Mike Happe Calls Barletta Acquisition a ‘Tremendous Marriage’ – RVBusiness

Barletta Pontoon Boat Company LLC Founder and President Bill Fenech (left) chats with Winnebago Industries Inc. CEO Mike Happe on the Barletta factory floor in Bristol, Ind., following a press conference Tuesday. (Photo credit: Gary Gerard/RVBusiness)

“Business as usual” was the phrase used by officials to describe what life will be like at Barletta Pontoon Boat Company LLC in Bristol, Ind., following its acquisition by Winnebago Industries Inc.

The acquisition was announced Tuesday (July 20) during a morning press conference on the factory floor at Barletta, founded four years ago by longtime RV exec Bill Fenech and now employing 300 workers.

Fenech is no stranger to Iowa-based Winnebago. He, along with his brother, Ron, and Don Clark – all three former executives at THOR Industries Inc. – founded Grand Design RV Co. in 2012. Winnebago Industries acquired Grand Design in 2016 for approximately $500 million in cash and newly issued Winnebago shares. Clark remains as president at Grand Design. Winnebago also acquired Chris-Craft, an iconic recreational boat builder, in 2018 for an undisclosed amount as well as Newmar Corp. in 2019 for total consideration valued at approximately $344 million.

Winnebago CEO Mike Happe was on hand for the press conference and said his company has been open in its recent efforts “to build a broader, more diversified outdoor recreation-oriented company. And we’ve been very transparent that the marine industry is of interest to us.”

He said Winnebago, as such, sees potential for long-term growth in marine sector products and lifestyle, noting that the 2018 acquisition of Chris-Craft “allowed us to get into the industry with an iconic brand, learn about it, create some relationships and understand the market dynamics better. And we’ve certainly paid close attention to what Bill Fenech and the Barletta Boat team has built over the last four years.”

The pontoon category, Happe said, is the fastest growing segment in the marine industry and Barletta is the fastest-growing pontoon manufacturer.

“We think this is just a tremendous marriage with Winnebago Industries – not unlike Grand Design was five years ago,” he added.

Fenech, who will remain president of Barletta and retain his entire leadership team, said the company has a bright future under the Winnebago umbrella.

“They’re (Winnebago) going to leave us alone. They’re going to let us run our company,” he said. “But they’re going to help when we need it. They’re going to bring expertise that we don’t have. We’ve already identified some things that we see that we’re like, ‘Oh, man, this is going to be great!’ So I’m really happy for everybody – all the stakeholders in our company, our people. I think it’s only going to get better for everybody.”

Fenech said employees will see no difference in the manufacturing side of the operation. “Our employees will see very little change, except, frankly, we’ve identified some things where I think that we need to step up a little bit on some operational excellence issues and I think we can get help from them,” he said. “In my heart of hearts, there will be very little change. The bottom line is, I think this is great for everybody. We’re just ready to get on with business and do the next great thing.”

Happe said Barletta embodies the three “golden threads” of Winnebago Industries – quality, innovation and service.

“They treat their employees well. They treat their dealers well. They treat their suppliers well. They make high quality products and that business model is special,” Happe said. “We have familiarity with it with our Grand Design business, and – no surprise – Bill has created similar success in a short time here in the pontoon segment.”

Fenech said his decision to join the Winnebago family of brands was driven by what was best for the company, its employees, dealers and customers and that the decision was made easier because of his experience with the Grand Design acquisition.

“When I went to my team, I said, ‘Hey, I know Mike (Happe). I know there’s interest, should I reach out?’ And if the team had said, ‘Hey, Bill, let’s just run this thing ourselves,’ we would have. But my executive staff said, ‘Well, maybe we should consider it.’ I started considering.”

As he looked to the future, Fenech said he saw a likely shift in the marine industry akin to one that has already taken place in the RV industry – consolidation.

He believes the acquisition by Winnebago puts Barletta in a stronger position with suppliers and dealers in the marine sector by adding marketplace leverage and advantages of scale enjoyed by larger manufacturers.

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