Today's Damon Puts Strong Emphasis on Class A Value
Damon Motor Coach President Bill Fenech has added quite a bit to his resume since serving as a district sales manager for Coachmen RV.
After a stint at Four Winds International Corp., Fenech became one of the primary founders of Keystone RV Co. in 1996, heading up Keystone's towable division in Elkhart, Ind., after Keystone acquired Damon Corp.'s fifth-wheel and travel trailer operations in May 2000.
When publicly owned Thor Industries Inc. first acquired Keystone and later Damon, Thor Chairman Wade Thompson sought out Fenech to become Damon's president.
A little more than a year after taking that job, Fenech is an aggressive yet pragmatic advocate of Damon motorhomes who has personally helped reshape the national brand. "A lot of people didn't think we would stick around Keystone after the sale, but we did." Fenech said. "I've got the same commitment at Damon. I want Damon to be a great company."
Damon was founded in 1988 by Donald R. Pletcher, a long-time member of the RVIA board and executive committee who was inducted last year into the RV/MH Hall of Fame. Pletcher retired when Thor purchased the company in September 2003, and Fenech moved from executive vice president at Keystone to Damon's presidency in August 2004.
In assessing the company's fortunes, Fenech set out to establish Damon as being what he calls the "value-price leader" with a focus on quality and after-sales service. "The company was very stodgy," Fenech said. "The market had been so good that a lot of bad habits had developed. We were losing market share and headed for dire straits. I talked to a lot of dealers and they told me that the last two years had been stagnant."
After not having displayed any new products at the 2003 Louisville Show, the company within months of Fenech joining Damon introduced the Astoria diesel pusher and dropped the Escaper LX 400 as being too pricey for the sub-$250,000 market that Fenech thought Damon should be selling into.
Fenech said it was difficult to discontinue the Escaper LX 400, but its introduction had taken the company out of its comfort zone. "It was a hard product to drop, but it was the absolutely right move," Fenech said. "In the past if something wasn't working, they added another product line. To me, if something is not working you need to stop and fix it and get it right.
"We could not be all things to everybody because we were doing a poor job of it. The biggest problem is that we got distracted from being what we could be great at — the entry-level and mid-level markets."
Fenech isn't shy about professing his single-minded goal. "We are trying to make a great company," Fenech said. "It's not there yet, but it's coming along. We are instilling new habits, and we've made some high-level engineering changes. Changing a culture is a lot tougher than building a culture from scratch."
Selling to a price-conscious market doesn't mean that quality and after-sales service need to suffer, Fenech insists. "We understand the importance of excellent quality, service and parts support," Fenech said. And part of that is the company's focus.
"We build affordably priced Class A motorhomes, nothing else," he said. "We have no distractions because we don't care about the upper-mid or high-end markets, and we don't build Class Cs or towables."
Generally, Fenech believes that motorhome builders don't innovate nearly as much as their brethren on the towable side. "If you walk into any 10 motorhomes, you can't tell the difference between them," Fenech said. "Towable manufacturers are much more innovative than Class A builders.
"We need to figure out how to use storage better, how to help families get more use out of their motorhome. We need to develop floorplans with twists."
Fenech said Damon's primary appeal is to dealers who already have solid front-line brands, but are looking for a price alternative to offer their customers. "We are an awesome second brand, and in some dealership we get them more turns and more profits than the Big Three," he said.
Despite higher gas prices and rising interest rates in 2005, Fenech believes — as others do — that Baby Boom buyers who are entering what is traditionally the prime RV-buying period of their lives will sustain the industry. "I'm optimistic about a solid 2006," Fenech said. "If everything stabilizes for a while and the economy stays reasonably healthy, I think we are going to have some pent-up demand for the off year that we had in 2005. There is going to be a rebound effect.
"The growth line is slanting upwards. We're just having occasional down-moving aberrations."