EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a News & Insights report by the RV Industry Association (RVIA).
Tom Dempsey, founder and CEO of SylvanSport, has had a lifelong love for industrial design and the outdoor recreation industry.
“I started my career after getting a degree in industrial design from Auburn University,” he said. “My first job out of college was with the Coleman company at their division in Somerset, PA, which made the famous Coleman pop-up camper. I learned so much from that experience about good products, good people, and good leadership.” Tom adds that Coleman’s General Manager at the time, Patrick Scanlon, was a huge source of inspiration for him. “To this day, so much of what we do here was influenced by what I learned from him.”
Although Tom later moved away from the RV industry and into the kayak business, his experiences around this time helped lay the groundwork for SylvanSport. “Taking my experience that I learned from Coleman and the RV industry, I switched gears and went to work in the kayak industry. I was Vice President at Perception Kayaks back in the nineties. In 2000, I started my own kayak company called Liquid Logic, which is still in business even though I’m not a part of its ownership anymore.
“From that industry I went to the opposite extreme— adventure and sports,” he continued. “It’s really what inspired SylvanSport. Our company has a unique blend of the usual RV amenities but served up in a product design envelope that echoes the adventure and sports world. I think that’s what makes us appealing to kayakers, mountain bikers, and other active outdoor folks. Our product language speaks their language.”
Now a longtime resident of Cedar Mountain, NC, Tom is eagerly embracing SylvanSport’s 20th year in business. “I think we were, candidly, too far ahead of the curve when SylvanSport first launched. Now, finally, the market has caught up with us and over the last five years it’s really been great. We’re continuing to grow and add new products for more people and have more fun”
In some ways, Tom’s duties as SylvanSport’s founder and CEO dovetails from standard executive leadership responsibilities. Embracing his industrial design education, Tom is often designing future company products. “As the visionary, I’m the chief product designer for the company, which makes me a little bit of a unique CEO. I guide the product vision and I’m a real stickler for the details. And I have an amazing, wonderful team here who handles everything in between. This is my dream world and it’s awesome.”
Staying ahead of the curve, he says, is especially important when considering what comes next. “I’m kind like a scout or pioneer. My job is to be six months or even three years ahead of the rest of the team when considering the future of our products.”
“As someone who has spent my whole life in product design, I just love looking at the consumer landscape and immersing myself in the use of products to discover where trends are going. I want to know both big-picture and small-picture trends. That way, we can tailor our product accordingly and, again, be way ahead of the curve.”
Along with keeping a close watch on the future, Tom emphasizes that the most important part of his role is to set SylvanSport’s cultural tone. “We have a lot of fun here! I want our employees to savor what’s most important, which is their family and themselves. Campers will always be here—it’s important for everyone to stop and smell the roses sometimes and for everyone to take care of themselves.”
To drive the point home, early on in the company’s history Tom created a card that lists SylvanSport’s values. Each employee has one, ensuring that the company’s values are well-known across the organization. “It’s a little guide that you can refer to for general guidance about what we think is most important,” he says.
Going forward, Tom says, SylvanSport is going to continue placing its focus on meeting product demand and finding new opportunities for innovation. “We have a lot of product demand and we’re trying to meet that demand. I believe and the team believes that new products are always on our plate. We are continual innovators, we never stop. That’s in our DNA.”
Along with expanding its vast line of travel trailers, Tom notes that SylvanSport is aiming to make an impact on e-RV technology. “We’ve been working on some cutting-edge e-RV products. It’ll be a huge leap for the whole RV industry.”
In addition to his duties at SylvanSport, Tom is involved with the RV Industry Association, in part through his ties to past and present company leadership. Tom recalls meeting Richard Coon, a previous RV Industry Association President, the night that SylvanSport won the National Geographic Gear of the Year award for its GO camping trailer. He is also close with Frank Hugelmeyer, another former Association President: “When I was making kayaks Frank was the Director of the Outdoor Industry Association. We knew each other quite well.”
In addition, he adds that SylvanSport products have always been nicely featured on the Go RVing website, and he gives a particular shoutout to its Chief Marketing Officer, Karen Redfern.
Along with his personal Association connections, Tom also has significant experience advocating for the RV industry and increasing access to the outdoors. “I think probably my most important advocacy accomplishment started around 2016. There were three states that had an Office of Outdoor Recreation at the state government level—now there are 16. The first state to create that was Utah. The real driver behind that was a very good friend of mine and the founder of Black Diamond Equipment, Peter Metcalf.”
The second and third states, Colorado and Washington, respectively, weren’t far behind Utah. “Their leaders were very generous in providing me and some other folks in our industry with a road map, so North Carolina became the fourth state to create an Office of Outdoor Recreation. I championed that effort and became the first chairperson of the organization in the North Carolina Outdoor Recreation Coalition. It’s pretty amazing what this little powerhouse organization of just a few dozen members has created.”
“We’ve essentially taken the North Carolina budget for outdoor recreation— meaning public land management, the Parks and Water Recreation Trust Fund, and the Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund— from $2 million a year in funding to over $30 million a year. We also hosted the Confluence of States where the state governors all came here to North Carolina— I had the joy of being the emcee and the moderator for all of the governors.”
“We’re just trying to ensure that public places— where our products are used— remain in good health,” Tom explains. “Well-funded, well-preserved, well-managed. And we want access to expand.” One of North Carolina’s efforts to help accomplish this goal, Tom says, is through mapping the state’s assets, allowing decision-makers to see where there were “outdoor deserts.”
“These are places that were pretty far away for people to access,” Tom says. “It helped the state focus on where they can create a new park or public space, allowing people to camp and enjoy the outdoors with our products. We rolled that up nationally through the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable and I know the RV Industry Association is a big part of that.”
“We’re grateful for everything the RV Industry Association does,” he concludes. “I want to say a huge thank you to the Association for everything it does to make the industry better on the technical, service, and advocacy fronts.”