production of diesel in May or June of this 2020-year.

As for Newmar? Winnebago will be having “significant” conversations between the two lines of business. My read is that they intend to establish a new product line across Winnebago and Newmar. Perhaps Winnebago will be selling only “entry” coaches and Newmar will be selling only “luxury” coaches. Interesting comment.

As you can imagine as we integrate the Newmar brand, we will be having significant conversations between our Newmar business and our Winnebago business about how we can complement each other in the Class A category with those two brands. Newmar has momentum, but is a luxury line; Winnebago does not have momentum in that particular segment. It is working on some things to improve that, but we will work very carefully to try to create the right mix across both of those brands in the Class A category. So that we can remain competitively relevant going forward.

I expect that we will see some interesting outcomes from these significant conversations between the Newmar and Winnebago business lines.

Let’s hope that the new management team does not do to themselves whatever it was they did to themselves before when they tried to improve their Class A motorhome segment.

A Dealer’s Opinion On Winnebago and Newmar

I have to let it go. This Winnebago and Newmar thing. I want you to know that I have sought outside help and my therapist believes that I am making some progress but it will take time. Time to heal. Time to forgive.

Matt Miller, how could you do this!

Oops. Sorry. It comes out. The pain. The hurt. The betrayal.

I continue to read opinions on the deal even though, as far as I can tell, no one seems to have read Winnebago’s U.S. SEC Form 8-K to understand the specifics of the deal. And I get that. Not everyone wants to jump into that level of detail.

When a company borrows almost $300 million to make an acquisition and that company has to answer to shareholders, it is naive to think that the culture of Newmar won’t be impacted. It will. The only question is whether the impact is unduly negative, mildly annoying or downright positive.

Winnebago, Newmar and the dealer community understand that current Newmar owners are not very happy with the news. And that the negative reaction could really hurt future sales as a large percentage of existing Newmar owners are repeat buyers. And so the marketing of the deal begins.

The key messages?

Matt Miller is still running the company with the same executive team and the same group of employees. Newmar is still committed to its values around quality and customer support. The deal will help Newmar continue to grow and flourish.

Mount Comfort RV is very active on YouTube. Chris Anderson, in particular, is well known for his comprehensive video walkthroughs on Newmar coaches. I watched his video on a 2016 Newmar Dutch Star 4018 dozens of times while we were waiting for our coach to be built. The unit he showed was very similar to our coach.

This is the first video I have seen on YouTube that provides a dealer’s perspective on the Winnebago and Newmar deal. Ken Eckstein, the president of Mount Comfort RV, takes time to put out this video presumably to assure his current and future Newmar customers that all is not lost.

The spin from Winnebago and Newmar reminds me of what I used to deal with as a corporate executive. Whenever the senior team made a significant or controversial decision, we had to spend time on WSWSHH.

WSWSHH?

What Should We Say Happened Here.

The spin. The press release. How to manage the customer and employee response. We had a corporate communications group that specialized in crafting the specific FAQs and talking points all precisely documented in a comprehensive communication plan. All done before the news about the decision went public.

Just like the Winnebago and Newmar deal.

So, take it with a grain of salt. We will know within a year or two what kind of company Newmar will become after the acquisition. Better or worse? Again, we will know soon enough.

Here is another take on the deal by David Bott, a popular RV blogger with Outside Our Bubble:

My take has been captured in these posts:

Winnebago Acquires Newmar

NewWinnie

A Bit More On The Newmar Winnebago Deal

A Bit More On The Newmar Winnebago Deal

More on the Winnebago acquisition of Newmar? Yes indeed. A few more interesting details to put the deal in context.

I have been asking myself why Winnebago bought Newmar. Perhaps you have as well. Was this all part of a carefully mapped out business strategy from the Winnebago executives?

Let’s see shall we?

Saying it was part of the Miller family’s long-term plan, Newmar Corp. President Matt Miller said he first approached Winnebago Industries President and CEO Michael Happe in April this year to see whether the “Flying W” would be interested in acquiring the 51-year-old motorhome manufacturer based in Nappanee, Ind.

Great. So Matt had been shopping the company. Did he approach other companies? Likely. Newmar’s long-term plan was to sell out which, obviously, was never publicly disclosed. Winnebago just happened to be the company that said yes. Interesting that Newmar initiated the discussion.

For all of the people posting on Facebook that Newmar will stay the same, let’s take a look at a recent Winnebago news release.

FOREST CITY, Iowa, Feb. 04, 2019 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Winnebago Industries, Inc. (NYSE: WGO), a leading outdoor lifestyle products manufacturer, announced plans today to shift Winnebago-branded Class A diesel motorhome manufacturing from its Junction City, Oregon plant to its manufacturing campus in Forest City, Iowa. The strategic manufacturing transition consolidates and centralizes product development, supply chain, and assembly operations for the Company’s diesel motorhome business to a single location. This decision will enable the Winnebago Motorhome business to improve its ability to efficiently and consistently supply dealers and end customers with a stronger line-up of high-quality, innovative diesel products.

Further along the news release, we read the following:

“While the strategic purpose of the Company’s decision to move diesel manufacturing to Junction City years ago was well intended as a means to acquire additional motorhome assembly capacity and tap into an experienced RV workforce in the Northwest, we have not achieved our targeted operating efficiency and profitability goals,” said Brian Hazelton, Vice President and General Manager, Winnebago Motorhome Business. “This difficult decision to relocate diesel manufacturing back to Forest City, Iowa and centralize our diesel business value chain geographically is necessary. It will enable more effective product development, enhance profitability through increased manufacturing efficiency and sourcing savings, and most importantly result in being a more reliable supplier to our diesel dealers and end customers.”

There it is. The management imperative. It was necessary to centralize their diesel business value chain geographically to achieve operating efficiency and profitability goals.

It will be interesting to see if Winnebago management takes a similar approach with Newmar. They could, I suppose, move everything to the existing Newmar production facility. Or they could have multiple production facilities which they had tried before without achieving the targeted operating efficiency and profitability.

My old company, the Bank of Montreal and BMO Capital Markets, was part of the deal. You can read the entire agreement on Project Sunrise here.

In connection with execution of the Purchase Agreement on September 15, 2019, Winnebago executed a commitment letter with Goldman Sachs Bank USA, Bank of Montreal and BMO Capital Markets Corp. (the “Commitment Letter”).

Looks like Winnebago will borrow a fair amount of money to do the deal. The debt appears to be up to $290 million. The Winnebago management team will be under a bit of pressure to make the deal work.

In connection with execution of the Purchase Agreement on September 15, 2019, Winnebago executed a commitment letter with Goldman Sachs Bank USA, Bank of Montreal and BMO Capital Markets Corp. (the “Commitment Letter”). As set forth in the Commitment Letter, which is attached hereto as Exhibit 10.1, it is intended that Winnebago will (a) obtain up to $290.0 million in gross cash proceeds from the issuance of senior secured notes (the “Senior Notes”) and/or (b) if Winnebago does not, or is unable to, issue the full amount of the Senior Notes at or prior to the time of the closing of the acquisition, a senior secured bridge facility in an amount up to $290.0 million minus any gross cash proceeds received by Winnebago from the issuance of any Senior Notes or other securities.

Nothing like a little bit of debt to look at “synergies” to “maximize operating efficiencies”.

I have access to a few analysts that cover Winnebago (WGO XNYS). Here is what one of them had to say:

We are raising our fair value estimate to $37 from $33 [a share] after incorporating the company’s Sept. 16, 2019 announcement that it will acquire premium motorhome maker Newmar for about $344 million. The increase comes from a 40-basis-point increase in our midcycle EBIT margin to 8 percent which reflects Newmar’s EBITDA margin of 8.4 percent being 430 basis points higher than Winnebago’s motorhome segment margins.

Translation? Newmar was making more money on its motorhomes and that increases the fair value of the Winnebago shares.

And the view on Winnebago’s ability to execute?

Winnebago expects immediate EPS accretion, as do we.

However:

Management is targeting a 10% operating margin by fiscal 2020 which we think may not happen by then due to cyclical risk beyond management’s control.

During 2008 and 2009, Winnebago’s revenue fell by 31 percent and 65 percent respectively. Their gross margin in 2009 was an incredible negative 14.5 percent! And this analyst believes that the cyclical risk, meaning a downturn for the RV industry, is coming soon.

A few other details about Winnebago. Michael Happe, a relatively new CEO hired from Toro, brought in eight of his nine direct reports as either new to Winnebago or new to the role. Winnebago has a 10-10-10 plan for fiscal 2020: increase the North American RV share to 10 percent via organic growth, realize an operating margin of 10 percent and obtain 10 percent of revenue from RV segments or other outdoor businesses that the company is not in presently.

I’m still not happy about this deal but it is what it is. Miller wanted to sell Newmar and he went looking for a buyer.

Winnebago has ambitions to reach some aggressive financial goals and that will have a significant impact on what was once Newmar.

Winnebago did not go into debt to buy Newmar simply to let it continue to operate as an autonomous entity.

They have their goals.

10-10-10.

NewWinnie

Newmar. Winnebago. NewWinnie. Very few happy campers. After reading through thousands of online comments on a variety of social forums, the vast majority of Newmar owners do not appear to be very pleased with the Winnebago acquisition of Newmar. Most are angry and upset.

The negative reaction from so many Newmar owners resulted in this post from Newmar on their corporate Facebook page:

Thank you to all who have openly and honestly shared your thoughts about the acquisition of Newmar by Winnebago. We understand why you have questions about this change, and we always appreciate hearing from our customers.

We want to assure you that we remain deeply committed to our founding values of courtesy, fairness, integrity, morality, reasonableness, and reliability. These values have guided us ever since the Miller family purchased Newmar in 1984 — and they always will.

Another constant during this transition will be our leadership, as Matt Miller will remain the President of Newmar Corporation. Working closely with the existing executive management team, he will guide the company into the future with a steady hand.

Please know that you can continue to count on Newmar for unmatched quality of product, great product value, and the best customer service and parts support in the industry. We have great confidence in Winnebago’s track record of supporting what makes their brands unique, and we believe this acquisition puts us on the best path to continued innovation and success.

As always, we are honored to have you as a part of the Newmar family.

The post was accompanied by this photo:

Matt Miller sent out a letter to all of his employees as I am sure they have a few questions about this change.

During my career, I went through two major acquisitions. In the first one, we acquired a company with 3,000 employees. In the second one, our company was acquired. I’ve been on both sides of an acquisition and the business imperatives were identical: deliver value to the shareholder. Quickly.

Unlike Newmar, Winnebago is operated by professional business managers that report to a board. The professional business managers that work for Winnebago will have no particular passion for the RV industry. I doubt that many of the executives that run Winnebago have even owned an RV.

Michael Happe, the CEO of Winnebago is an MBA, a professional business manager. He has been CEO at Winnebago for a little over 3 years. He spent much of his career before Winnebago at Toro. Toro builds turf maintenance equipment, snow removal equipment and irrigation system supplies. Oh, and lawn mowers.

He was hired by the board for one primary reason: build value for the shareholders.

Simply put: make money.

Yes, that includes paying attention to the basics of offering products to the market that customers will buy. But there is no requirement for the professional business manager to be passionate about the RV lifestyle.

This is not the same passion for the RV lifestyle that Newmar has lived over the past 35 years. When a family owns a business, it is intensely personal. When shareholders own a business, it is, well, a business.

Make money.

The typical acquisition playbook used by professional business managers is pretty straightforward. There are two basic drivers for an acquisition: boost current performance and/or reduce costs.

Based on what I heard from the Winnebago analyst call yesterday, Winnebago management appears to want both.

The only way to lower costs effectively is when the acquiring company has high fixed costs. Winnebago takes certain resources from Newmar into its existing model and shuts down the rest. I suspect it will begin with redundant corporate functions like legal, finance, HR, IT. Sure, a few folks in these areas might hold on but most will find that their roles will be eliminated as part of driving operational “synergies” between the parent company and the acquired company. Winnebago will quickly move to contracts and purchasing. Larger economies of scale provide opportunities to revisit supplier contracts and find ways to reduce costs either by switching suppliers to a lower cost provider or renegotiating contracts at better pricing. And, no doubt, component manufacturing will be reviewed for “synergies” between the disparate business units building travel trailers, RVs and, yes, water boats (Winnebago acquired Chris Craft, a manufacturer of boats). Customer service? Engineering? Sales? Professional business managers will comb through every function to identify opportunities to reduce costs.

This acquisition playbook has a fancy name, leverage my business model or LBM. You really only have two choices: get higher prices or reduce costs.

Michael Happe’s first task will be to deliver the short-term results shareholders expect as part of the acquisition. He said as much yesterday in his conference call:

“…this acquisition enhances the scale and profitability of Winnebago’s overall motorhome business and greatly improves our cash flow generation, which we expect will translate to immediate accretion to the fiscal 2020 cash EPS.”

If he doesn’t hit his financial targets, Winnebago stock will be punished. The easiest way to get there is to reduce costs. Getting higher prices may not prove sustainable in a downturn cycle and generally boosting performance takes a lot more time to achieve.

Perhaps this might help provide a bit more perspective on what corporations do when they acquire companies. This example is from Thor, the largest RV company in North America, and their acquisition of EHG, a large European RV company, which closed in February of this year. You might find the material a tad, well, detached from the passion of owning and operating your RV. And that is the point. Thor’s acquisition was all about improving margins and profitability. The exact same motive for Winnebago.

“With the inclusion of EHG into our operations in the quarter, we continue to focus on integration and the sharing of best practices that will drive long-term improvements in margins and profitability for our overall business,” said Colleen Zuhl, Thor’s Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. “As we review our cash priorities, our main focus is to utilize free cash flow to reduce overall debt levels, which were reduced by $40 million during the quarter. Subsequent to the end of the quarter, we fully paid the remaining $60 million outstanding on the ABL facility, and made payments of approximately $155 million on our term loan. To date, we have made total principal payments of approximately $255 million towards our original ABL and Term Loan B debt balances. As we generate future cash flow, we will balance our strategic goal to invest in the continued growth of our business along with the financial goals of reducing our net debt level and returning cash to shareholders.”

With the completion of the EHG acquisition, Thor’s management team remains focused on creating long-term shareholder value by supporting both the integration of EHG, and the Company’s growth in North America. To help drive that growth the Company recently announced the creation of two new senior management positions at Thor Industries in North America to provide incremental support to subsidiary leadership and help achieve key goals on an accelerated basis. The Company has elevated two of its top RV leaders, Matt Zimmerman of Keystone and Chris Hermon of Heartland, to the newly-created roles of RV Group Managers. In their new roles, Matt and Chris will be assisting Thor’s North American operating companies in their realization of key strategic initiatives, all of which are designed to improve the Company’s offerings to its dealers and retail customers, increase engagement with its employees and improve its operating margins.

“During the remainder of our fiscal 2019, we expect the North American dealer inventory rationalization will continue, but we expect to see a resumption of growth in the North American markets in 2020. In Europe, we believe our dealer inventory levels of EHG products, while elevated in certain locations, are generally appropriate for seasonal consumer demand in Europe and are progressing towards more normalized levels,” added Bob Martin. “Currently, our focus is on identifying and realizing the benefits of sharing best practices and operating efficiencies across Europe and North America, and continuing to optimize our working capital management processes.”

“Having completed the EHG acquisition, we are now beginning the hard work of realizing the full value of EHG to our Company,” commented Peter B. Orthwein, Executive Chairman of Thor. “With the strong industry fundamentals and demographic tailwinds, we are confident that our strategic expansion into the European RV market will contribute to Thor’s long-term growth, and provide the strong cash flow and returns on investment that our shareholders have come to expect from Thor.”

Although I appreciate Newmar trying to signal to its customer base that things will stay the same, that the DNA of the company won’t change, it already has. There is a new owner that is accountable to shareholders. And the shareholders want better margins and more profitability.

Make money.

Newmar’s DNA will end when the deal with Winnebago closes. Sure, it might look the same for a little while, but the culture will be assimilated.

Just like the Borg.

Resistance is futile.

That is why we have terms like “selling out” to describe these types of changes. And that is why so many Newmar owners are upset by the news.

Newmar is gone.