Being in the right place at the right time never has been his forte, small business owner Larry Troutt points out.
The Houston native bought into his father’s travel trailer business in the ’80s, just before the country plunged headfirst into a recession, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Having survived that, Troutt moved Topper’s Camping Center to Jersey Village in 1987, built up sales to almost $8 million annually, and employed up to 24 people. The business stayed there until last year, when Troutt elected to move it to the outskirts of Houston, just as the country slid into another recession.
“There’s one thing I learned from the first recession, and that’s you can’t really increase your revenue, so you have to control your expenses,” Troutt, 59, said. “Everything from inventory to staffing, you cut where you can.”
Another lesson learned, he said, was the need for strong nerves and a stubborn nature.
“You have to be willing to tough it out,” Troutt said. “So many people bail out when things go bad. But I’ve learned I can survive if I just stay with it long enough.”
Evidently, Troutt has done more than survive the current economic downturn.
According to Statistical Surveys Inc., a provider of market data to the marine, manufactured housing and recreational vehicle industries, Topper’s posted the highest volume in lightweight camper trailer sales in Texas last year.
Camper trailer sales are synonymous with popup campers, which expand to anywhere from 24 feet to 26 feet, Troutt said.
“Last year there were 995 camper trailer sales in Texas, and 96 of those were through Topper’s,” said Scott Stropkai, Statistical Survey’s national sales manager for RVs. “You’re talking about 75 dealerships throughout the state and Topper’s ranked No. 1.”
As a category, sales of towable RVs – which include travel trailers, truck campers and folding camping trailers – are down 45.6% as of February, the survey company found.
For Troutt, the challenge has been to attract buyers to a rural setting without much advertising. His biggest draw, comes from Internet shoppers and travelers on U.S. 290 going to Texas A & M University or the University of Texas.
“Families driving down the highway see our inventory and they’ll pull over,” Troutt said. “But what’s really helped us is the Internet. Nowadays, people shop on-line for the features they want, then come here to see it for themselves before they buy.”
Even though the company is now based in Waller, 41 miles northwest of downtown Houston, it managed to post better sales than its big-city rivals. According to Troutt, the key was to specialize in lightweight vehicles, which are less costly and more fuel-efficient than the grand RVs normally seen in the media.
“When fuel got to $4 a gallon last summer, people stopped buying big RVs,” he said. “They’re (lightweight campers) also better for a dealership because you can fit eight lightweights on a transport truck, but one RV needs its own. Which means I can get my vehicles sooner, and I can carry less inventory.”
Normally, Troutt carries between 200 and 250 vehicles on his property, which spans 4.5 acres, and two-thirds of them fall into the lightweight category.
In addition to owning his own camper dealership, Troutt serves as chairman of the national Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA), based in Fairfax, Va. He tends to a take a long view of his industry’s future.
“Americans will always have a love affair with RVs,” Troutt said. “It’s a lot cheaper than other vacations. You get to spend time with your family in a different setting. What could be better than that?”