The Passing of Yet Another Era – In My Opinion

It is truly a sad day in the RV industry this July 1.  As I write this I am still in shock over the news of Thor acquiring Jayco.  Jayco was the shining light in the morass of manufacturers who had “sold out” to the big guns of Forest River, Thor, and others.  It was the manufacturer that I saw as holding the banner for all the independent manufacturers in the industry.  Now, we look at the landscape of the RV manufacturing industry, and I see very few sparkles left.

Over the years, we have seen manufacturers (and dealers) who have shuttered their doors due to circumstances beyond their control.  Factors like the gas crisis in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, and the recession of ’08 have played a large part, but now we are seeing a trend toward the genericism of RV’s that is frankly troubling.  Long gone are the innovators and inventors who forged the backbone of the industry. The mom and pop shops who sacrificed everything to grow a business, brought the kids into the business because they frankly couldn’t afford to pay an actual employee.  They worked long hours, weekends, sometimes even holidays to make a go of it.  Gone too are the principals of agreeing to something and shaking on it. 

Now there are corporations, lawyers, corporate heads, CEOs, CFOs, and all sorts of other meaningless titles that have come to signify that massive corporations are gobbling up what is left of the independents.  On the dealer side, that would include the Camping Worlds, and others who buy up other dealers to work up a network under one “umbrella”. 

I guess that I have always been an idealist about the RV industry.  I saw it as shiny and exciting, with endless possibilities.  I represented the products because I fervently believed in what I saw and heard at the dealer meetings.  I rested on the faith that even though things grew that the initial principals and quality would remain throughout.  Call me naïve, but because I operate that way I fully expect others to operate that way as well.  I believed all the gathering rallies, all the excitement about new ideas, and the ideal that the families who founded the companies would never allow anyone else to destroy what they had built.  Was I wrong all these years??

I was so proud that at one time, every manufacturer our dealership handled was family owned and operated and totally independent just like our dealership was (and is).  Those manufacturers were Jayco, Starcraft, Lance, KZ, Doubletree, and Newmar.  At this point, Starcraft is owned by Jayco who is now owned by Thor.  KZ which was a wonderful small manufacturer with so much innovation is now under the Thor banner.  Doubletree (now DRV) is now operating under the Thor umbrella as well.  Our only independents left are Newmar and Lance.  It is all very troubling to me.  I am seeing a trend not only with the manufacturers that we handle but all manufacturers toward something that I almost want to call “globalization”.  It feels slightly socialist to me.  Are we heading toward the era of the novel 1984?

Big brother – you see it in government, you see it in so many facets of life.  Now it is rearing its’ head in the RV industry sadly.  The big corporation comes in and makes promises – “we won’t change anything” “we will take care of you” “don’t worry about the integrity of the product”…….How is that going?  It is showing in the quality of the product, the quality of the warranty – we have seen this time and again.  The founding fathers of these manufacturers are probably turning in their graves.  Everything that they hoped for and dreamed of when they opened their doors was definitely NOT being “one of them”.  They thrived on ingenuity, on hard work and on high principals.  Today’s manufacturers should keep that in mind.  Look to the history of the industry – to all the leaders of the industry.  They weren’t the CEO in a 3 piece suit, they were the guy in overalls with grease on his hands who drove all over to sell their product and talked to people in person not through emails or memos. No slick brochures or marketing.  He or she dealt on a handshake, not on a legal form. 

Don’t get me wrong – I firmly believe in the RV lifestyle.  I always have and always will.  However, I am forced to wonder what all this signifies.  I have seen a definite trend in customers particularly the younger or millenials if you will who think that all campers are the same because they are built supposedly by the same people.  We are losing the distinction between brands.  The customers at this point could care less about what it is and now look at what it costs.  There is becoming less and less that makes a camper “special” in a consumer’s eyes.  When I was able to tell people “family owned and family run” whether pertaining to the product or the dealership, I would see them perk up since they understood the value in that, because there IS value in that.  When the family who founded the company is there on a daily basis and dealing with customers on a daily basis, there is instant interaction, gratification, and yes – even someone they could complain to. 

I guess I am getting old.  I still want the ideal.  I want a quality product at a fair price, and a company who will proudly stand behind it.  Is that so wrong?

When I meet a new person at the dealership, I will inevitably bring up the history of our founding – of how my mother-in-law Marian Sothan started selling Apache brand campers out of the backyard of her house in the 1960’s.    I tell them about the hard work and stuggles that happened to get to where we are today.  How our Bellevue store started in a little 2 bedroom frame house on a quarter acre of land (barely), of how my husband David Sothan worked service jobs on his back in the gravel lot, and had all his tools in the rear bedroom.  I tell the story of Lloyd Bontrager who developed a new lifter system for fold downs, broke out on his own and developed the Jayco product out of a barn.

There are so many stories like these in the RV industry, and so much history is being lost due to acquisitions and buyouts.  Do yourself a favor the next time you go shopping or out to dinner – buy local and buy independent.  There are fewer and fewer of us around, and the support is greatly needed. 

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