Pete Liegl likes to joke that he’s been fired from every job he’s ever held. “They’re out there right now painting new lines in the parking lot,” Liegl told Indiana Business magazine in a recent article. “That probably means they’re going to fire me again.”
That’s hardly likely. The 59-year-old Liegl is president and CEO of Elkhart, Ind.-based Forest River Inc., a privately held company.
Forest River expects $1.3 billion in sales in fiscal 2004, a significant gain over its 2003 sales of $976 million.
That’s not a bad record for a company that didn’t exist eight years ago. Liegl helped found Forest River out of the wreckage of Cobra Industries Inc., which imploded into a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the mid-1990s. Liegl, who had been fired as president and CEO of Cobra in a dispute with the company’s board several years earlier, bought pieces of Cobra from the bankruptcy court in 1996.
Liegl christened the new company Forest River.
“It represents the outdoors to me,” he said of the new name. “It has a nice ring to it.”
In just eight years, Liegl and his management team have built Forest River into the No. 2 company in the recreational-vehicle towables segment. Last year, Forest River sold 34,743 towables, more than 15 percent of the nation’s total. That’s still well behind industry leader Thor, which accounts for one-quarter of the 232,000 towables sold nationwide each year. But Liegl pointed out that it’s well ahead of such longtime industry leaders as Fleetwood, Jayco and Coachmen.
“I like to say it’s who we’re ahead of and not who we’re trying to catch up with that’s important,” Liegl said.
In recent years, Forest River also has become competitive in the motorized segments of the recreational vehicle marketplace. In 2003, the company climbed to seventh among U.S. motorized RV manufacturers, from virtually no sales in the market five years ago. The company made 2,015 motorized recreational vehicles in 2003, for a 3.6 percent share of the total market of 56,200 motorized RVs.
Earlier this year, Forest River opened its Tsunami Plant in Elkhart to manufacture the company’s high-end Class A diesel line of motorized units. The 37- to 41-foot deluxe models retail for upward of $290,000 and are manufactured in a 100,000-square-foot Elkhart facility that Liegl acquired from another RV company.
“Right now, we’re at 4.8% of the U.S. motorized market,” Liegl said, noting that Forest River first gained expertise in towables before embarking upon a major expansion into the motorized segment of the business. “We have a simple philosophy in this business. If you’re playing a ball game, you’ve got to go to first base before you go to second base. The motorized segment is just much more complicated. There are a lot more things to go wrong. You’ve got chassis and dashes to worry about. It’s just much more expensive.”
Besides motorized and towable recreational vehicles, Forest River also manufactures park trailers, shuttle buses, cargo trailers, pontoon boats and modular housing at its more than 50 manufacturing facilities nationwide.
In the summer of 2004, Forest River began an ambitious expansion project that will involve the development of a 200-acre industrial park on the outskirts of Goshen, Ind., starting with three new Forest River buildings of 100,000 square feet each. Forest River expects to use the majority of the buildings in the planned park for expansion of its modular housing business and for additional RV assembly areas.
Liegl foresees “an extremely good next 10 years” for Forest River in particular and the RV industry, in general. “The aging of the baby boom is going to have a huge impact,” Liegl said. “There’s always been a lot of retired people who’ve owned recreational vehicles. RVs are reasonably affordable to own, and increasingly, they can be leased or rented.”
According to Liegl, Forest River will definitely remain a privately owned company. With private control of Forest River, Liegl can more easily avoid getting fired one last time. “Now,” he said, “if I get into a fight with my boss, I’ve got a 50-50 chance of winning.”