Leave It Better Than I Found It: An Interview With Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler
Bob Wheeler comes from a family of English majors. Both of his parents and all three siblings found their professions in the language, and so perhaps his fate was sealed.
“My father was also very mechanical,” he tells us from the offices of Airstream, Inc. in Jackson Center, Ohio, where he serves as President and CEO of what is easily the most recognizable travel trailer manufacturer in the world. “And I learned about cars, carpentry, plumbing, wiring, and more from him. As I realized my interest in how things worked and the forces that govern them, it led me to Mechanical Engineering. ”
Bob’s first experience with an RV came at a NASCAR race with some college buddies. “I grew up in the country,” he admits, “so we weren’t really campers.”
From college, Bob went on to work for General Motors before moving into the RV industry in the mid-90s, and then to Airstream in 2002. Three years later, he was President and CEO. One might assume that the automotive and RV industries might share some similarities. Not so much, he says, “Really, people that move from automotive to RV have to forget half of what they have learned because RVs are really more like a house than a car. But the systems approach that car companies take has been really valuable in our work here at Airstream. ”
During his first few years at Airstream, he was hands-on with the International travel trailers and the Interstate, Airstream’s Class B offering. After becoming CEO, he set up a program by which employees at the corporate office can take out Airstreams on the weekends to do product testing.
“Yes,” he confirms, “I started this slightly self-serving program six or seven years ago. Clearly it’s a good idea that the managers understand the joys and sorrows of using our products. It’s amazing how different it is to hear about a bad mattress than sleeping on it yourself! We’ve learned a whole host of things and made many improvements. Early on, I said that I was going to start a pool to see who damaged the Airstream first. You know how that story ends. ”
When you take the reins of a company that is nearly synonymous with RVing, and when one of your predecessors (the great Wally Byham himself) practically invented the concept, there is a lot to live up to.
“It’s so different than a newer company or startup,” Bob says, “Really, I’m just a steward, whose goal is to leave the company better than I found it for the next person. That’s very different than a founder who has a sense of ownership. But Wally’s ghost looms large, and we often refer to his Creed for guidance and inspiration. So he’s a benevolent ghost,” he jokes, “Mostly.”
Despite the company’s long history and founder, Bob doesn’t feel obligated to do things the same way as they’ve always been done.
“Airstream is a vastly different company [since Bob came on], one that respects its past but isn’t constrained by it, and one that is pulled forward by the excitement of future possibilities. But under it all, we remember that we are a means to an end, a conduit to adventure and fellowship. That keeps us centered. ”
A conduit to fellowship and adventure indeed. For anyone who’s ever owned one, it doesn’t take long for fellow Airstreamers to approach you at any given campground. Dozens of organized meetups happen all over the world every year, and the WBCCI—a club for owners and enthusiasts—boasts over 15,000 members.
After recently outgrowing their old factory in Jackson, Ohio, Bob and the team at Airstream set their sights on the “Mothership Expansion.”
“The ‘old’ trailer plant was built in 1972 and had one significant expansion, but we had really outgrown it. It was crowded and inefficient. So we drew up a new facility to last us the next 80 years,” Bob says. He’s enthusiastic about the project. “It will allow for better quality, efficiency, safety, output, and material flow.” While creating the capacity to put out more Airstreams every year is good for the community that’s sprung up around it on its own, they also added a museum and visitors center to the mix. Few companies warrant their own museum, but that’s just how Airstream rolls.
All of that said, many potential buyers wonder why they are so much more expensive than your standard “white box” RV.
“It’s really two things,” Bob explains, “material and craftsmanship. The most obvious material difference is the aluminum body, which is really like an airplane fuselage with an inner and outer skin. But at every design point, visible or not, we chose the best material for durability, look, and feel. And Airstreams are handmade. Each unit averages about 330 man-hours; a typical RV is about 80. But—and this is not hyperbole—they last forever. Over 70% of all Airstreams ever made are still on the road.”
Editor’s note: The author of this article is currently living in a 1976 Airstream.
The company recently re-released a slightly different take on their classic aluminum trailers, called the Basecamp. Its design is of different shape and the intention of the trailer was initially to entice outdoorsy millennials, but living small—from the van-life craze of recent years to this new ~120 square foot Basecamp offering—has proven its multigenerational appeal.
“Interestingly, our average buyer is in their 50s,” Bob is referring specifically to the Basecamp, “and a pretty good split between singles and couples.”
Another new approach has been the Nest, a small, fiberglass travel trailer designed to be easily towed with an SUV. The first thing people will notice is the fact that it’s not built with an aluminum shell.
“Wally experimented with fiberglass trailers in the 50s,” Bob reminds us, “so there’s a history there. So when a designer from Bend, OR, approached us about his design, we were intrigued. We loved the simplicity of the design and the automotive forms.”
Airstream recognizes that as more of us hit the open road and look for options beyond traditional campgrounds, design elements like solar and other boondocking capabilities are important for RVers. Thus, the company is focusing on boondocking features more and more every year.
“We think of boondocking as needing resource independence,” Bob tells, “both in the amount of power, water, and LP, but also in how efficiently it gets used and how informed the owner is about what’s left and usage rates. We’re experimenting with some interesting ideas like gray water recycling and much larger battery packs that may take this concept to a whole new level. ”
While Bob notes that the most popular Airstream model out there is the Flying Cloud, thanks to its simultaneous simplicity and available options, he has a different favorite himself. “[My] personal favorite is the Globetrotter. Love the sleek, organic forms of the interior. It works so well with the promise made by the exterior. ”
Innovation in boondocking is no doubt many decades ahead of being the first thing that comes to mind when people think of “camping in an RV,” but Bob is excited for the future of the company.
“I wake up every day knowing that the best days of this storied brand are ahead of us.”