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Six years after founding regional utility and cargo trailer manufacturer Carson Trailer Inc. in California, President Bill Modisette saw an opportunity to expand into sport utility trailers (SURVs).
“When we got into the toy hauler business (in 1997) there were only a couple of companies making them,” Modisette recalls. “And I knew there was a market there. Now, everyone is building a toy hauler.”
As it has generally throughout the RV industry, the SURV market has grown substantially for Carson during the 10 years since Modisette ventured into manufacturing and retailing RVs. And while SURVs are an important part of both the manufacturing and retail sides of Carson Trailer’s business, cargo and utility haulers remain the largest majority of sales at both levels.
Modisette founded Carson Trailer amid a sagging Golden State economy as an offshoot of a welding repair shop he owned in Carson, Calif. “I didn’t have a huge vision to conquer the trailer world,” Modisette said. “The repair business had slowed down because of the economy, and I had been selling trailers I brought into my welding shop from a lot in Texas. I decided to start building cargo trailers myself, because when there are layoffs, people need trailers to move.”
Both the trailer and RV businesses operated out of Carson for two years before Modisette moved the trailer operation and the company headquarters to Gardena four miles away. Modisette’s plans to manufacture SURVs changed along the way. “I wanted to build the highest quality toy hauler that could be built,” he said. “I started out doing that, but found it was tough to get into the market, particularly without an established name. We dropped to mid-priced unit and still didn’t get the sales. We went down to an entry-level unit and that’s when it really took off over the course of about a year.”
Even though it took a while for Carson to build a customer base for RVs, the cargo/utility trailer business and RVs naturally complement each other, Modisette said. “They are not likely to be down demand-wise at the same time, and the toy hauler business isn’t something that I have to do,” he said. “That’s why we are pretty bullet-proof for an RV industry slowdown. We can shift our production pretty quickly to cargo trailers or utility trailers when we need to. The thing about RVs is people don’t “need” them. Utility trailers and cargo trailers and dump trailers are needed for work.”
Although Carson Trailer builds SURVs up to 42 feet, a majority of the company’s units are less than 34-feet long. “We really try not to get into the larger fifth-wheels because our facilities are pretty well maxed out and larger trailers mess up our production line,” Modisette said.
Because Carson Trailer’s SURV sales occur primarily west of the Rocky Mountains, the production and sales seasons are different than for traditional RVs. “The recreation season for the ramp-door trailer out West is in the winter, so we are busier in the fall while traditional RV companies will be busier in the winter,” he said. “The season starts in here in September because the deserts and the dunes out here are too hot to use during the summer.”
Carson’s network of 98 dealers in 11 western states initially developed due to entrepreneurial pressure. “When we first started manufacturing, it was for our own sales,” Modisette said. “We were building three or four trailers a day. As our sales picked up and we made a name for ourselves, people would come in and want to buy our trailers wholesale.”
Modisette obliged, but reserved Southern California for company-owned stores – today, there are 14 — which are the predominate trailer sellers in the region. “Not all of the (independent) dealers sell RVs, and some are trailer dealers who sell an occasional RV,” Modisette said.
Modisette acknowledges the inherent conflict of being a manufacturer and a dealer. “Rarely do you see someone in the utility trailer or RV business being in the manufacturing business too, because it’s such a conflict of interest in terms of other dealers,” he said. “The reason I can do it is that I restrict the location of our company stores to Southern California, and the ones out-of-state are not in conflict with my other dealers. And I’ve always had my own company stores. I’ve grown up with them from the beginning so the dealers are used to it. Dealers know we won’t compete head-on with them.”