Business View Magazine interviews Ellen Kietzmann, CEO of Blue Ox, as part of its series on best practices of American businesses.
If you want to tow, we’re the brand to know,” says Ellen Kietzmann, CEO of Blue Ox, a Nebraska-based, fourth generation, family-owned company, well-known in the RV industry for its innovative portfolio of quality towing products, as well as its best-in-class customer service. The 92-year-old firm originally had its roots in the agricultural sector until the 1980s, when its owner, Jay Hesse, decided to diversify the company after taking over the reins from his father.
“That’s when he introduced the KarTote, which is our car dolly,” Kietzmann says. “In 1991, he purchased Blue Ox from Don Hewitt in California, and in 1994, he purchased Duncan from Lee Duncan in Portland, Oregon. In 1997, we incorporated both lines. We took the strengths of both divisions and put them into the product offering that we have today – baseplates, tow bars, braking systems, weight distribution hitches, and chassis performance products – everything for the RV enthusiast’s needs.”
According to Kietzmann, Hesse was also an innovator who was very instrumental in designing the first motor home mount tow bar. “Up until 1994, every tow bar was mounted on the front of the car,” she explains. “He didn’t like all that junk on the front of a car; he knew it was hurting the alignment. So, he asked, ‘How come we can’t have this on the back of the motor home?’ So, we launched the first motor home mount tow bar in the industry. In 1997, we innovated and made the first lightweight tow bar – the Aladdin.”
Over the next several years, Blue Ox continued to manufacture new products. It introduced an innovative gooseneck hitch, designed for the beds of pickup trucks. “Just this year, we introduced a fifth wheel hitch,” says Kietzmann. “It’s called the Super Ride.”
A “fifth-wheel” is another way in which trailers can be attached to pickups. “Fifth-wheel” refers to a type of travel trailer and to the hitch which connects the trailer to the bed of the pickup truck. Fifth wheel trailers are popular with full-time recreational vehicle enthusiasts who often live in them for several months in one place, using their pickup truck tow vehicle for local errands. A fifth wheel trailer tows more securely than a traditional travel trailer because the hitch weight sits directly over the pickup truck’s rear tires. Since part of a fifth wheel sits over the bed of the pickup, it also reduces the overall length of the vehicle/trailer package. Additionally, the hitch’s location in the pickup’s bed reduces the risk of jackknifing and allows for more maneuverability when backing up.
Today, Blue Ox has 167 employees in two locations: one in Pender, Nebraska and one in Lincoln. “Lincoln houses our logistics, marketing, and engineering; Pender is all manufacturing and our corporate office,” says Kietzmann. “We also have sales people and rally team personnel nationwide.” The company sells its products via a two-step distribution system. “We sell to distributors who sell to our dealers, who then sell to the consumers,” she continues. “And we are very active at all levels; we promote and educate the consumers, which drives business to the dealers, and we partner with our dealers who are on the front lines. They’re the ones who are promoting the product, selling the product, servicing and installing it. And then, we work with our distributor partners to help build that brand among our dealers who help with our selling needs, our training needs, marketing, and inventory. We are very dedicated to the two-step distribution process.”
In a very competitive market, Kietzmann outlines what differentiates Blue Ox from the other players: “At the end of the day, in our industry, we all have good products,” she admits. “If we didn’t, the customers would take care of that pretty quickly. So, we work really hard to take care of the customer. We provide 24/7 customer care; when a customer calls, they speak to an actual person, not a computerized customer service program. We are closed Easter Sunday, Christmas Eve, and Christmas day. Other than that, we are here ready to help. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking with the consumers, dealers, or distributors – trust is the essential element in any relationship. We work very hard to establish that trust by making sure that our partners receive high-quality products, and that we provide the unsurpassed support for our products. We are here long after the time of sale to help them down the road.”
Going forward, Kietzmann says that Blue Ox is very focused on growing the new fifth wheel product. “There’s not a fifth wheel out there that plays right in the middle from a price point; you have competitors on the high end; you have competitors on the low end; you do not have anybody in the middle. What is unique about the Super Ride is that with every other fifth wheel, if you’re attaching to a gooseneck, you have to have that same supplier’s fifth wheel. Consumers do not care for that, because they change trucks. They might buy a used truck with a different gooseneck hitch and their fifth wheel will not adapt to it. So, we made ours universal. It also has a cushioned ride because people do not like the feeling that the trailer is pushing on the truck. That’s what makes our Super Ride unique.”
Kietzmann says that she wants Blue Ox to be known as the most consumer and dealer friendly company in the marketplace; the most supportive of its distribution network; and the most innovative. “Blue Ox is not just about products,” she declares. “We are passionate about the consumers who buy our product, that they find our products useful and bring something extra to their lives. We are just as passionate about our dealers and distributors – who help us to be effective in the marketplace. Not one of us can be successful without the other. We would like to be viewed as a company that changes the game when it comes to products. We are best known for bringing new ideas into our market sector. Even though we may be going into a category where there are a lot of players, we strive to introduce products that are unique to the category and that fulfill customer needs. We are really excited about the future of our company and where we’re heading.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Blue Ox
WHAT: Manufacturer of recreational and commercial towing products
WHERE: Pender, Nebraska