MEET BEN BINNS
Avida’s CEO opens up about himself, the business and the future...
by Richard Robertson.
Australia’s largest motorhome manufacturer, now known as Avida, says it accounts for 40 per cent of the market yet is still very much a family affair.
The business began making motorhomes under the Winnebago name in 1978 and has grown enormously, moving to its present location in January 2001. Expansion of the site has continued since then and today the complex comprises two factories totaling 18,000 square metres, sitting on a 4 hectare (10 acre) site that’s totally concreted. Avida employs approximately 185 staff and produces upwards of 600 motorhomes annually.
Avida’s CEO is Ben Binns, son of Bruce Binns who founded the business. I caught up with him between the Adelaide and Melbourne RV shows to find out more about the man, the Company and what makes them both tick.
Ben, you must be proud to have taken the reigns of this company from your Father. How long have you worked in the business and when did you become Managing Director?
“I came into the business in 1998. Before that I owned my own business building commercial buildings, plus cottages as well. So I left that and came into the family business and pretty much started from the ground up. I guess I’ve been in my current role about six or seven years now”
Is your Father still active in the Business?
“He’s semi-retired, Bruce, and enjoys the golf course – he goes on more courses than anyone else and is the most highly ‘trained’ person here (laughs). He’s still a director and comes in a couple of days a week if he wants to, or if he can’t get a game of golf, but he’s not involved in the day-to-day running of the business.”
Is this still a family business and have you ever thought of floating it?
“It’s still a 100 per cent family owned business and the directorships are held by four of us. We’ve never really considered going public; we’re very passionate here about the business and I grew up as a kid going to the snowfields – in a motorhome funnily enough! Because of our passion I think it works well as a family business and I don’t think anything else is necessary. Motorhomes are in our blood and this is much more than just a business to us.”
Being involved in a family business isn’t always easy. Was it a given that you would “Follow in your Father’s footsteps” and what would you say are the most important lessons you’ve learned along the way?
“It wasn’t a given, but funnily enough I did follow in my Father’s footsteps, because he was a builder originally. One of the main reasons I came in was because Bruce was nearing retirement age and I agreed to come in and give it a crack. But there was certainly no pressure.”
“What have I learned? Gee, you’re learning every day aren’t you, but one of the biggest things has been what a huge amount of knowledge Bruce has on the Industry, the demographic and how the consumer thinks. What probably sets us apart is we believe we understand, in simple form, what the customer requires. So we try not to over-complicate things. For example, we don’t have a 300 page business plan: there’s just one page – it’s very clear – stating this is what we have to do and this is how we go about it.”
Now you’re in charge of the Company’s day-to-day operations, what is the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your position?
“Well it’s certainly challenging out there. Consumer confidence is low and we can almost track our sales by the All Ordinaries and New Housing Starts. When they’re not firing we’re generally not either, so the biggest challenge is consumer confidence and we’re looking forward to seeing some change there, hopefully!”
“The most rewarding thing is making great motorhomes and seeing people get out there and enjoy them!”
Moving on, the Federal Court verdict last July last year requiring you to relinquish the Winnebago name in Australia must have been trying and, ultimately, an enormous disappointment. How difficult was it maintaining focus while the case dragged through the legal system.
“The case took 18 months for the judge to come up with that decision, so it was business as usual for us, quite frankly. We just had to focus on what we do – which is making a great product for the Australian market.”
Although you are appealing the Court’s decision, you’ve moved on by establishing the Avida brand. Tell me how this course of action came about.
“Because of the Court’s decision we had to make some pretty big decisions pretty quickly and it certainly has been challenging, but we believe we’ve made the right decisions.”
“We’re appealing the Court’s decision, which comes up about the end of March, but because of the original decision we’ve had to make some business decisions based on that decision. So it’s been important for us to be proactive and, in fact, we’ve always thought about bringing on a second brand. It’s a subject that’s been in discussion for a long time but this just brought it to the forefront sooner than we had planned – so hence our new brand, Avida.
What factors were considered in choosing the new name?
“There were a lot of factors, but we wanted to keep it nice and simple; clean, short and specifically something that represented us. The name itself is based on “Avid” – enthusiastic, passionate – which we see ourselves as when it comes to building motorhomes, with the ‘A’ on the end for Australia. It’s simple, it’s us and we think it’s a great choice of name.”
On our Facebook page people have suggested that with Winnebago being the name of an American Indian tribe that was semi nomadic, you might have used the renaming opportunity to connect the new Brand with an an Aboriginal word meaning nomad or traveller. What would you say to them?
“We had all sorts of people telling us all sorts of names, quite frankly, and we probably went through some 500 names – many of which we clearly couldn’t use. But we just wanted something that was ‘Us”’ and by going this way (with Avida) it’s given us the chance for a new and fresh start.
The new Avida range is essentially the outgoing Winnebago range with new colour schemes, interior upgrades and updates. What are your plans to develop products that reflect the Avida image and values?
“We’ve been in the process of developing our products for some time – I mean we’re always in the process of developing new products. What we wanted to do is make our products different and in fact they are different: There isn’t one product that we’re building under the Avida brand that is the same as what we were building under Winnebago.”
“Yes, what we have done is keep the range names the same and from the outside I guess you’ll see the same sorts of shapes, as in styling, but the specifications are all different. For example we’ve got a lot of new furniture in there, complete styling changes, new equipment and 13 upholstery choices, whereas before you had just 3.”
“I mentioned at the launch that our investment in machinery and systems has allowed us more flexible production and we’re utilising that with our Avida motorhomes. It provides a degree of customisation that simply wasn’t available before.”
At the Avida launch last week in Adelaide it was said that the Winnebago name often worked against you due to negative perceptions of big American motorhomes. What new marketing opportunities does the Avida brand present?
“Any brand that’s been around for a long time suffers to some degree from historical ‘baggage.’ Some people have thought of us as only producing big A-class motorhomes, but as you know the reality is very different. Smaller vehicles are what we sell most of and big vehicles the least, and it’s all based on cost. In fact some people wouldn’t even come across and see what we make because they assume all our machines are big and expensive.”
“Avida gives us a lot more opportunity to reach and convert the potential market by setting the direction of the brand, if you like, rather than carrying 30-odd years of history. So it gives us a fresh approach and new opportunities, moving forward.”
Research & Development is critical to any industry-leading business, what do you do to maintain your competitive edge?
“We’re one of the few manufacturers with a dedicated research and development facility and at the most basic R&D level we have a team of specialist engineers using 3D computer modeling to ensure all our products and designs work perfectly.”
“We are also always scouring for ideas, whether inside the industry – for instance, when we go to Europe or America – but more importantly, outside the industry. So we might be looking at boating, or the housing industry and interior design (we are a house on wheels!), so we’re pulling together ideas from all around the world, in addition to coming up with our own ideas.”
“We also work closely with consumer feedback, including surveys and talking to members of the WRV Club. We then take all that information, sift through it if you like and make our plans and decisions based on it. Ongoing development, based on lots of feedback from dealers and consumers is where we get most of our drive, in addition to searching both inside and outside the RV industry.”
You’ve worked through a national dealer network for many years. What has been the dealer’s response to the rebranding?
“It’s been fantastic, now that they’ve seen all the new products and specifications, and this new brand brings for us – they’re absolutely excited.”
“We have 12 dealers across Australia, in every State except South Australia – although we’re working on that, but won’t appoint a new dealer there until we find exactly the right one. Getting a dealer is easy, getting a good dealer who will look after our customers is the important part.”
“We work hard on customer service and have a dedicated team here that just works on it, whether it’s answering customers’ or dealers’ questions or problems. Dare I say we are the only, or one of the only, manufacturers with a dedicated team to provide this service?”
“In addition to our dealers we have 100-plus accredited service and repair centres across regional Australia and all of these help back up our programs like our 2-year/1 million km warranty, our 5-year structural guarantee, roadside assistance and our own branded insurance.”
Some readers have asked if their current Winnebago’s will need to be renamed/rebranded?
“No, not at all!”
What is the situation regarding existing warranties on Winnebago vehicles?
“Nothing changes, it’s business as usual.”
Regarding the RV Industry as a whole, what do you see as the biggest challenges facing it?
“One of the things the RV Industry as a whole is working on is compliance of imported products, to ensure we all have to jump through the same hoops, which of course comes at a cost. Another is compliance of campgrounds, to ensure they meet the same standards. With all the Baby Boomers coming into the market we need to ensure the Industry is marketed correctly, in relation to what a great lifestyle it is and the benefits it brings.”
Are there any motorhome-specific challenges you see looming?
“Compliance is still probably the biggest issue. It costs us a lot of money to run R&D compliance programs and it’s important to ensure all products do comply, yet there are products out there that don’t. It’s a part of the whole-industry challenge because the last thing we want are non-complaint vehicles on the road, in case something goes wrong. Safety is very important.”
Given your stance on non-compliant campsites, how do you view free camping?
“Look, I’m not sure of all the details around a lot of this, but it’s certainly my understanding that there are non-compliance issues out there. Whether it’s related to documentation or facilities that come at a cost, if someone is charging for a campground they need to be meeting the compliance standards regular campgrounds do.”
“Regarding free camping; it’s great! It’s what the lifestyle brings, but I think there is some confusion between what is free camping and what is non-complaint camping. Free camping is fine and I’m , in fact you could never stop it.”
Finally, how often do you manage to get away with your family and enjoy the products you make - and what is your favourite type of motorhome holiday?
“We love motorhoming and get away as often as we can, which is usually at Easter and Christmas – and then whenever else we’re able. My wife is a beach holiday person and so we tend to do more of those sorts of holidays, but we just love being away in the vehicle. It’s great to enjoy the lifestyle, but of course I’m always looking at the way things work and jotting down notes, which is all just part of the passion, I guess!”
For the full article download Issue 21 of iMotorhome eMagazine by clicking on the link below.