Forest City-based Winnebago Industries is refreshing its brand after expanding its portfolio of nameplates and the products it manufactures. Image from the Winnebago website

While the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we work and play, one thing is certain: A lot of us have been buying RVs and other outdoor vehicles.

That was evident in the recent earnings from Forest City-based Winnebago Industries that were reported Dec. 18. The company reported first-quarter net income of $57.4 million, compared with just over $14.1 million in the same quarter last year. That represents a monumental 300% leap in earnings for the company that is known for its RVs.

Company officials acknowledge that as other activities shut down or were canceled as the virus spread, more people were seeking opportunities to head outdoors, which spurred the big growth in sales.

But Winnebago President and CEO Mike Happe said the growth seen this year is only a continuation of rising interest that was seen prior to 2020.

Happe said the company has been working over the past five years to broaden its portfolio of outdoor brands and products to capture more of that market. That has resulted in the company working to refresh the Winnebago brand, he said.

According to Happe, Winnebago has added recreational vehicle brands Grand Design RV, Newmar and Chris Craft, the luxury brand in boats. 

“The term Winnebago Industries for so many years, most of the first decades of the company, was strongly associated with mostly the Winnebago brand of motor home products,” he said. “Today in 2020, Winnebago Industries is an enterprise brand that really is a collection of premium outdoor lifestyle brands across multiple industries.”

The branding work that has been done over the past few months was needed to “reenergize the enterprise brand so that it stands for who we are today and who we want to be in the future, and it separates itself a little from our iconic Winnebago brand,” Happe said. 

Winnebago has four manufacturing locations in Iowa (Forest City, Lake Mills, Charles City and Waverly), three in Indiana and one in Sarasota, Fla. It also has executive offices in Eden Prairie, Minn. In total, it employs more than 5,700 employees. 

Besides its RV presence, Winnebago wants to grow into the marine and specialty vehicle industries.

“The recreational vehicle platform is our core business,” Happe said. “It will be our core business for a long time, and it’s a business we think we have significant organic growth potential in.” 

In 2015, Winnebago had less than 3% of the market share in North America. This year, it has more than 11.5% of that market share, and that is expected to grow, Happe said.

Happe declined to share the specifics of the marine and specialty vehicle platforms the company was looking at, but under specialty vehicles, it could include business-to-business applications, accessibility-enhanced products for people with disabilities, mobile work or mobile medical.

“We believe organically and inorganically we have significant runway to carefully drive profitable growth in the future,” he said.

The addition of jobs will depend on where the growth occurs, Happe said.

“So time will tell where we invest in future infrastructure, but that will be based on where the organic and inorganic growth is coming from,” he said.

Winnebago shut down between March 27 and May 4 as the pandemic began to spread. It resumed manufacturing following Centers for Disease and Control guidelines to keep employees safe. While the company has seen positive cases among its employees, most have been community-spread and not employees being infected at work, Happe said.

Since it reopened, the company has operated at high production levels to keep pace with demand, he said.

“Outdoor recreation demand has been at record-breaking demand throughout 2020 as consumers have flocked to the outdoors because of the disruption to their normal lives and the normal ways they would otherwise spend their leisure time,” Happe said. “We believe the unfortunate pandemic environment has only accelerated what was already happening in the outdoor industry in terms of rising interest.”

But he emphasized that the industry is “rooting as hard as everyone” for the rollout of effective COVID-19 vaccines.

“But we do not believe interest in the outdoors will wane in the future,” he said.