Sixty years after buying a service station that became Tom Schaeffer’s Camping and Travel Center Inc. in Shoemakersville, Pa., the venerable dealership’s namesake and founder hasn’t slowed down much.
”I’m here six days a week,” said Tom Schaefer, 83, president of the Reading-area dealership he launched on April 15, 1955, after returning from a stint in the U.S. Army in Korea.
”I bought a service station and on the lot there were several Nationwide trailers,” Schaeffer said. ”They were basically a competitor of U-Haul. Another trailer dealer talked me into taking on three Nimrod popup campers to rent. I was amazed at how many people would stop and look at them.”
That led to the addition of an Apache popup to the company’s lot in Redding, Pa., and later chassis-mount Champion truck campers.
Moving to Shoemakersville in 1968, Winnebago brands began to proliferate at the dealership.
”I think we are one of the oldest Winnebago dealers still operating,” Schaeffer said. ”If we’re not, we’re up there somewhere.”
Schaeffer’s store today occupies 15 acres with a small showroom, 20 service bays and a 50-foot dual-downdraft paint booth. ”It’s a state of the art thing,” Schaeffer said.
The dealership also has become a family affair. Son Scott is general manager, Tom Jr. runs the parts department, daughter Mary Reinhart is in accounting and her husband Kevin oversees the accessory store. With 60 employees, Tom Schaeffer’s carries $8 million in towable and motorized RV inventory.
Among the changes Schaeffer has seen over the years is the shrinkage of the camping trailer market. ”We sell them used, but there aren’t many manufacturers out there these days. Motorhomes are coming on strong right but we naturally sell more trailers.”
The Internet, he said, has ”really turned this industry upside down,” not necessarily for the better. Internet sellers frequently leave customers stranded when it comes to service. ”They have nowhere to go when they get their RV out on the street,” he said.
Service has been a recurring challenge because of the lack of trained technicians. ”That can come back and bite you,” Schaeffer said. ”RVs have become so complicated, it’s scared some kids away from wanting to make a career out of being an RV tech.”
As for his personal future, Schaeffer said he plans to stay involved in the dealership for the foreseeable future. ”I like the business,” he said. ”And I’ve never had a job other than this.”