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The Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast: Airstream’s Move to Electrification

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Bringing to light Airstream’s desire to move towards electrification, their Vice President of Sales, Justin Humphreys, joins host Dr. Denis Phares for an episode of The Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast. Together they delve into Airstream’s rich history in the RV industry and how they continue to drive innovation and the adoption of new technology. Seeking to continue to provide their customers with the best possible products, Airstream seeks to take advantage of lithium-ion battery technology.

Airstream’s Evolution and Innovations in the RV Industry

Couple camping with an Airstream in Alaska

Airstream’s iconic aluminum travel trailer has been turning heads and giving adventurers the freedom to take on the open road for nearly a century. Since 1929, Airstream has been a trailblazer in the RV industry, continuously taking advantage of the latest technology and establishing itself as a top-of-the-line brand. Throughout its tenure, Airstream has been pushing the limits of what’s possible for travel trailers and seeks to expand its product offerings to provide more value to its consumers. With revolutionary lithium-ion battery technology, there are endless possibilities for what RVers can power and bring on the road with them. In its latest models, Airstream is taking advantage of this new technology and providing unprecedented comfort and luxury, even when its customers venture off the beaten path. 

In this episode of the Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast, Justin Humphreys, the Vice President of Sales at Airstream, joins host Dr. Denis Phares for an insightful discussion on the iconic brand’s recent innovations and the future of the RV industry. Justin emphasizes Airstream’s focus on customer expectations, driving the integration of cutting-edge features such as electrification and self-propelling trailers. Denis and Justin explore Airstream’s relationship with Thor Industries, highlighting the unique autonomy and entrepreneurial spirit afforded to Airstream within the larger umbrella of Thor Industries. Finally, Justin gives valuable insights into Airstream’s commitment to excellence, a customer-centric approach, and ongoing efforts to drive innovation in the RV industry. 

Listen to the full episode or watch the recording on our YouTube channel and be sure to keep up with Airstream Inc. on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn! 


Podcast Transcript


Denis Phares:  00:14

Hi, I’m Denis Phares, and this is The Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast. We are here at the RV Super Show in Tampa, Florida, in an iconic Airstream International. So I’m absolutely pleased to welcome to the podcast today Justin Humphreys VP of sales at Airstream. 


Justin Humphreys:  00:33

Yes, thanks for having me. 


Denis Phares:  00:34

My pleasure and you are doing more than sales?


Justin Humphreys:  00:38

Yeah, I’ve had a few roles in Airstream and I typically take on some special projects along the way one of them involved your product and a new B van we launched, here recently, the range line on the ProMaster. That was kind of a cross-functional team that we needed to get that product to market pretty quick. We kind of had two things going on, we had COVID. So we wanted to take advantage of the of the increase in sales for the B Van space. But then we also needed to expand our offering because Mercedes Benz was already sold on, so we did this cross-functional team where I lead it, and we brought something to market in under a year which for Airstream’s, you know, very quick.


Denis Phares:  01:20

Was that a supply chain issue?


Justin Humphreys:  01:22

You know, when you design a product like that in the middle of a pandemic… there were other supply chain issues. But, you know, there’s no doubt that we’re 100% all Mercedes Benz, so I like to say if they caught a cold, we caught pneumonia, you know. You’re really tied to them…and a great partner, by the way, awesome product. And then we couldn’t ignore this new segment or this new offering in the segment that was outselling Mercedes Benz and wasn’t because Mercedes Benz was down in sales. They were continuing to grow so we thought can’t ignore that anymore. So it was a bit of a supply chain challenge that we had being single-sourced. And then also this opportunity that was now the largest market shareholder of the B van space. So for projects like that, I’m VP of sales, which includes sales teams for travel trailers, motorhomes, internal support systems for dealers, and transportation, but also includes parts and service.

We also have factory service. So if you buy an Airstream you can actually have it fixed at the factory. Our customers really like that. So it includes that. So I’ve always kind of had my hand and a lot of things. But yeah, so most recently that and then McKay Featherstone who was promoted to Thor, he was our VP of Engineering. So we had this interim period where we were trying to find a new person to replace him and I took on engineering there for a while as well this year. So it’s been a busy, busy year for me personally on top of all the craziness with COVID and the RV industry booming.


Denis Phares:  02:57

Right well you come from an RV family. I want to get to that eventually but let’s talk first about Airstream itself. So it is iconic. Let’s talk about the more recent history so there are B vans, there are travel trailers, towable trailers…So when did the B vans actually come online and why was that? Why did that transition happen?


Justin Humphreys:  03:20

We have a history of motorhomes dating back to the 70s. It’s the Travel Trailer looking type motorhomes, classic motorhomes. So motorhomes are never something that we wouldn’t, you know, consider or thinking, “Oh, we’re just a travel trailer company.” So we actually started our first B vans in the 90s. fFr a while we were importing Westfalias from Europe and distributing them. So we’ve had actually this B van business per se for, you know, what’s that? Nearly 30 years, we’ve been in the space. And it’s become a really good business for us. You know, if you think about the two customers are completely different. So if you can grow your B van business, it’s truly incremental. It’s not taking away from your trailer business.


So we love it. We love that business. And if you think about B vans, you know, they come in built from Dodge or from Mercedes. And then everything fits through the door. We do that with our trailers, our trailers, the shells are built and everything fits through the door. So it’s a segment that, even though it looks totally different than tow than our towables, it’s very similar in how we produce it. So it’s, it’s a natural fit for us.


Denis Phares:  04:34

Well from an electrification point of view. And of course, we’re the battery manufacturer. There are some differences there. And I know that Airstream has been pretty proactive especially with B vans and taking advantage of the alternators and the fast charging, the high power and, that’s something that obviously is good for us, good for battery manufacturers in general. And you know, we’d love to see that extra electrification.


Justin Humphreys:  04:58

Yeah, our customers expecte it from us.They expect us to be innovative. They expect us… they want the best. So if there’s a bigger alternator, or some equipment from the chassis manufacturer, they want it. In fact, when I got here, we had tons of options 25-30. But everybody was selecting every options. We just make things standard now. We have very few options, just because our customers expect it. I’m buying Airstream. I’m buying the best. We have full confidence that you’re going to put in the best. So it’s quite a responsibility from our end. But yeah, you’re right, we put it all in full tilt. That’s how we roll.


Denis Phares:  05:29

What about the relationship with Thor corporate? How does that work out?


Justin Humphreys:  05:34

Yeah, you know, I was in the industry for 12-13 years prior to joining Airstream with Fleetwood. Fleetwood had a really strong corporate culture, meaning they did all the prints out in Riverside, California. They did all the pricing in California. So it’s very top-heavy, if you will. When it came to Thor, I thought I wonder how much interaction I’ll see with Thor. I see very little of Thor. Thor is not in our plant very often. I think if we stopped sending checks, they’d show up quite a bit more. 

Denis Phares:  06:02

But they leave their subs alone?


Justin Humphreys:  06:04

They really do. They allow them to manage. And I think sometimes they get a little flack for that, because maybe they don’t leverage kind of to scale on some of the things he could. But it really gives each subsidiary its ability to make its own decisions and hold on to it.


Denis Phares:  06:16

Its own identity. I mean, Airstream is a very different company from Keystone.


Justin Humphreys:  06:20

It like, our club, our Airstream club, they’ll say, “Ah, Thor probably made you do that. That was a horrible system.” Like no, that was me, or that was somebody else on the team. Thor doesn’t come in and say, “Here’s what you’re gonna build, you’re gonna stop building that, here’s what you’re going to price the products…” It’s very little oversight. And what they do is financial oversight, because we’re a public company for Sox Compliance. Some compliance in terms of recalls and stuff, they want to make sure that they have a seat at that table, and legal, HR, some of the IT security protocols, which is smart. But as far as the business, you guys run the business, you’re closest to it. We’re the furthest from it.


We want the decisions made closest to the market. I love it. It’s so entrepreneurial, you feel like you’re part of a business that, with other leaders of the company, you kind of feel like you’re running your own company. I mean, without this oversight like I experienced at Fleetwood, they were making decisions from California. And we were in Indiana, and sometimes you thought, “That wasn’t the right decision.” Thor doesn’t do that. They really let us run our business. It’s a great model. And actually, not a lot of people know this, but in 1980 Thor was formed with Wade Thompson [TH]  and Peter Orthwein [OR]…that’s how they created the name Thor. Their first purchase was Airstream. So I like to kind of kid around with the other subsidiaries and say basically, we bought all of you guys. But if you look at where we are now, I mean Thor is huge with all the brands they own. We are one of the smallest companies but the biggest brand.


Denis Phares:  07:56

Is that right? It’s one of the smallest in the Thor portfolio? I didn’t realize that.


Justin Humphreys:  07:59

But it’s clearly got a big brand. So we punch above our weight quite a bit with other brands wanting to do collaborations or partner with us. Now our company has grown significantly in the short term, you kind of referenced that it’s really since the 08-09 recession, it’s just been this upward trend that’s been phenomenal. So we’re the largest we’ve ever been. And a 91-year history. So to give you context, Airstream is as big today as they’ve ever been. But when you compare it to the other Thor companies, we’re still down on the smaller side.


Denis Phares:  08:37

Well, you referenced your personal experience in the RV business. Can we talk a little bit about your father and the RVIA and how that affected the industry?


Justin Humphreys:  08:49

Yeah, my dad was an attorney. And he was from DC. And RVIA, at the time was hiring him to get through a few things. And they kept trying to hire him full time but he was more just, you know, acting as their attorney. But finally, they got him in the 70s. And he became the president of RVIA. He ended up retiring in 2006. So I kind of took the Small Cottage Industry and worked on compliance and other things to make sure the government was happy but not have this incredible oversight that was crippling either. And that’s a balance that you have to really be careful with. But RVIA represented all the manufacturers and suppliers. So from a very early age, I was exposed to RVs I loved it in fact, they have demos and RVIA, so often we’d be out camping, and we actually owned our own pop-top. First a Jayco, then a Coleman. We loved it. My dad would always comment years later, and we’d get together as adults, and we would talk about the time dad tripped while putting the pop top down in the rain and got muddy and, you know, all the fun camping trip stories you have.


We never brought up the expensive Disney trip that we all went to, that he paid an arm and a leg for all the drinks and popcorn at the park. So I think it really taught me the lifestyle, you know, growing up around it. And then also kind of gave me a little glimpse into the business, more than a little, on some of the challenges they had. You know, because if you look at automotive, the oversight that automotive has HUD, those things. There’s definitely some oversight. And, you know, we’re tied to NITSA, clearly, because we’re on the road. But, you know, through our process and inspections that RVIA does at the plants, he was part of a team that really made the government happy but also made the manufacturers say, “Okay, at least we have a fighting chance.” We don’t have the scale, like automotive or housing, we’re a much smaller industry. So yeah, he was a great guy. And, yeah, it was crazy working in the same business as my dad. Because I go home for Thanksgiving. We’re just just chatting up all kinds of stuff in the industry. And I’m one of five kids, the other four, like, “What are you guys talking about?”


Denis Phares:  10:57

Were you known in the industry as his kid?


Justin Humphreys:  11:00

Yeah, exactly. You know, those that knew him at the beginning, I was a little bit like, I don’t want to ride the coattails per se, I’m really proud of what he did. But I don’t want to say that I got this job or that job. So it was actually funny. Scott from stat surveys, who manages all the market share, when my dad passed, he was like, “I didn’t even put the connection together.” So there was a lot of people that still hadn’t connected that. And then my dad laughed that, after he retired, people referring to him that, “Oh, yeah, you’re Justin’s dad.” So it did flip. And I was like, “Well, Dad, you’ve been out of the industry for 15 years,” but I think he was more proud of that.


Denis Phares:  11:38

That’s how you know you made it. We certainly have a very good opinion of the RVIA.I think it’s because of the RVIA, that a transition to lithium was able to occur in you know, just a few years really in the RV business. And I think in other industries, that sort of self-regulation lacks, and it’s harder to make changes and ensure you’re doing it in a legal and compliant fashion. 


Justin Humphreys:  12:04

Yeah, they’re good at that. And, you know, they’ve had a lot of experience of it over the years to know where the pitfalls are, and how to navigate it. In fact, the President, now Craig ended up replacing my dad as attorney there. My dad was President and General Counsel for a long time, he didn’t want to give up the law side of it, that was kind of his bread and butter. But, you know, Craig has a real good sense on that. He understands what the government wants, what the agencies want. And then also, how do you thread that needle to manufacturers and get to market relatively quick.


Denis Phares:  12:35

Have all the competitors sitting around the table. And, you know, that’s always interesting. And they make a big deal about, you know, being focused on the association itself. And anyway…


Justin Humphreys:  12:49

My dad was big on it. And in fact, there’s a unity award that’s in my dad’s name to this day on people who kind of keep the industry together and work together. And he would meet with other presidents of other industries, he was just outside of DC, where most associations are based. But he would look to other industries. And these presidents would be like, “It’s crazy, we can’t get the manufacturers to agree, and they’re kind of backstabbing each other, and the supply base is not helpful.” And he was like, “You know, we have a really unique thing in the RV space, where we typically work together towards a common cause, despite the fact that we compete against each other.” And, you know,,. that’s not always the case. And it can really break quickly if you’re not careful. But…we were talking before the podcast, all the people we know, and the small kind of town feel of the RV space. I think it’s a huge advantage for the industry. And it allows RVIA to do those things faster.


Denis Phares:  13:44

It’s changing a little bit. I mean, now you see these sort of startup RV companies popping up electric RVs. And, you know, I don’t know what you see the future as. Certainly, electrification is a big part of it. But I would imagine companies like Airstream have a better shot at innovating. They know the space, they know the customer. Do you want to talk a little bit about the electrification part of it?


Justin Humphreys:  14:08

Yeah, you know, we’ve clearly been watching it for a while, and a lot of the early adopter Tesla owners are Airstream owners. So our dealer started to let us know, “Hey, we’re hooking these things up to model X’s and even model S’s.” And so, those customers tend to get drawn to the Airstream brand and design and, and our, what we’re known for in terms of innovation. So, you know, we launched the E-stream here at the show last year, it was a concept vehicle. But the idea was this trailer could basically drive itself behind an electric car to extend your range. And then also, if the battery packs big enough, maybe you could charge your tow vehicle if you needed to, as well. And of course, now it’s a self-driving trailer.


When you get to a campground, you can actually remotely back in into a site as opposed to having to tow it, which is a pain point and a fear kind of thing for new owners. So it was really well received in the early adopters emails, “Let us know when it’s ready, and I’m buying it, just tell me who I need to send my deposit to.” The devils in the details to that level of, of electrification because you have the self-propelling trailer that could be gotta have a lot of safety protocols. But the future, I think, is somewhere in that where, you know, as we get more electrified and, range is an issue when you’re towing, that having that battery pack on the trailer to help supplement makes a lot of sense. So that was a huge… and with Thor’s help. Thor’s innovation team was really driving that, but we had a big seat at that table and and still do. You know, we know that you can’t ignore it when you see the success of Tesla and some of these others, and now even the mainstream manufacturers are producing electric vehicles now.


Denis Phares:  16:00

But I would imagine there’s not going to be a Tesla in the RV industry. That electrification is going to come from within the mainstream RV industry rather than, you know, startup on the coast, I’m guessing.


Justin Humphreys:  16:11

I would say so just because of scale and what that provides, but you know…


Denis Phares:  16:17

You’re already down that road. You’re not behind the curve.


Justin Humphreys:  16:19

No, we’re not, we’re definitely in front of it. The tough thing is some of these startups, you know, they come from companies like Tesla and the automotive side building 15 million cars a year. I mean, our entire industry is five less than 500,000. So the scale is so different. And when you look at the 500,000, it’s all different categories. Where a car is kind of a car, right? The concept’s the same. You might have a sports car, you might have a sedan, but it’s a car. Where you could have a fifth wheel, pop up, Class A, Class C, Class B, so even within the 500,000, it’s so fragmented.


So if you’re going to focus on the small trailer that will tow itself and then you start looking, it’s in the hundreds, and then maybe the 1000s is your volume. It’s tough to make that type of investment work. Where, if you’re Thor, and you’ve got all these brands, and you can put it in across a broader range, it tends to make a little more sense. But it’s…the future’s here. And you know, you think about, obviously, that concept vehicle was cool, propelling yourself down the road. But really, what we’re working with you guys on is what customers need in the in the short term. Right?


Denis Phares:  17:22

I’d like to think that what we’ve done with the house bank, and really helping the transition to lithium there, would actually spur further innovation, including the propulsion.


Justin Humphreys:  17:34

Yeah, I think that that’s certainly down that path. And then, you know, before then, the off-grid capabilities and being able to use lithium and use your, you know, have your adventures longer… not tethered to some campsite. But there’s been some campgrounds I go to, and I’m like, “Why am I sitting here? This is nuts. I got all these people around…This isn’t relaxing to me. I’d rather be out by some pond off the grid.” And these battery packs are now starting to bring a lot more use cases to RVs that we didn’t have before. And that’s ultimately, I think, where the customer is right now to say, “Okay, how can this impact me camping? And how can I utilize it more?” I think in the RV space too, it really comes down to that air conditioner. How long can you run that dag gone air conditioner? Because in the US, like right now it’s hot. And we’re in Tampa, and that’s a big deal. Well, lithium now starts to open up a lot of possibilities with that, that batteries in the past never could. That’s a game-changer. 


Denis Phares:  18:35

I have to say we’re really proud, as a company, that we were able to partner with a company like Airstream, and we’re a Five Rivet Supplier. So we’re proud of that, too. But it’s exciting for me personally, to be able to say…to point to like, you know, Pottery Barn, you know, we’re involved in that project. Yes. So it’s really exciting for us.


Justin Humphreys:  18:57

Well, we are glad to hear that. And we do feel like we bring that because we’re a 91-year-old company with a big brand, that we can we can really ask our suppliers to step up maybe to a level that maybe other manufacturers can’t to some degree. That’s why we came out with the Five Rivet Supplier Program on being able to deliver with the right quality and all the support and warranty support that we need. It’s really critical for us, because our customers look at this Airstream we’re really not being compared to another RV. We’re a lifestyle brand. So even though we’re in the RV space, customers tend to compare us to cars and boats, and you know, really tough comps and expectations are high. So really having that, you know that supplier leg to the stool is critical for us because you’re only as strong as your weakest link. So if you have a supplier that is not meeting a customer expectation, it just brings the whole thing down. And so that’s…congratulations on that, number one. Number two, it’s really important for us, because we need that support and ultimately our customers need the support.


Denis Phares:  19:57

Right. Well, thank you. And we do, we worked hard. I know that, especially with lithium batteries, which is a relatively young field, especially in this space to be able to, you know, get the supply chain robust enough and solid enough that we can always deliver and it’s obviously a priority for us to be able to deliver to our OEM partners, especially Airstream . 


Justin Humphreys:  20:22

It’s been a crazy couple of years for that.


Denis Phares:  20:24

But you know, having said that it is pretty dang hot in here and, you know, we probably have air conditioning…”Is there an air conditioner in this?” Ah, we turned it off for audio. I’m just going to say that we’re sweating profusely right now because of the audio, not because we can’t turn on the air conditioner in this Airstream. So, you know, anyway, I just wanted to thank you for coming on the podcast today Justin.


Justin Humphreys:  20:51

Absolutely. Thanks for having me, and I look forward to working with your team on some innovations in the future and moving the ball forward.


Denis Phares:  20:59

You certainly will. Well, that’s going to do it for this episode. I’d like to thank my special guest today, VP of Sales at Airstream, Justin Humphreys. Thank you, Justin. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast on any of your favorite podcast platforms.

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