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Like most success stories, Hi-Lo Trailer Co. started with a vision.
And in founder Don Snyder’s case, it was that of a tent camper, only one with hard sides. He wanted a low-profile trailer for more stable towing, but something that could raise into position with a more livable hard-sided shell upon arrival. After scouring dealer lots around his northern Ohio home and finding nothing, Snyder used his engineering background to build his recreational vehicle.
For Snyder, a booming business venture was not the goal. Nor was some sort of head-turning prototype. He just wanted something safe and easy for his family to use.
Now, celebrating its 50th anniversary, Hi-Lo, based in Butler, Ohio, ranks as one of the oldest RV manufacturers, boasting a solid core of buyers and a patented design that still causes double takes.
Hi-Lo started in the backyard of Snyder’s home, where he created his first towable in 1955. The most innovative feature was the hand crank connected to four cables that lifted the trailer’s walls and ceiling into place. Once deployed, the unit gained several feet of headroom along with the hard walls and appearance he had envisioned. Essentially, the idea was to provide the towing ease of a low-profile, fold-down camper and the all-season, creature comforts of a bona fide travel trailer.
Hi-Lo products since then have always offered the best of both worlds.
At eight feet in length, Snyder’s trailer was large enough for his needs, yet featured a diminutive transport height for greater stability and wind-resistance. Naturally, the neighbors wanted one as did family members, who campaigned for Snyder to begin marketing the product.
Snyder, however, just wanted a useable trailer. It took his brother, Jim, to finally convince him that it could lead to something bigger. In 1957, the two started the Hi-Lo Trailer Co.
“He didn’t really want to build a business, he wanted to build trailers,” said Larry Mills, current Hi-Lo vice-president. “I would say his philosophy was just to make a safer trailer. He really did have safety in mind when he built them, not profits.”
But the profits eventually did come, despite the fact the family background was in the funeral business and neither brother had any marketing expertise. An idea was hatched to take one of their telescoping trailers to New York City for an audition on the wildly popular game show, “The Price is Right.” Producers were smitten with the unique design and, once aired, the phones started ringing. After two years in business, Hi-Lo had arrived.
“That was a boon in the business,” said Mills. “It was an overnight success from that point on. Interestingly, to this day, our products are still shown on ‘The Price is Right.’”
Hi-Lo’s on-air boost certainly got the company needed attention, but it was Don Snyder’s patented hand-crank design that remains the not-so-secret feature behind the company’s success. A push-button, battery-powered hydraulic lift replaced the original hand-crank device in 1968, although it worked virtually the same way. This year the lift system received another upgrade in the form of chrome-plated steel hardware, engineered for even longer operating life. The trailer’s interior cabinetry and furnishings have always been designed to not block the ceiling when the unit is lowered for traveling.
Throughout the years, Hi-Lo remained true to Don Snyder’s conservative vision: focus on safety and quality, and let the rest take care of itself. That is, until the company, along with the industry, fell on hard times during the economic setbacks in the 1970s and was sold to New Zealand native, Wade Thompson, in 1978.
Thompson, now chairman of Jackson Center, Ohio-based Thor Industries Inc., revamped Hi-Lo’s operations and made it once again profitable. Mills, who calls Thompson “brilliant” at business, credits him for saving the company. The decade of the 1980s saw Hi-Lo dabble in everything from motorhomes to bicycles to pontoon boats. The Hi-Lo, however, remained the bread-and-butter, and Jim Snyder and John Russell re-purchased the company in 2003.
Hi-Lo’s current lineup offers virtually the same telescoping trailer design as Don Snyder’s homemade version, with sizes ranging from 17 feet to 28 feet in their Classic and Towlite brands. Mills said they don’t compete on price with other brands, because, frankly, their trailers cost more, with MSRP’s ranging between $15,600 and $32,300.
“We’ve tried to compete before on price and we can’t,” said Mills, who says Hi-Lo buyers seem more than content to pay more for the added safety and quality materials and construction. “Big assembly lines can build a trailer cheaper than we can. So, we build our trailers better. We put more quality into the materials and more attention into the labor. And we sell it for more money because it’s worth it and of course we’re unique. We always have that in our corner.”
In 2002, the company introduced the “Expanda-room” concept, which gave select models a dimensional boost while utilizing a single moving part. Another recent innovation, the detachable hitch, delivers owners precious inches when storing their units in their garages.
Otherwise, Jim Snyder’s leadership returned the company to its roots, both literally and figuratively. The telescoping Hi-Lo trailer is once again the sole product offering and his conservative nature has kept the company on solid footing with a strong core of buyers. Mills, who is Jim’s son-in-law, said the family ownership is a core tenet, with frequent offers to sell routinely turned down.
“As a company, we don’t swing for the fences. We don’t take drastic measures. We don’t spend $500,000 on a TV ad campaign,” said Mills. ”We’re not looking to take over the industry, and I think a lot of companies are. Our agenda really has just been to provide a safer towing travel trailer to the market.”
Mills said the typical Hi-Lo buyer is older, affluent, and extremely demanding in terms of quality. There also is a segment of RVers who flock to Hi-Lo trailers for their aerodynamic design, which translates into better fuel efficiency. The company estimates Hi-Lo’s wind-resistant traveling heights make the trailer 77% more fuel efficient than traditional travel trailers.
The more “engineering minded” consumers, said Mills, enjoy how the unit stows and deploys. Owners also applaud how easily Hi-Lo units tow, with the 70-inch towing height virtually eliminating the sway and chop plaguing many other travel trailers. Interior heights reach approximately 8-feet, 6-inches after the roughly 15-second employment.
This fall will see the debut of a 19-foot floor plan designed especially for those with limited garage space, particularly those potential buyers in California and Florida with smaller garages. This unit, said Mills, “features a floorplan that we’ve never done before and features everything.”
However, Mills is quick to caution, it’s still a Hi-Lo. Just as it’s always been.