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A lot of things happened in the RV industry during 2005. It was a year in which companies were changed by economic and nature’s forces – gas prices and hurricanes – that were well beyond their control.
In spite of all of these obstacles, no event triggered a greater reaction in the RV industry than the July announcement of the sale of Elkhart, Ind.-based Forest River Inc., America’s second largest producer of towable RVs and cargo trailers, to Berkshire Hathaway Inc., an Omaha-based holding company with subsidiaries engaged in diverse business activities, including property and casualty insurance.
The acquisition paired Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, one of the world’s most successful investors, and Peter J. Liegl, the sole owner of Forest River and a larger-than-life force in the recreational vehicle business.
Part of the interest in the acquisition was the undisclosed price of the sale. The acquisition reportedly included all of Forest River’s estimated 71 facilities located in several states. A $1.6 billion, 5,800-employee corporation, Forest River produces commercial buses, pontoon and fishing boats, cargo trailers, mobile offices, manufactured housing, park trailers and a full line of towable and motorized recreational vehicles.
Speculation around the industry was that Liegl banked more than $800 million from the sale of nine-year-old Forest River, the nation’s No. 2 U.S. towable builder, with about 19% of U.S. towable RV market share. In so doing, he was named the RV Business Newsmaker of the Year for 2005 by RV Business, the nation’s leading RV trade journal.
The difference between most entrepreneurs and the rest of society is their uncanny ability to bounce back from near-death business experiences and flourish – a skill that Liegl has perfected.
Liegl, who like Buffett, is often considered the quintessential entrepreneur, has not always been on top, as he will quickly tell you. Indeed, he was fired from his job years earlier at one of the major RV manufacturers, then again in late 1994 by the board of directors of publicly held Cobra Industries Inc., an RV builder for which he was serving as president at the time.
The sale of Forest River is a reminder of what a lucrative high stakes game the RV industry can be for those who play their cards right.
Liegl decided to get back in the RV market when Cobra was auctioning off the (Cobra Rockwood) tent camper operation in bankruptcy court. Leigl acquired the tent camper operation and 30 days later got the approval for the other facilities out of bankruptcy court.
When asked how he managed to grow Forest River from nothing in early 1996 into a $1.6 billion company in 2005, Liegl said it was simple: “All we did was have the best product at the best price and hire decent people.”
Other newsmakers who garnered their share of headlines during the past year include:
Fleetwood’s Elden Smith: The former Fleetwood RV Group senior vice president was lured out of early retirement to replace Ed Caudill as president and CEO, and right the ship.
RVIA’s Dave Humphreys: Last year’s RV Business Newsmaker of the Year, who is retiring in January, has perhaps affected the ebb and flow of the RV industry more than any other individual.
KOA’s Jim Rogers: Jim Rogers, president and CEO of Kampgrounds of America Inc., has earned a reputation as an outspoken critic, leader, booster and innovator in the RV parks and campground sector.
Gulf Stream’s Brian and Dan Shea: The manufacturer positioned itself as the nation’s No. 1 producer of temporary shelter for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Affinity Group Inc.’s Mike Schneider and Mark Boggess: The management team oversaw a marketing machine that expanded and diversified AGI in the past year with a series of programs and initiatives.
Go RVing’s Don Walter and Tom Stinnett: The co-chairmen took over leadership of the highly successful 9-year-old ad campaign as the coalition turns toward its next three-year, $67.7 million, Phase IV segment.
Monaco’s senior management: The manufacturer rolled out its “Franchise for the Future” program in June to the company’s dealer body, representing the industry’s first true franchise initiative.
RVIA’s Richard A. Coon: The former Onan executive stepped in as president-designate in June and has shown that he is ready to assume the role of leader and spokesman for the industry.
RV/MH Heritage Foundation Inc.’s directors: The dream of a new RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum was realized this year as the wheels were placed in motion for the construction of a new 50,000-square-foot facility in Elkhart, Ind.
Thor Industries Inc.’s Wade Thompson: The entrepreneur led his company to robust financial results during a challenging year highlighted by slow retail sales and daunting fuel prices.
GE Commercial Finance’s RV team: GE considerably improved its position in the RV lending arena with the acquisition of Bombardier Capital’s Inventory Finance Division and the RV and marine lending business of E*Trade Financial Corp.
Workhorse Custom Chassis’ Andrew Taitz: Taitz exited the RV sector this fall with the sale of his Workhorse motorhome-and-commercial-vehicle chassis unit after building the company into one of the industry’s premier chassis suppliers.