CEO plans for continued dealer growth
Sitting in a field surrounded by Texas Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes, I take a moment to appreciate the opportunity to test drive ARGO’s new lineup of extreme terrain vehicles, the luxury LS models and the hunter-worthy Wilderness series.
ARGO, a division of Ontario Drive & Gear based in New Hamburg, Ontario, has been manufacturing the vehicles for nearly 50 years. Nestled outside Burnet, Texas, at the Reveille Peak Ranch, a 1,300-acre ARGO playground in the midst of Texas Hill Country awaited.
To say I was skeptical at first is an understatement. I asked Mike Kelly, ARGO’s North American sales director, to accompany me on my first ride and help me get over my nerves.
While my limited experience made me nervous at first, I quickly realized that I didn’t have much to fear. My first ride was on the ARGO Scout 6x6 in Mossy Oak Infinity Camo, which I felt was a good introduction to the brand. Designed and geared toward the hunting industry, the Scout featured several new additions, including upgraded seating, a revamped 23 hp engine, an entry step on either side of the vehicle and fold-down racks for extra cargo storage.
One of the biggest surprises of the day was how smooth the ride was, despite the rocky off-road terrain. Of the nine models that were available for demos, I rode eight. I was impressed with not only how well the units handled the different paths, but also how easy it was to learn and be comfortable in the driver’s seat. My favorite model was the ARGO LX 8x8 in Cranberry Wine. The riding capabilities of the LX series were great, and with its new soft ride tire system and entertainment options, I could’ve been out for hours.
Later in the day, I had the chance to sit in on a meeting for both existing and prospective dealers. ARGO CEO Enoch Stiff spoke at length about the improvements made to the brand this year and how dealers would benefit from selling the new models.
“ARGO is the source of extreme mobility solutions. One of the things to realize is ARGO, since its very inception, has focused on terrain that most other vehicles can’t maneuver,” said Stiff. “The combination of the technology, the German engineering and the drivetrains to do exactly this has resulted in today’s ARGO vehicles.”
Newly-appointed ARGO president Brad Darling, a 25-year industry veteran who most recently was general manager of Arctic Cat’s snowmobile division, also met with the dealers and is in familiar territory with ARGO.
“My history with ARGO goes way back. My father worked there in ’71 and ’72, so it’s kind of interesting to get back to where we are,” Darling said. “I originally grew up where ARGO is from in New Hamburg, so I’m excited.”
ARGO considers itself “the source of extreme mobility solutions,” so much so that it has trademarked the designator XTV (for Xtreme Terrain Vehicle) in both the U.S. and Canada. “We really believe that this is an opportunity for dealers,” Stiff said. “If you have UTV lines, this is an extension of the UTV lines — it’s not trying to compete with them directly.”
Stiff explained that as long as one wheel is on the ground, the ARGO will keep moving forward. Depending on the model, each vehicle has 11-13 inches of clearance between the skid plate of the unit and the ground. Each unit is composed of one solid thermoplastic body with a metal skeleton, with the only holes in the unit being for the axles. With this solid design, the ARGO can approach an obstacle that is higher than its clearance area, and easily slide over it: “This uni-body design and underbody skid plate protection allows for traverse capabilities that are otherwise unknown in the industry,” Stiff added.
In wake of the oil and gas market collapse in many geographic regions, ARGO was faced with a difficult position in 2015. “It was serious. It represented as much as 25-30 percent of our business just slipping through our fingers,” Stiff said. By mid-summer 2015, sales were down by 15 percent, and inventory was building at the dealer-distributor level.
To turn business around, ARGO divided the industry into nine different segments. “We said we’re going to introduce all these new models in all nine industries, and they’re going to ready by August — what an incredible effort by the entire company to get there,” Stiff said.
In fact, when the demo event took place, Stiff said that some vehicles were so new that even some of the ARGO staff had never seen them before.
The nine industries that ARGO focuses on include: hunting, utility, emergency, cottage, government, agricultural, mining, construction and general. Each industry was given a series name; the Wilderness series refers to the hunting vehicle segment, while the LX series is aimed towards the cottage segment, for example.
As part of the 2016 model changeover, ARGO welcomed multiple updates to both its Wilderness and LX series. The 2016 models feature the soft-ride system with ultra-low pressure tires on dual beadlock aluminum rims, which increase vehicle suspension, resulting in a smoother, more comfortable ride. Stiff said the new system allows users to operate the vehicle with extremely low tire pressure, reducing shock loading in harsh environments and safe operation, even with a fully deflated tire.
Along with improved tires and suspension, the axles are now 30 percent stronger for added durability. Also, ARGO has partnered with Henkel, a leading worldwide manufacturer of functional coatings, to provide a Bonderite anti-corrosion paint solution on all its new vehicles. The waterborne system provides uniform coverage of all metal parts and meets all environmental requirements.
Improvements for the new models were inspired by many sources, including dealer input. “We use dealer feedback to build a better product,” Stiff said.
With the older model tires, installing the 18-inch track system was a long and painstaking process. A dealer would remove each of the tires, add an axel extension and stud extension on each wheel. Now, the beadlock reversible rims allow the wheels to sit closer or further from the vehicle, so dealers can simply turn them around and put the tracks on.
ARGO’s dealer network has grown to approximately 150 dealers in the U.S., with 34 dealers added last year, according to Kelly, who oversees sales in the U.S. and Canada. The company looks to add 35-40 dealers again in 2016. ARGO doesn’t have booking programs or a high order requirement.
“We look at every market and work with the dealer. Obviously we want them to be successful, so we’ll look at the market and make our recommendations based on that,” Kelly said. “The order turnaround time in our factory is usually less than four weeks. If they don’t have what they need in stock or they sell out, they can re-order it.”
In addition to dealer-friendly inventory goals and minimal ordering numbers, ARGO also believes in giving its dealers a bigger area to thrive by not putting dealers too close to one another in the marketplace. “Dealers like the margin they make with the product, and they make good margin because there’s not a lot of other dealers around. We give them a bigger area around them to go after the market,” Kelly explained.
With the unveiling of several new vehicles, Kelly said that ARGO is launching numerous promotions. The Wilderness series recently signed Willie and Jase Robertson of Duck Commander to be brand ambassadors for its units. ARGO will also be featured on “Jim Shockey’s Uncharted” TV show, which debuts in July.
“We’re also attending more hunting shows this year than we’ve ever attended before, so we’re getting the product out there so people can see it,” Kelly said.
On the recreational side, ARGO has been promoting its LX models by attending high-end car shows, aiming for the luxury market and its key demographic group.
“Typically, our demographic has been someone from 45 to 70 years old. It’s a demographic that has a more disposable income than someone in their 20s just starting out,” Kelly said. But with the addition of the entry-level Frontier EFI 6x6, which is priced starting at $9,995, younger generations have started to purchase ARGO as well.
“We’re going after people of reasonable means that are serious about being close to nature,” Stiff said. “What we’re looking for here is that family relationship, that ability of the ARGO to bond families together, and one of the things for me personally is the idea that grandparents can bond with younger grandchildren and make memories they will never ever forget.”
ARGO wants dealers to know that it is responsive to them and truly cares about its dealers. “We’re a big enough company that we can build the product people want. We have the experience, the knowledge and the expertise,” said Kelly. “But we’re small enough that we can react. When dealers have certain requirements or there’s something happening in their market, we’re able to adapt and make changes that don’t take years to implement.”
U.S. MSRPs are as follows: 6x6 Frontier EFI, $11,595; 6x6 750 HDI, $14,645; 8x8 Frontier EFI, $15.895; 8x8 750 HDi, $21,945; Scout 6x6, $17,895; Scout 8x8, $22,195; HuntMaster 8x8, $27,795; Outfitter 8x8, $34,995; LX 6x6, $19,145; and LX 8x8, $27,295.