Truck Camper Magazine talks with Northwood Manufacturing’s new CEO and COO about the leadership transition and their future vision for Northwood.
Last January, the RV industry was shocked with the news that Ron Nash, Northwood Manufacturing’s Founder and President, had suffered a stroke. Since his health emergency, Ron’s condition has improved and he’s now recovering at his home in La Grande, Oregon.
Like any company that suffers a sudden loss of leadership, Northwood Manufacturing has faced the challenges of a leadership transition. That transition included the appointment of Jim Jones as Chief Executive Officer and Ward King as Chief Operations Officer.
We had the pleasure of meeting Jim and Ward earlier this month and later talked with them about Ron Nash’s condition, the leadership transition experience, the status of Outdoors RV, and their future vision for Northwood Manufacturing moving forward.
TCM: Before we talk about the leadership transition at Northwood Manufacturing, can you clarify what happened to Ron Nash?
Jim: Ron had a stroke on Tuesday, January 12th, 2010. It was fairly severe brain stem stroke. He was in the hospital in La Grande, Oregon for about a week to ten days and then went to Boise, Idaho for rehabilitation.
TCM: How is he doing now?
Jim: Ron’s made a lot of progress. He’s been at his home here in La Grande since April. He is improving physically but needs assistance and still has problems with short term memory. He is well attended to and has a great attitude.
Ward and I meet with Ron and his wife, Sherry, every week to keep them informed about Northwood. In fact, this afternoon at 2:00 PM we are going to go meet them.
TCM: After Ron’s health emergency, tell us what happened to the leadership at Northwood Manufacturing.
Jim: Ron told me many times that he wanted me to work with him full-time. He would say, “Jim, what do you need me to do to get you to come to work for me?” I knew eventually I would come and work for Ron, but I obviously didn’t think it would happen the way it did.
When Ron had the stroke, I knew I had to come to Northwood and help Ron any way I could. I arrived here later that week and for January and February, I was here two days a week to keep things on track and to evaluate how Ron was doing. Throughout those two months, I was at Northwood having weekly meetings, maintaining continuity, keeping the management team moving forward, and developing Ron’s plans.
On the 18th of March, we had a formal consulting agreement signed with Sherry for me to take over as CEO of Northwood Manufacturing and related entities. So after the stroke, Sherry and I waited for about three months before the formal agreement was signed and the announcement was made. I wanted there to be some transition before I took an official title and position. Previous to signing this agreement, I was here at Northwood performing the functions of a CEO, but not in an official capacity.
Ward: As Jim was working through his assignment to CEO, I was doing the same work as before Ron’s stroke. Ron had me assigned to product development, materials, production, and service. Everyone at Northwood continued doing the things Ron had us doing. He had a lot in place. When Jim came on board, he did the financials and assured us that we were moving forward.
TCM: Have you had to make any changes to how Ron was running Northwood?
Jim: We really haven’t changed anything Ron was doing. Before Ron’s stroke, the management team, Ron and myself were having formal meetings with managers and we have continued those meetings. About a month before the stroke, we had begun the process of developing a business plan for Northwood. At that time, there wasn’t a formal written business plan in place. Now we’re developing a five year progression plan. My background as a CPA, made me realize that planning was a key to keeping the business moving forward and progressing.
Ward: The small changes we are making, Ron would support. For example, we are now working differently with the banks and going to dealers for dealer sales agreements. As a result, our financials are in great shape. Before the stroke, Ron carried a lot of the financials in his head. That worked because the banks trusted Ron Nash. After his stroke, we’ve had to prove ourselves to the banks as being strong. We’ve demonstrated that.
TCM: Jim, tell us about how you got involved with Northwood.
Jim: I’ve known Ron since I was thirteen years old. We became good friends throughout junior high and high school. I did a lot of hunting and fishing with Ron and his dad. We also roomed together at Brigham Young University where we both graduated from college. Then after graduation we lost track of each other for awhile. I went in one direction with my career and Ron went in another.
I got back together with Ron right after he started Northwood. Since he launched the company over fifteen years ago, I have been Northwood’s CPA. I have handled Northwood’s auditing, tax work, tax planning, and setting up of the corporate structure as well as developing plans and goals.
TCM: How has your experience as a CPA prepared you to be the CEO of Northwood?
Jim: I worked as a CPA for the past forty years and with Delap, LLP in Lake Oswego, Oregon for the last ten plus years. It was difficult to leave Delap, but I wanted to help Ron and Northwood. This decision was not taken lightly.
As a CPA, most of my time was spent consulting with clients and business planning. I also worked extensively with closely held businesses and helped them in various transition phases of a business: such as transferring a business from one generation to another. I understand manufacturing and the importance of cost controls. I’ve seen successful and unsuccessful businesses in my CPA career, so I came to realize what made companies succeed and others fail.
I also have an extensive background with the automotive industry. During my years as a CPA, I handled and managed close to fifty automotive and Harley Davidson dealers. Many issues and problems the auto industry has experienced, coincide with issues Northwood manufacturing and the RV industry have also had. Since Ron had the stroke and I came on board full-time, the challenges I have been working on are basically similar to ones I have dealt with for years in my CPA practice.
TCM: Your prior experience is unusual for a President or CEO of a RV manufacturer. How would you describe your responsibilities at Northwood?
Jim: The work I do now is one of communication with all the parts of running a manufacturing company. I work with the management team and talk with them to find out their key concerns. I meet with regional sales representatives and dealers and ask them about their concerns and what they were looking for from Northwood. I also find out what product changes customers are looking for. I’m listening to our dealers and our customers.
I look at our capital expenditure needs, our year end tax planning, banking, financing, and all activities along that line. I review the quarterly and monthly financial statements. We also have weekly reporting on production, sales, and manufacturing costs. I coordinate the projects that are going on at Northwood. There’s a lot of work there.
I oversee the planning and scheduling and I am, with the help of the management team, developing a five year plan for the company. It’s been a lot of activity and it’s been enjoyable. I’ve met a lot of great people and great dealers, and realize that we have to be in partnership with all of them.
TCM: Ward, tell us about how you got involved with Northwood.
Ward: I first met Ron in 1980. He was assigned to Fleetwood as the General Manager. At that time, I was the Production Manager at Fleetwood. I worked there for eight years before I transferred to the Fleetwood plant in Hancock, Maryland. I spent five years in Maryland and was promoted to Division Production Manager in Riverside, California. After one year I was then promoted to Director of Quality for the RV towable group and held that position for nine months. After Riverside, I was back in Pendleton as the General Manager for two years and then, when Fleetwood regionalized, I was the Regional General Manager.
In 2001, as Fleetwood was changing their business model, I rejoined Ron Nash at Northwood. I went to Winchester, Virginia and started the Northwood plant there. For the last seven years, I have been Ron’s Director of Manufacturing. About four years ago, he brought me over to the office next to his. Since then I’ve been side by side with Ron in every aspect of the business.
TCM: Your official title at Northwood is Chief Operations Officer, but how would you describe your job?
Ward: I report directly to Jim. Day to day I work in operations, service, product development, accounting, and materials. I’m basically the General Manager or General Operations Manager. I also oversee the total operations of Outdoors RV and work directly with the General Manager there, which used to be a Fleetwood plant. It’s now part of Northwood’s investments. It’s a lot of fun. There’s never time for boredom.
TCM: You mentioned Outdoors RV. Tell us about how the Fleetwood travel trailer plant in La Grande was acquired and became Outdoors RV.
Jim: That takes us back to April of 2009. That was when Ron was talking with me about the opportunity to acquire the Fleetwood plant here in La Grande that is now Outdoors RV. I went with Ron to the bankruptcy court in May of 2009, which was the start of the severe downturn in industry. Because of our structure, we could buy the plant at an opportune time and price. We started production thirty days later and had our first units off the line in July of 2009.
TCM: Is Outdoors RV up to speed and manufacturing product?
Jim: Outdoors RV is very strong and profitable. Our year end is in July, and I can say by looking at our numbers, both Northwood and Outdoors RV are very sound and profitable.
Ward: For the record, Sherry and Ron Nash have no interest in selling this organization. We are expanding our dealer base and going in to partner with our dealers. Jim and I are personally visiting them.
Jim: Yes, we are looking to add to our dealer base and expand production capabilities. We can do more. We are getting very good reception with new dealers.
TCM: Is Northwood still committed to the same products and product lines; travel trailers, fifth wheels, and truck campers?
Ward: We are committed to our Desert Fox, Nash, Arctic Fox, and True North products. There will be new brands and price points that we’re not currently in. We will continue to strengthen our products and increase our exposure.
TCM: Any new truck camper brands?
Ward: We are looking at new truck camper brands. In fact, I talked with Kevin Baker at Apache Camping Center about a camper for half-ton trucks. We are planning on being in the market with that by the end of the year. It will be in the Northwood brand, but we’re not sure what we will name that product.
TCM: What differentiates a Northwood Manufacturing RV product from an Outdoors RV product?
Ward: Northwood and Outdoors are at different price points, have different features, and market to a different customer base. Northwood products are typically for couples and they are luxury products. Our Outdoors RV products are more family oriented.
Jim: We are keeping the identity of Outdoors RV separate from Northwood as far as the products are concerned. At both companies we are building products that the customer wants and desires.
Ward: At the rally in June, we were told by customers that the problem we have with Northwood products is that we build them too good. The owners told us they don’t need to upgrade because their Northwood products are so good. We want to continue that and bring more people into the Northwood family.
TCM: You’ve talked a lot about a business plan and looking forward. What is the vision for Northwood Manufacturing?
Jim: We want to expand our dealer base the southwest and west. We have a good western Canada dealer base, but there are a number of geographical areas where we have no presence.
There are great opportunities for us and we are working to make the most of those opportunities. We are able to take the great foundation that Ron has masterfully put together and follow his philosophy. We want to continue the Nash legacy and make Northwood stronger and better. It will be a strong legacy for Ron Nash.
TCM: With so much going on at Northwood Manufacturing in the past year or so, is there anything you would like to add to your interview that we haven’t asked you about?
Ward: I would like to emphasize Nash’s philosophy to protect our people. The average employee at Northwood has been with us for ten years. Throughout all of this, there were not a lot of layoffs. Nash protected his people. Our employees stayed here and we have a really strong employee base. They are loyal to our company, product, and customer.
Jim: One of my personal philosophies is that my actions speak louder than my words. Our actions at Northwood and Outdoors RV will speak louder than anything I can say. You will see that through the quality of our product. Just watch us!