RV Business magazine recognized 11 RV industry leaders as the 2002 RV Business Newsmakers of the Year.
While the companies and individuals recognized comprise a wide cross section of the industry, each one matches the Newsmaker criteria: They made news during 2002 and, in the process, had an an appreciable impact on the industry and its trade press, regardless of whether that effect was good, bad or ugly for the industry at large.
We settled on the following 2002 RV Business Newsmakers of the Year: Wade F.B. Thompson, chairman, president and CEO, Thor Industries Inc.; Paul Skogebo, president, REDEX and Robert Crist and Co.; John Nepute, president, Monaco Coach Corp.; Brad Albrechtsen, president and CEO, National R.V. Holdings Inc.; Bruce Hertzke, chairman, president and CEO, Winnebago Industries Inc.; Ed Caudill, president and CEO, Fleetwood Enterprises Inc.; Tom Frey, president, Workhorse Custom Chassis; Marcus Lemonis, chairman and CEO, Holiday RV Superstores Inc.; Bert Alanko, chairman of the RV Rental Association (RVRA), and president of MBA Insurance Inc.; Virgil Miller, chairman, Newmar Corp. (posthumous).
Over and above that roster, meanwhile, we’re elevating one Newsmaker above the rest: The Go RVing Campaign, as administered by Gary LaBella, vice president of public relations and advertising for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA). We could go into detail about the merits of the Go RVing campaign, although that would probably be redundant with the news pages of this issue and most others over the past six years.
On the other hand, we can say with confidence that Labella has played a key role in maintaining the quality and professionalism of the industrywide marketing campaign.
The following is a summary of the impact that each newsmaker has had on the industry in 2002:
• Thor Industries Inc. Chairman Wade F.B Thompson became the country’s dominant player in the towable RV sector in 2002, in large part because of strong performances by two Goshen, Ind.-based subsidiaries, Dutchmen Mfg. Inc. and Keystone RV Co. Thor-owned companies now account for around 28% of U.S. retail travel-trailer and fifth-wheel sales, about twice that of their closest competitor. The Jackson Center, Ohio-based company’s revenues grew 51% in fiscal 2002 to exceed a billion dollars for the first time since the company entered the RV arena in 1980 with the purchase of Airstream Inc.
• The Recreational Dealers Exchange Co. (REDEX), the first successful buying group of RV dealers, grew in 2002 to 46 dealerships – totalling 84 locations – thanks in large part to the guidance of REDEX President Paul Skogebo, president and owner of the Robert Crist and Co., dealership in Mesa, Ariz. This active buyers collective – already accounting for $1.6 billion in annual retail sales, or about 15% of the U.S. market – has proven the viability of pooling the interests of RV dealers under one cooperative umbrella.
• Few companies make more news than Monaco Coach Corp., led in large part by President John Nepute. In addition to announcing a major Elkhart County, Ind., expansion project and seeking zoning changes for yet another, the Coburg, Ore.-based company established the industry’s only racing-related consumer club linked to an extent to NASCAR’s Craftsmen Truck Series; made an appreciable investment in the luxury motorcoach resort business; resumed a solid financial growth curve, with net income rising 93% in the first half of its current fiscal year; openly recommitted to improved product quality at its Dealer Congress; and rolled out the industry’s first certified pre-owned motorhome program.
• National R.V. Holdings Inc. did not participate in the RV industry’s recovery party in 2002, and now it’s up to President and CEO Brad Albrechtsen to engineer an invitation for 2003. Amid a series of other management changes, the board of directors, along with Albrechtsen, decided to bring back Bob Lee, who founded Country Coach – acquired by National R.V. in 1996 – and Wayne Mertes, who founded National RV, Perris, Calif., to run their respective operations. National’s management, meanwhile, has been open about their publicly held company’s late arrival in the multislideout, gas- and diesel-motorhome segment and the challenges they face in repositioning their mainstream products.
Bruce Hertzke, chairman, president and CEO of Winnebago Industries Inc., voiced concern around Thanksgiving of 2001 that the Forest City, Iowa-based manufacturer might have to stop some production lines in the wake of 9/11. Fortunately, the opposite happened: The industry began to flourish again and Winnebago, working at full tilt, was able to report record revenues and net income for fiscal 2002. At the same time, Winnebago retained its market-share position as the U.S. leader in the retail sales of Class A and C motorhome combined. The publicly held company also ultimately opted to add production in Charles City, Iowa, which will allow Winnebago to expand its output by 30%.
• Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. President and CEO Ed Caudill joined the giant RV maker in August, following a six-month period during which Fleetwood was led by two board members pressed into service after the departure of Nelson Potter. And while it could be said that much of the initial work of breathing new life into Fleetwood was well under way before Caudill’s arrival, led in large part by Executive Vice President,/Operations Chuck Wilkinson, the future in any event looks much brighter right now for Fleetwood’s RV operations. In fact, Fleetwood’s motorhome business experienced a solid recovery in 2002 and its towable division has shown signs of a recovery to the extent that the Riverside, Calif.-based company posted a net profit for the first half of its current fiscal year.
• Workhorse Custom Chassis, Highland Park, Ill., has launched a virtual blitz on the American Class A motorhome chassis marketplace since acquiring GM’s P-series chassis business four years ago. Indeed, Workhorse, led by Chairman and CEO Andrew Taitz and President Tom Frey, has a penchant for making news – this year by rolling out its 50,000th chassis, vying with Ford Motor Co. for half of the U.S. gas chassis business and, more visibly, introducing its first diesel-powered chassis entry to be produced at a renovated plant in Hagerstown, Ind.: the R Series.
Marcus Lemonis is an energetic young man who was instrumental in saving the country’s only publicly traded RV retail chain, Holiday RV Superstores Inc., from imminent bankruptcy. Lemonis, the chain’s chairman and CEO, eschewed the company’s “roll-up” strategy in favor of a “roll-in” approach: buying dealerships from owners planning to retire. Lemonis credits loyal employees and Affinity Group Inc. (AGI) Chairman Steve Adams, who personally provided loans and equity capital, for helping him get the company over the rough spots in 2002. In November Holiday RV bought the Holiday Kamper dealership group in the Carolinas – more than doubling the chain’s stores to 11 locations.
• The effect of 9/11 on the overall travel and tourism sector may have been brutal, but the RV sales and rental sector has soared. Among the larger rental firms, such as Cruise America Inc. and El Monte RV Inc., and smaller firms, from Alpine RV Rental to Happy Camper RV Rentals, reservations grew anywhere from 10% to 100% in 2002 – despite a decline in European travel. A leading proponent throughout was Bert Alanko, chairman of the Recreation Vehicle Rental Association (RVRA) and president of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based MBA Insurance Inc. Significantly, Alanko isn’t so sure that the fallout of 9/11 – long airport lines, etc. – spurred RV rentals. Perhaps this “hot” market was stimulated by the continued Baby Boomer influx, he says.
• Newmar Corp. Chairman Virgil Miller, a veteran member of the RVIA Board of Directors who became known as the conscience of the RV industry, died July 7 after an extended bout with cancer and not long after the passing of his wife, Sarah. He was 62. Raised in an Amish family only two miles north of where Newmar is located today, Miller had worked his way up since 1975 from a draftsman to the helm of Newmar. But it was never the position or the stature he was admired for. It was his moral fiber, a spirituality that transcended one’s individual religious affiliation and carried over into everything he did, which ranged from manufacturing innovative products to championing strong business ethics.