It’s a rarity for a company to reach its 40th birthday but Elkhart, Ind.-based Coachmen Industries Inc. joined that elite group in April.
And Claire Skinner, chairman and CEO of the RV, modular homes and commercial-structures company for almost seven years, believes its future is bright due to a couple of developments: refreshed and revived products that are gaining market share and the signing of a licensing agreement that allows Coachmen to market under the Coleman brand name a new series of towable RVs the company will begin building later this year.
But in addition to building a quality product, Skinner believes it was the integrity of her uncles, Claude and Keith Corson, and her father, Tom Corson, who was the head of Coachmen until he retired in August 1997, that allowed the business to grow to become one of the largest RV builders and what is generally believed to be the largest producer of modular homes.
“His (Tom Corson’s) leadership spanned 33 years,” Skinner said. “It’s a rarity for a company to survive that long when you consider all the upheavals – stock market crashes, oil embargoes, recessions. I attribute the success Coachmen has enjoyed to his steady leadership and his vision to always, always remain faithful to the customer.
“Some growth strategies worked, others didn’t, but we never lost sight of why we are in business, and that’s to serve our customers,” she said.
Serving the company’s dealer and retail customers remains the top priority but Skinner believes there is room for improving some other aspects of Coachmen’s business.
During her nearly seven years as chairman, Skinner said, “The company has (at times) struggled. We’ve made a lot of improvements. We’ve hit some bumps in the road that, in some cases, we were successful in navigating. In other cases, I think we could have done better. But I really am very enthused about the state of the company today and the path that we’re on and our ability to really propel ourselves back to the performance levels that we and our dealers and our customers expect of us.”
In particular, Skinner has reason to be enthusiastic about the recent performance of the motorhome operations of the Georgie Boy Manufacturing and Coachmen RV Co. (CRV) units of the Coachmen RV Group. For example, during the first quarter of this year, shipments of Georgie Boy Class A motorhomes increased 69% and production volume was up 87% compared with the first quarter of 2003.
The strong improvement at Georgie Boy and the opening of CRV’s new Class C motorhome assembly plant in Middlebury, Ind., last summer contributed to Coachmen’s 41.6% increase in Class A shipments and 42.5% increase in Class C deliveries when the first quarter of this year is compared with the same portion of last year, she added.
In addition to providing more space for building Class C’s, the new plant in Middlebury freed up more space for assembling Class A’s at CRV’s Middlebury production complex.
Meanwhile, the increases in Coachmen’s towable RV shipments during the first quarter were modest, at least in part because of inefficiencies related to the move of certain CRV travel-trailer and fifth-wheel production in March from Goshen, Ind., to nearby Middlebury. Coachmen’s travel-trailer shipments increased only 0.9% and its fifth-wheel deliveries were up 3.3% in the first quarter.
However, within a week after moving into the plant near Middlebury that Coachmen acquired from Jayco Inc., Skinner said, “We were getting more out of the new facility than out of the old one. All of the employees did an absolutely fabulous job.”
But what could be more important to the long-term performance of the Coachmen RV Group in the towables sector is the licensing agreement Coachmen signed in January with camping equipment manufacturer The Coleman Co. to produce a whole new series of Coleman by Coachmen towables, and possibly motorhomes, Skinner said.
Even though Coachmen has a strong brand name, particularly in travel trailers and fifth-wheels, the licensing agreement is extremely important to Coachmen because “Coleman is a powerhouse in an of itself, and it’s powerful in a market that is slightly different than the Coachmen brand’s market,” Skinner said.
“Specifically, I’m talking about the outdoor enthusiasts,” she continued. “The Coleman name has been exposed in our industry only in camping trailers up to this point. Our focus is on the strength of the name with people who have not necessarily been in the (RV lifestyle) with camping trailers, but who are very avid outdoors enthusiasts who have an extremely high regard for the Coleman brand.
“We feel it gives us a great opportunity to expand our reach to a new customer base: the outdoor enthusiasts; the younger families; more active person that we hope to attract into the RV industry. And we intend to do so with products that are specifically designed for that buyer.”
To produce Coleman by Coachmen product, Coachmen signed an agreement to acquire a second plant from Jayco that also is located north of Middlebury. Coachmen plans to take possession of that building early in July and begin producing Coleman by Coachmen folding campers there in August or September.
“Our first efforts will focus on the non-motorized products starting first with the camping trailers, then the hybrid trailers and SUTs (sport utility trailers) and light trailers,” Skinner said. “Then, most likely, fifth-wheels and then, after that, we’ll consider evolving into the motorized product.”
Distribution of Coleman by Coachmen SUTs and hybrid trailers should begin early next year. Conventional travel trailers will follow “so fifth-wheels (are) close to a year away,” she said. “Motorized will come after that.”
Skinner declined to provide a more specific timetable for the launch of Coleman by Coachmen motorhomes, if it occurs at all.