LAS VEGAS - For Ron Buckmeir, the idea came early one morning on a back road in Nebraska.
It was 2: 30 a.m., and Buckmeir, vice president of product development for Winnebago Industries Inc., was driving home in a prototype motor home. Traffic was backing up as Buckmeir fumbled with the radio controls.
'I needed something to keep me awake, and I couldn't get the stupid thing to work,' Buckmeir said.
Right then he knew the motor home's radio would have to be a high-quality model featuring two big, easy-to-find knobs.
'That became our No. 1 goal: It has to be user-friendly,' Buckmeir said.
Putting customers first in design is a new concept at Winnebago. Until now, Buckmeir and his team relied on what parts were readily available, he said.
Bruce Hertzke, Winnebago's CEO, said the motor-home industry is entering an era of strong growth as baby boomers join the market. He wants to use a fresh approach to persuade consumers to buy Winnebagos.
BEST YEAR YET
Winnebago is in the fourth fiscal quarter of its most successful year ever, Hertzke said in August during a dealers meeting here. Revenue for the third quarter, which closed at the end of May, was $503.3 million, compared with $395.1 million for the same period in 1998. Net income through the third quarter was up 99 percent, to $34.2 million. Fourth-quarter information is not available until October.
The company also will build more vehicles than ever this year, with a projected total of 10,300, up more than 1,500 units from last year.
To help meet the demand, Winnebago is building a $1.5 million, 50,000-square-foot addition to its fiberglass factory in Hampton, Iowa.
'Our consumer base is going to continue to grow for 30 years. We have a lot of plans to pick up more market share with our new products,' Hertzke said. 'We will continue to grow to whatever size we need to meet the demand.'
There are some wild cards in the supply chain Hertzke cannot control.
Chassis supply for the Class A motor homes continues to fluctuate. Ford Motor Co. supplies the industry with the lion's share of these chassis. But in recent weeks, Ford has indicated it will build fewer chassis this year than it had originally forecast.
To have a predictable chassis supply, Winnebago has for the first time in four years signed a purchase agreement with Spartan Motors Inc. Spartan will supply chassis for Winnebago's Class A Ultimate Freedom model.
Other news from the dealer meeting included:
Winnebago will give its dealers a 40 percent markup on warranty parts. The company had offered 30 percent until now. Warranty parts and service are the main concerns among dealers who are trying to increase their Customer atisfaction Index scores, said Mike Molino, president of the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association.
Winnebago dealers will sign five-year agreements with the factory starting in 2000. Until now, dealer agreements were year-to-year. The new plan will eliminate much of the administrative paperwork that had gone into the agreements.
One way Winnebago comes up with new product ideas is to send teams camping in the motor homes, Buckmeir said. His product developers also rely on consumer focus groups and surveys of current motor home owners.
One of the new features on the company's Adventurer Class A motor home was dreamed up after a Winnebago employee team pulled into a campground late at night. They discovered that the lights in the water hookup bay failed to illuminate the nozzles and handles. So now, the lights are aimed so they illuminate what the customer needs to see, Buckmeir said.
Another small improvement in the design is the use of 4-inch-wide handles on the drawers, allowing users to fit all four fingers around the handle. On previous models, the handles were skinny, with room for only a couple of fingers to wrap around them, Buckmeir said.
'All of this stuff is an evolution toward total user-friendly coaches,' Buckmeir said. 'We have things we need to work on.'