It’s easy to picture Scott Degnan resting his hand on a golf club, eyeing the pin in the distance, while he calculates his tee shot line down a right leaning dog leg, setting up the next approach shot. Two to the hole. One in for birdie.
These days as Degnan rocks back in his office chair at Winnebago’s headquarters, the Vice-President of Sales and Product Management, is assessing the company as carefully as measuring a putt for a birdie.
Born in Connecticut and raised in southern California, Degnan took to golf early and his game became strong enough to win a golf scholarship to San Jose State University. Golf offered both pleasure and passion and, out of college, Degnan’s skills on the course were good enough to test the possibility of a pro career. Playing in southern California he attracted the interest and support of executives from one of the country’s few non-midwestern RV companies: Fleetwood.
Increasingly Degnan was becoming intrigued with business and his Fleetwood friends encouraged him to step off the course and into industry. Over the next twenty years he would rise to the senior management position of National Director of Sales.
Like many who were working in the RV industry in 2007, from line workers to executives, the Great Recession completely upended careers and imploded business plans. The tectonics of the industry continued to shift underfoot and over a period of five years Degnan took on similar executive leadership roles at National RV, Coachmen Industries, and MVP RV. Even as he describes the uncertainty and chaos of that period, the ever-affable California economic émigré minimizes that chapter with a laugh, “Those were pretty crazy times and a lot of companies tanked.”
Typical of the down-to-earth Winnebago culture, it wasn’t an executive headhunter who called Degnan, but the CEO of the company, Randy Potts. For a company that values long years of service and often promotes from within, the call from Potts went against tradition, but it also signaled the beginning of a significant reinvention of the iconic Winnebago.
Degnan’s skills were well regarded in the industry and there were other offers beginning to surface, some from the heart of the American RV world in Elkhart, Indiana. With one of their two daughters still in high school, Degnan and his wife looked at the contrast of the freeway-centric, high density life of southern California, to the more appealing, calmer, and down-to-earth midwest style of living. In evaluating his choices, one thing Degnan liked about the Forest City area over Indiana was a less “industry insider town” feel, “In Elkhart when you go out to dinner you can’t help seeing your competitors across the restaurant.”
Degnan also liked the rock solid fundamentals of Winnebago. Elbows on his armrests, he brings his hands together, “Here’s a company who saw the recession coming, and slashed to the bone to reduce overhead to insure survivability. They had no debt, owned everything outright, and were vertically integrated. They were one big storm shelter.”
Surviving takes one kind of business skills, but thriving requires others, and as Potts laid out his vision for a re-emergent Winnebago, Degnan was both excited by and impressed with the possibilities. Movers were booked, and in 2012 the Degnan family left the desert cactus of Palm Springs for the cornfields of northern Iowa.
Together with Potts, Degnan worked on a complete realignment of the product lines which were now to be overseen by individual managers for Touring Coaches and C-class, A-Class gas, and A-class diesel. It sounds easy now, but for an outsider coming into a company with a half-century of ingrained culture and deep traditions, it says a lot about Degnan’s energetic, motivational, and inspirational skills that mindsets could be changed in a remarkably short period of time.
In his position Degnan needs to look both within the company and its processes while at the same time scanning the horizon for shifts in the economy and the RV marketplace. Like Potts, Degnan’s office is a no-nonsense work environment and prominently displayed is a grease pen planning calendar, oversized white board, and continually updated data charts and tables of sales activity.
“Though we’re a large factory, we actually manufacture in batches of one,” says Degnan. “This gives us a unique ability to adapt to dealer orders and consumer preferences without filling dealer lots with products that don’t sell. We also like our place in the market where we are known for delivering a high-quality, upscale product. That’s not going to change.” Degnan underscores Winnebago’s commitment to quality by describing the pre-ship department. After they’re assembled, most of the company’s motorhomes spend five to eight days undergoing rigorous final testing and inspection.
This commitment to try to get it right the first time has two goals. The first is to insure a good customer delivery experience. The second is to minimize the cost of dealer reimbursement for warranty service. And that commitment to quality is often affirmed by dealers who carry multiple motorhome lines. Consistently they’ll tell you that Winnebago products require less pre-delivery fixes and adjustments than competing coach brands.
Another big shift in thinking that Degnan brought to the company was encouraging employees to take more risks with the understanding that failure is not a career killer, but an opportunity to learn from. In Degnan’s view, success is not achieved without some degree of risk. One example is seeing the company’s uptick in the tempo of its marketing. Now, alongside traditional brochures and information filled web sites, attention is being given to opening up new channels of social media and greater promotion of the Winnebago lifestyle experience. But, where the rubber truly meets the road is in new product development and it’s here where lead times and investment risk are carefully calculated.
The recent example of the company’s new thinking appeared in the grand ballroom of the Mirage Hotel in the spring of 2014 when a black shroud seemingly melted away under the spotlights to reintroduce the classic Winnebago look of the 1960’s, with the benefits of 21st century design, paired with the experience of nearly a half-century of coach building. As Winnebago’s new Braves and Tributes have started rolling onto dealer’s lots and take center stage in the national press and RV shows, the reception and orders are affirming the wisdom of taking bold risks.
Degnan is well into his third decade in the RV industry and he brings the hard lessons of a cyclical business with him which now informs his thinking about Winnebago’s future and the RV marketplace in general.
He sees the inevitable post-recession consolidation with brands, like Fleetwood, which have become nameplates in multi-billion dollar holding companies that are disconnected from their founder’s vision and original manufacturing facilities. Of the handful of full product line (A, B and C class) motorhome manufacturers in America today, Winnebago stands apart as the only company in the country that has not relied on a buyout, rollup or merger to survive and grow. To stay both innovative and competitive Degnan keeps a close eye on the automotive and housing industries. Additionally, he annually travels to Europe to the Caravan show in Dusseldorf which is even larger than the biggest US RV shows. While European customers’ style of RVing is different than North Americans, it’s proven to be a fertile source of ideas and products for Winnebago.
The company’s wildly successful View/Navion and Era models ride atop the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis, and the up and coming Trend/Viva and Travato models are rolling out of the factory on the new Ram ProMaster chassis which, at its heart is the euro-proven Fiat Ducato chassis. The global success of these chassis platforms leads Degnan to think that future RV designs that are smaller, greener, and more fuel efficient will remain the fastest growing sector of motorhomes.
Like its competitors, Winnebago relies on its North American dealer network to sell and service its products. Here too, Degnan senses a change with the rise of national dealers such as Camping World, and mega dealers like La Mesa, Lazy Days and General RV. Like many inside and outside the industry, he believes that the historic mediocre quality of dealer experience needs to improve if the industry is to be successful selling to younger, better researched and feature driven customers. Along those lines, Degnan has Winnebago continually evaluating the quality and performance of its dealer network. And even with the rise of big national or regional dealers, he’s been impressed by many smaller dealers who are raising their game to remain competitive.
Growing up as a golfer, Scott Degnan came to learn the precise nature of stance, swing, rotation and follow through. The more efficient the swing, the greater the power of the drive. Intrinsically Degnan understands that those lessons can translate into keeping Winnebago one of most popular and trusted brands on the road. And whether it’s draining a twenty foot putt, congratulating a dealer for an outstanding sales year, or hearing from satisfied owners at the Grand National Rally, you’ll find a smiling Scott Degnan, arm raised, with a hand up, ready to celebrate with a high five.