Armed with spreadsheets and sales projections, Derald Bontrager and key executives at Jayco Inc. huddled in the fall of 2008 to figure out how their recreational vehicle manufacturing company could reduce costs enough to survive the depths of the recession.
Again and again, they met during the next several months, each time realizing more jobs held by local workers had to be eliminated. And in a family-owned business such as Jayco, which is based in the Northern Indiana town of Middlebury, laying off people is personal, the South Bend Tribune reported.
“That was the most difficult and challenging part of the downturn,” said Bontrager, president and COO at Jayco, which laid off more than half of its work force, or about 1,300 people, between late 2008 and mid-2009.
Like Jayco, RV manufacturers across the country dramatically slowed production after consumers, many of whom lost their jobs or access to credit, stopped buying.
At least seven manufacturers closed Indiana production facilities or closed completely, pushing unemployment last year in Elkhart County to nearly 19%.
Indiana’s RV industry was among the first economic sectors to tumble into recession, experts agree. Whether it can be the first to emerge from the economic depths remains to be seen.
Industry leaders say time will tell whether higher shipment figures in recent months are actually the result of more consumer purchases or dealers replenishing their inventories.
Most plants in Elkhart County and across the country had been running at near capacity in 2006 and 2007 as recreational vehicles and customers filled retail lots.
Dealers reported brisk sales until banks and lending institutions stopped lending money to consumers and dealers that year, which consequently halted purchases, as well as RV orders.
After years of shipment growth that culminated with a high of 390,500 shipments in 2006, inventory levels dropped to historic lows in 2009, according to statistics from the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
That year, RV shipments plummeted to 165,700 vehicles. Indiana RV manufacturers produce about 75% of all RVs made in the U.S. The state ranks eighth or ninth in overall RV retail sales, with about 6% of all RV dealers based in Indiana.
“When the credit markets locked up and froze in the last half of 2008, industry shipments really dropped because consumers weren’t able to get credit,” said Kevin Broom, RVIA director of media relations. “Even consumers who were well qualified with cash and high credit scores could not get loans. People got nervous, and they postponed large discretionary purchases like RVs.”
Dealers decided to replace the few RVs that were selling off their lots much more slowly, which also affected suppliers and their work forces, and the lack of activity dropped inventory levels to historic industry lows for most of 2009.
Broom said the slowdown forced most — if not all — RV manufacturers to lay off workers.
About 15 U.S. companies filed for bankruptcy in 2008 or 2009, including Monaco Coach Corp., Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., Country Coach, Travel Supreme and Rexhall RV.
The slowdown also negatively affected RV dealers. About 10% of total dealerships nationwide — an estimated 180 — closed during this period, said Phil Ingrassia, a spokesman for the national Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA).
It was not until mid-2009 that the credit market loosened a little, which lured some consumers back to dealers’ lots. The industry has started feeling a level of normalcy again as people adjust to new financial situations, Broom said.
Total shipments are expected to reach 239,000 units in 2010, slowing during the second half of the year, according to Richard Curtin, an RV industry analyst and director of consumer surveys at the University of Michigan.
Shipments are expected to rise moderately to 259,600 units in 2011, and job and industry growth should remain subdued as the industry feels the lingering effects of the economic downturn, Curtin said in a September news release from the RVIA.
“Consumers are reconsidering their spending and saving habits,” Curtin recently told the RVIA.
Several headwinds face the RV industry in an overall economic rebound: unemployment, consumer confidence, the financial markets, housing and credit.
Although shipments have been up since mid-2009, Mark Bowersox, executive director for the Indiana Manufactured Housing Association/Recreation Vehicle Indiana Council (IMHA/RVIC), said that does not mean the industry is leading the country out of the recession.
Many Indiana manufacturers still do not have enough RV orders to keep their plants going all day, every day, Bowersox said, which means their fall shutdowns between product lines might be longer than usual.
“There are a lot of dealers wrestling with how much inventory to have on their lot for the spring selling season — five or 500,” he said about future vehicle orders that must be placed this fall in time for spring sales.
RVIA leaders cannot be certain about the length of time it will take the sector to rebound to record shipment levels seen in 2006.
“The industry is recovering, but we’re not to our destination yet,” Broom said. “It has given the RV maker an opportunity to go back and redesign and to refocus on the product, on where consumers will be in the future.”
He said smaller, lighter, more environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient recreational vehicles are ways the industry is moving.
Jayco, which is being cautious as it adds personnel and other overhead costs back into its Elkhart County manufacturing plant, is focused on “greening” its vehicles, Bontrager said.
“We need to figure out a way as a company and industry to provide a high-quality product with all the features the consumer has come to expect at a lower price point,” Bontrager said.
Most of the 500 employees who have been called back to work are in production. In other parts of the company, processes are becoming more efficient with a smaller work force, he said.
Bontrager thinks the RV industry and the economy have reached recovery mode but said he cannot be sure the recession is over. Not yet.
“I certainly would say that we’ve reached the bottom of the recession. Now we’re talking about how we can meet the demand rather than cutting costs,” he said.
“At the same time, we’re very cautious. This has been a prolonged recession compared to others. And consumers are spending less but expecting the same.”