Michael Happe, president and chief executive of Eden Prairie-based Winnebago Industries, has won Ernst & Young's national Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

Happe is the first Minnesota executive to win the national award since Richard Schulze from Best Buy did so in 1999. Ernst & Young — an assurance, tax and consulting firm — earlier this year recognized Happe as one of the regional award winners. Now that he's earned the national honor, he is eligible for the global award, announced next year.

Ernst & Young's entrepreneur awards started in 1986 and have grown to a global program recognizing more than 10,000 executives in more than 60 countries. The program recognizes leaders from companies of all sizes that have made transformational changes within their organizations.

Since becoming CEO of Winnebago in 2016, Happe has "invested in Winnebago's rich history by making strategic acquisitions and building an innovative culture," according to a summary from Ernst & Young's judges. They went on to say he "transformed an iconic brand that has excited consumers and achieved significant long-term value."

Winnebago has long been synonymous with the recreational vehicle (RV) industry since its founding in 1958. The company enjoyed steady growth until the 2008 financial crisis. While its brand name has remained instantly recognizable since then, Winnebago's share of the RV industry had dwindled until Happe's leadership.

Happe, though, credited Winnebago's resurgence to its more than 6,000 employees.

"I also want to express clearly that this award is a shared testament to the hard work, dedication and innovation of every member of our remarkable team and the outstanding portfolio of premium outdoor recreation brands and businesses," Happe said in a statement.

One way Happe spurred growth at the company was by supporting employees. He started an employee stock ownership plan, implemented a safety program that reduced workplace incidents by 70%, increased Winnebago's philanthropic giving and encouraged employee volunteerism.

He also made critical acquisitions that have changed Winnebago from a maker of motor homes to an outdoor experiences company.

In his acceptance speech, Happe acknowledged that while the pandemic shut the company down for 60 days, it also fueled a renewed interest in the outdoors.

"People found control and safety and freedom and time with family and friends in the great outdoors," Happe said.

Since Happe became CEO, Winnebago's revenue has increased 500% through organic sales growth and acquisitions. The stock has also had a nearly 100% total return during his tenure.

Happe also moved the headquarters from Forest City, Iowa, to Eden Prairie to better manage Winnebago's growing geographic footprint, thanks to acquisitions that pushed the company into other areas of the RV industry as well as marine markets.

In his first year as CEO, Winnebago acquired Middlebury, Ind.-based Grand Design RV, which was the fastest-growing manufacturer of towable RVs such as travel trailers, fifth wheels and toy haulers. That move increased Winnebago's presence in the larger and faster-growing segment of the RV industry.

In 2018, Happe pushed Winnebago more into the outdoor lifestyle market when he made Winnebago's first acquisition into the marine market by acquiring Sarasota, Fla.-based Chris-Craft Corp. He also added the Barletta Boat Co., makers of premium pontoon boats, in 2021.

Winnebago also acquired Newmar Corp. in 2019, which expanded it into the higher end of the motor coach market.

Happe has also focused on organic growth for Winnebago's brands by continuing to add new models and innovative features. The company established an Advanced Technologies Group, tasked with keeping Winnebago abreast of technological and trending changes in the outdoor lifestyle space.

Winnebago has recently introduced a concept and prototypes of a lithium-ion powered, all-electric RV and an all-electric concept for its Chris-Craft brand.

Ernst & Young also recognized 11 executives from nine different companies as finalists for the national award, including Cheri Beranek, president and CEO of Brooklyn Park-based Clearfield Inc.

Beranek has been leading Clearfield since 2007 and has helped make it a leader in rural broadband expansion by creating modular fiber-optic products that are easier for field employees and homeowners to install.

Judges said of Beranek: "Cheri took a failing tech spin-off and transformed it into an industry leader. During the pandemic, Clearfield outmaneuvered the supply chain, creatively found ways to bring connectivity to rural American homes and outperformed financially."