Airstream Flying Cloud trailer Airstream

Airstream Maker Thor Rides a Silver Bullet to #2

Strong brands, good design keep the RV manufacturer rolling along.
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In 1980, a financier and an heir to the Busch beer empire joined forces and bought a recreational trailer company called Hi-Lo. The price was right, as the oil crisis had cooled Americans’ passion for hitting the open road in oversized vehicles.

Soon after, Wade Thompson and Peter (Busch) Orthwein sealed their partnership with the purchase of Airstream, maker of the Space Age aluminum trailers that were popular with Grand-Canyon -goers in the 1950s and ‘60s. They combined the first two letters of their last names and called their burgeoning company Thor Industries. (No word on whether they cracked open a couple of cold ones to celebrate.)

In the decades that followed, Thor steadily acquired other RV companies, including Dutchmen and Komfort, as well as bus and ambulance manufacturers. Its strong performance on six metrics in 2017 earned it the #2 spot on the IndustryWeek 50 Best this year.

Changing with the Times

Thor accounts for nearly half of the demand for RVs in the United States—and benefits from well-known brand names and the diversity of its offerings, said Dan Debelius, industry analyst for the Freedonia Group market research firm.

Recent acquisitions, including the 2016 purchase of Jayco, the largest private RV manufacturer in the world, have considerably boosted its revenue.  And Thor’s 2018 acquisition of the Erwin Hymer Group, a European RV maker, earned it both the crown of the world’s largest RV manufacturer and credentials in the well-established RV culture of Italy, France, Spain and Germany.

Thor has also been forward-thinking in developing and designing recreational utility vehicles (RUVs) that are smaller, more lightweight and easier to drive and park, “but still have the amenities of a larger RV,” wrote Debelius.

Smart home features and cool designs like teardrop trailers, observed Debelius, appeal to younger buyers who value experiences and want to take the “comforts of home”—pets, wi-fi, sports gear—wherever they go—be it tailgates, festivals, stretches living and working on the road, or actual camping.

Since the end of the Great Recession, added Debelius, the RV industry in the U.S. has been going gangbusters, “with 2017 sales at 4.5 times the industry’s lowest point in 2009.” And it’s still strong, with shipments for 2018 so far surpassing shipments at the same time in 2017.

“However, there is continued concern over the effects of tariffs on aluminum and steel imports as materials costs are rising,” he wrote.

So far, the open road continues to call. Thor has announced more than a dozen plant expansions or newly constructed plants since the start of 2017. And the company is looking for “ways to bring their stylish trailers to Asia, particularly China,” noted Debelius.

An Airstream parked in front of the Great Wall? Instagram is ready.

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Email Laura at IndustryWeek

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