FOREST CITY -- The company famous for motor homes is going into the bus business.
Winnebago Industries Inc. is getting ready to produce Metro Link, a new transit bus that the Forest City-based manufacturer said will use some of its motor home technology in a shuttle-type bus.
According to Randy Potts, Winnebago’s chairman, CEO and president, it’s part of Winnebago’s effort to diversify its business in a way to avert a repeat of a downturn in 2008 that caused the company to close one factory and shrink its work force from a peak of 4,220 in August 2004 to 1,694 five years later.
“My challenge is to make Winnebago the leader in the industry in unit volume, in revenues and profits, naturally. Beyond that, we do need to look for ways of expanding our business, either parallel to or outside the RV market,” Potts said.
The first step was forming the Winnebago of Indiana LLC subsidiary, which builds SunnyBrook and Winnebago brand towable products.
Now, Winnebago plans to turn out buses.
Three prototypes of the 25-seat vehicle already have been built and tested, Potts said, noting the tests came out “very well.”
The model also has been shown and demonstrated elsewhere, including recently in Waterloo, Potts said.
“We’re trying to see what kind of feedback we can get,” he said.
Getting into the transit bus business is not exactly a novel notion at Winnebago, Potts said.
“It’s actually a project we’ve been working on 25 years,” he said. “We have a very unique and competitive offering that we’re going to be working out.”
Space has been set aside at Winnebago’s manufacturing operation in Forest City to build units, Potts said.
The company is finalizing a distribution agreement, Potts said.
This is a story the company has not trumpeted, Potts said.
“Sometimes it’s better to have a soft start,” he said.
But the market will hear plenty about Winnebago’s transit bus, he said.
“It’s different from anybody’s transit bus out there,” he said.
The vehicle has, among other features, a single-piece fiberglass roof that, Potts said, needs less maintenance and eliminates areas for potential water leaks.
The market for the vehicle is roughly 20,000 units a year, Potts said.
“That’s how many will be produced nationwide by all manufacturers, but it ebbs and flows,” he said. “It’s another piece of business that’s very similar to the motor home business but was designed by a small team.”
Production at Winnebago will start slowly as market needs dictate, Potts said.
“We’ll turn out whatever we can sell; we’re starting small,” he said. “We’ll actually be starting up production this winter or early spring, as soon as we take orders to take it beyond small scale.”
Additional hiring likely will be required, but Potts did not say how many workers would be needed.
“These things don’t require a lot of labor,” he said. “We were able to leverage a lot of what we have from our motor homes.”
Jim Offner is a reporter for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, another Lee Enterprises newspaper.