Companies Focus On Innovation As Technology Changes What Consumers Want Or Need

By Tim Vandenack The Elkhart Truth, Ind.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)  While this story focuses on innovations in the RV industry (not an industry where many women are represented) the themes of the article regarding innovation are universal and can be applied to women in business anywhere.  I liked what the author has to say about being open to change, new ideas and  the importance of anticipating your customers needs.

Indiana

Stand still and you may get passed by.

In business, change, keeping up with times, staying a step ahead, even, are paramount.

"Our customers are always looking for that next big thing," said Jeff Runels, vice president of sales at Keystone RV, the recreational vehicle manufacturer in Goshen.

Not every customer will be an early adapter, but if a company shows it's an innovator, that sends a message. "People want to be a part of that new cutting-edge thing," Runels said, even if that means perusing the sparkly new offering and, in the end, going with the tried and true.

Here in Elkhart County -- where manufacturing, chiefly of RVs, is the big economic force -- innovation is alive and well, industry insiders and observers say. It's what's helped the county become a manufacturing power; it's what aided the county in weathering the downturn of the late 2000s and early 2010s; it's what many think will carry the county into the future.

Part of the spur is survival.

Take it for granted that competitors will be pushing to change and improve, leaving you in the dust if you get complacent.

Maintaining the status quo "might be more comfortable for some people, but at the same time, it's more risky," said Kyle Hannon, president of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce.

At the same time, Elkhart County business operators seem to have a creative spark that keeps them tinkering, inventing and innovating.

"Elkhart County has a long history of entrepreneurship and people starting businesses and doing new things," said Alan Steele, regional director of the Small Business Development Center housed at Indiana University South Bend. "It's part of the local culture, I think."

Steele said some companies don't have that drive to innovate. "There are certainly a number of businesses that are content not to grow beyond a certain level," he said.

For businessmen like Tom McGlone, though, that a company will strive to innovate is a no-brainer. He's president of Maverick Packaging here, which makes and packages personal care products like shampoo.

"I can't remember when innovation wasn't important in business," McGlone said in an email. "You have to have an advantage and it's hard to do with the 'same old way.'"

'CHANGING WITH THE TIMES' In the RV industry, innovation is important on many levels -- aesthetic tastes change, markets morph as one generation gives way to another, technological advances change people's habits.

Keystone RV unveiled its "in-command system" last fall, developed, Runels said, in light of ever-growing use of smart phones and their growng importance in everyday life. The system allows Keystone owners to control many functions of their RVs via an app downloaded to their phone -- awnings, exterior lights, jacks and slide-outs.

"Almost everything is done by that smart device now," Runels said. "We wanted to make sure we're changing with the times."

Jon Krider, vice president of product development for Thor Motor Coach in Elkhart, spoke of the importance of keeping pace with changing tastes in furnishing and decorating the interior of RVs. He was speaking by phone from a kitchen and bath homebuilders conference in Las Vegas, Nev., where he was getting a glimpse of the latest homebuilding trends, possible fodder for RV upgrades.

He also noted Thor's efforts to appeal to Generation X consumers, younger than baby boomers and inspired by a different aesthetic. The company recently unveiled a pair of RV models, the Gemini and Compass, built on a smaller chassis that allows for improved fuel efficiency. The units offer a "sexier" look than traditional RVs and are meant to appeal to Generation X consumers, a market demographic Thor is increasingly courting.

At the same time, use of slide-outs allows Thor to provide ample space in the smaller-chassis models.

The Great Recession, which hit the RV sector here hard, prompting consolidation, downsizing and job losses, spurred another kind of innovation. In light of skyrocketing gas prices at the time coupled with economic instability, many RV companies put a focus on making lightweight models, more fuel efficient and cheaper to operate, thus more likely to appeal to consumers in a bear market.

The recession "absolutely forced companies to get more innovative, get more creative," Hannon said. "Everybody was thinking -- how do I keep myself in business?"

Of course the recession and dip in RV sales spurred companies to innovate and evolve in a not-so-rosy sort of way -- figuring out how to get by with fewer workers.

THE MANY FORMS OF INNOVATION Innovation isn't limited to changes and tweaks to the things consumers buy, it's not "just about a product," said Jeff Hodgson with Elevate Ventures, a nonprofit statewide group that works with the Indiana Economic Development Corp. to promote entrepreneurs.

It's about how finished products are delivered to market, the relationship with suppliers, promotional efforts, dealings with investors.

Steele, from the Small Business Development Center at IUSB's Leighton School of Business and Economics, said innovation can come in processes, the way things are made.

It comes in utilizing workers to the utmost of their capabilities, creating job training opportunities so they have the skills to meet a company's needs. In a place like Elkhart County, where some employers are having a hard time finding the workers they need, it manifests itself in the way companies make do with the workers they've got, Hannon said.

It comes in the inputs used in developing products, customer service, billing methods.

"Inherently, some companies have a culture that is built to embrace innovation and others not so much," Steele said.

'CONSTANTLY EVALUATING' The first thing Amish Shah thinks of when asked about innovation is employees. He's president of Kem Krest in Elkhart, a firm that, among other things, manages and markets service chemicals like oil and transmission fluid on behalf of the automotive industry, supplying their dealers. The firm also helps manage the supply chains for automotive and other companies.

Innovation is about how the firm recruits, retains and engages employees, the lifeblood of Kem Krest. "We want to be known as being innovative in how we manage, engage folks," he said.

With that talent pool, the company is better positioned to thrive, he said, because clients are always focused on what Kem Krest can offer them going forward, not what they did the day before. It seems to work -- the company has expanded greatly since 2005, seeing revenue grow from around $60 million to $300 million in the period.

"We are constantly evaluating how we do what we do," Shah said. What additional services can Kem Krest provide, how can it save customers money, how can it deliver goods more quickly and cheaply?

As is, Shah noted, the biggest global auto manufacturers are some of Kem Krest's key customers, the majority of them makers of gas-powered vehicles. With increasing talk of alternative energy sources and more and more attention being put on development of electric autos, it's incumbent on Kem Krest to mull the changes coming in the future, how the company evolves to stay relevant.

"We're already thinking about it," Shah said.

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