LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A year ago Ron and Bill Fenech and Don Clark had a poster with a drawing of recreational vehicles on it. That was the extent of their new RV company. On Tuesday, a year later, the partners were busy hosting dealers at their display of RVs that looked very similar to that drawing on the poster.
Grand Design RV was just an idea at last year’s National RV Trade Show. It was an idea that the Fenech brothers and Clark pitched to a group of dealers crowded into a too-small hotel meeting room near the convention center. They received an overwhelming positive response and moved ahead quickly after the show to begin producing fifth wheels in a plant north of Middlebury.
“It was an eight-by-eight (booth) just outside the men’s bathroom,” is how Clark remembers that small space where the partners showed dealers their poster before calling a meeting at the hotel.
At this year’s show, Grand Design has a larger presence.
“It’s a small display, but it’s a display of five units,” Clark said just outside a Solitude fifth wheel. “Last year what was funny was all we had was these placards, these posters of what we thought we were going to build. And it turned out to be spot on of what we actually built, which is the Solitude product line.”
A new model
The formation of Grand Design was not done by RV newbies. The Fenech brothers and Clark built Keystone RV into an industry powerhouse. They sold the company to Thor in 2001 and continued on with the company until 2011. All the partners have more than 25 years of RV industry experience. While starting Grand Design the partners were able to tap into their industry connections and build on their reputations.
“Last year, as we said, we had a poster this big,” Clark said. “But they did not buy into the poster. What they bought into was the belief that we would build a better business model than what is out there. What helped was the promises we were making what our company was going to be, what our foundation was going to be, we had long standing relationships out there, some 25 plus years. And you just say what you are gong to do. Over the years reputations are made by hard decisions, not the easy ones. That was a quote from Ron Fenech. And I believe that.
Clark believes he and his partners are fortunate to have good reputation in the industry and know many of the A dealers through previous successful ventures. “So we have already earned their trust,” Clark continued. “When we came out with our company we let the larger dealers have a say, we included them in our model; tell us what kind of company you want us to be, tell us what kind of company will work in the present day RV business. And they had a hand in the design of our company. So, when we started we had a built-in dealer base and all you got to do is say what you are going to do and build a hot product. In our industry, product is king. Relationships open the doors to many of these dealerships but at the end of the day your product has to sell.”
Pitch and catch
Clark showed off one of the Solitude fifth wheels. He was busy pointing out the adjustable under-cabinet mood lighting, the extensive custom cabinetry and the entertainment center in the front-end living room when Bill Fenech and a visiting dealer plopped down in the twin recliners facing the big screen TV.
“I like it,” the dealer said of the forward-facing twin seats.
Then Fenech and the dealer discussed whether the front heating duct should be moved and if the floor should be carpet or linoleum or carpet. Carpet is best it was decided.
That kind of pitch and catch of ideas was occurring throughout the morning with dealers.
“In some ways our first year of business has gone by so fast and in others it has been a lot of work getting us here,” Clark said. “But the dealers have been extremely patient with the product that we have coming out. We have been careful to build with just excellent quality, high quality and the dealers have been very appreciative of that.”
The first year at Grand Design has been an active one.
“Here is what’s happened in less than a year,” Clark said. “We have outfitted two of our plants for production facilities; we have introduced three brands to the market, an affordable luxury extended-stay fifth wheel Solitude; we came out with its little brother, a mid-profile fifth wheel called Reflection; and lastly we have come out with our third brand, a toy hauler fifth wheel called Momentum.”
And there’s more to come.
“We are in the developing stages of a travel trailer,” Clark said. “Sometime early next year we will be opening up our third manufacturing facility. So we are in the process of hiring more people, both manufacturing and management positions.”
The company’s work force has already topped 300 people, according to Clark.
“We are very fortunate,” Clark said. “We are blessed to have been able to attract the type of people that we got.”