TAMPA, Fla. – After executive roles at major players in the automotive industry – Lithia Motors, Avis and Copart among them – John North took the reins as CEO of storied RV dealer Lazydays RV last September.
“It’s still early. I’m still learning the business,” North said from Lazydays’ corporate headquarters on the northeast side of Tampa as he shared a couple of reasons why he made the move.
“No. 1, we really have a mandate to grow the organization and to get bigger and that is very similar to a lot of my automotive background,” he told RVBusiness. “Lithia was a pretty small regional dealer group when I joined it, primarily known for selling trucks in rural markets, and actually last year passed AutoNation to become the biggest dealer group in the country. They have 300 or so dealerships and 30-plus billion dollars in revenue this year.”
And while being a part of that level of expansion and roll up of dealerships was “really fun and exciting,” it also uniquely qualified him to fill the role at Lazydays, where expansion is an important focus of the company’s board of directors.
“We’re looking forward to following in the footsteps of some of the other dealership groups and doing acquisitions,” he said.
Another reason the Lazydays move attracted him was the company’s standing in the industry.
“Lazydays has such a good reputation with customers and, importantly, with manufacturer partners. Hopefully we continue to be viewed as one of the top dealers of choice in terms of where people shop or the partnerships that we offer to the OEMs,” North said. “And I appreciate that even more now that I’m here, but that was a big part of what was exciting about being given the opportunity to join.”
Lazydays was founded as a single location with a couple of travel trailers in 1976 by Herman Wallace and his two sons. As the company approaches its 50-year anniversary, it currently operates 20 dealerships in 13 states, with roughly 1,500 employees.
The most recent addition was a greenfield location in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and three more greenfield operations are expected to be completed this year – Wilmington, Ohio; Fort Pierce, Fla.; and Surprise, Ariz.
“Those were in flight prior to me joining,” North said. “I think our current philosophy is a little different. We did our first acquisition in February of this year. We bought a store from Findlay Automotive, which is a big car dealer group as well as RV dealer in Las Vegas, and you’ll see us do more acquisitions of existing dealerships as opposed to greenfields going forward.”
North said he has great confidence in the Lazydays team, which has a lot of experience in terms of helping family businesses navigate an acquisition.
“As they (owners) get to the point where there’s a succession event, a life event – whatever the reason – that it’s time for someone to do something different, we really believe there’s a lot of value and we’re willing to pay for what someone has built over years and even decades in some cases – in terms of their operations, their relationships with customers, their facilities and, most importantly, their people,” he said.
“When you open a store from scratch, you hang up a sign and try to get people to come in the door and you try to get employees,” he said. “When you’re able to acquire an existing dealership group – in my experience – 95, 97, 98 percent of the people stick around, and we want them to.”
This is a somewhat of a different philosophy from how Lazydays approached expansion in the past, North pointed out.
“We certainly did acquisitions in the past, but I think you’re going to see us really lean into that now,” he said.
North is working to overcome the same challenges of current market conditions faced by all dealership groups throughout the industry – a pandemic-related surge and supply chain disruptions followed by a softening retail environment.
“Like everyone, we’ve been dealing with the same slowdown and probably the demand that was pulled forward over the last 24 months through the middle of last year, and the associated need to liquidate and reduce 2022 inventory and still try to be viewed as a helpful and thoughtful partner with the OEMs as we work through those things together,” he said.
The underlying demand, however, has been fairly consistent, he noted, as he’s seeing some normal seasonal trends.
“In places that are warm, southern areas now are slowing down,” he said. “Places that are historically cold – Indiana or otherwise – we’re seeing people starting to go back to, so I think we’re seeing nothing that’s unusual there. It feels pretty consistent.”
North credited Lazydays with making moves to deal with market headwinds before his arrival.
“Thankfully, for me, we have a great team of operators both in the field and also in our corporate offices who have a rich history in RVs, so they’re educating me on some of the nuances,” he said. “I’m pleased with our performance and where we are. There is certainly room for us to continue to get better and to grow, but we’re on a good path.”
Customer experience always has been at the forefront of Lazydays’ mission and the firm has made adjustments over the past couple of years as dealers throughout the industry walked a fine line between taking care of customers’ desire for product while dealing with limited availability.
“Everyone was doing the best they could to find their way through that,” he said.
“Our reputation with consumers is certainly a strong point of our organization and something that we’re very focused on. To be frank with you, I knew of it, but probably didn’t appreciate just how important it was – how we’re perceived publicly and what it means to have a shopping experience at Lazydays – until I’ve been here. That’s been one of the things that’s been a pleasant surprise.”
The goal now is to maintain that level of customer experience throughout the organization as it grows.
“The one area we’re thinking a little bit about is, how do we leverage the scale beyond the scope of operating such a large dealership here in Tampa,” he said. “For many years, Lazydays was known as having a gigantic dealership in Florida and a huge presence in Florida. Well, now we have 20 roofs and well on our way to three more and hopefully some more beyond that this year.”
The question is, “How does Lazydays build a brand and a customer experience that takes advantage of the network effect of having more locations where people travel around and get familiar with our organization, where they view us as a destination on their journeys?” He said.
Scale also is a benefit as it allows for investments in digital technology and wider inventory selection to improve the shopping experience, as consumers become more accustomed to shopping online. While not many customers will actually buy an RV sight unseen, they will research models and brands online before making a trip to a dealership.
“Allowing consumers more choices and allowing them more selection and shopping on their terms is a big part of what we’re hoping to do over time to further that consumer experience that is so bedrock to who we are,” North said.