Pride Shows in Fleetwood RV Factory Tours
Editor’s Note: The following story was written by Frank Smith and appears in the January issue of Better RVing. It was distributed by lazydays.com.
Factory tours are a daily ritual at the Fleetwood’s RV/American Coach plant in Decatur, Ind. They begin in a modest waiting room when the baritone rasp of an unseen voice shakes the walls with a mighty, “Good morning, campers!” The voice’s owner pokes his head through a doorway that can hardly fit his enthusiasm. This is Tom Liechty, tour guide, sales representative and treasured attraction at Fleetwood RV and American Coach.
Liechty introduces himself and sets the tone for the day with a story of how he came to find his calling at Fleetwood more than two decades ago. To retell his tale here would be to rob those who will someday make the trip to Decatur of a splendid oratory experience, so instead I’ll hold onto the memory and let one of the great storytellers of the RV industry tell it to you when you visit. It’s worth it.
Act II of the tour — Liechty’s introductory court being Act I — finds us on the production line. The size and scope of the facility takes over. But like an RVer who knows the path through unchartered territory, Liechty leads the way with a smile that makes you feel like you’ve known him for years. He doesn’t know all of the 700 workers in Decatur, but he knows most of them to the point of being able to carry on running jokes that shift with and conform to each new station we visit.
“Lot of these folks have been here a long time,” says Liechty, to which I ask, “How long is a long time?” He’s quick to answer with “some have been here five years,” while catching friendly glances and nods from his family of workers as we move down the production line. “A lot have been here 15, 20 years, even 30.” A look overcomes Liechty as he trails off: part grateful, part nostalgic, all pride. I would later learn that more than 600 of Fleetwood’s workers have been with the company for more than 20 years.
Industrialization and heavy-duty manufacturing take on a new persona when you can see the eyes of the men and women who commit themselves to creating the vessels their customers will choose to achieve their RVing dream. There’s a sense of purpose on display as though each worker is marching to the same rhythm. There isn’t the slightest hint of apprehension as the workers move with the kind of efficient grace Henry Ford dreamed about. Even to my novice eye, it all makes sense. Yet it wasn’t until I learned that the former parent company, Fleetwood Enterprises, was forced to lay off more than 40 percent of the Decatur facility’s labor force at the height of the recession that I understood the meaning of the look in Liechty’s eye.
During the economic downturn, which saw public demand for RVs sink to all-time lows, Fleetwood Enterprises filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March 2009. In July of that same year, American Industrial Partners (AIP), a private equity firm in New York, purchased the motorhome assets, including the Decatur manufacturing and service facilities, and formed Fleetwood RV Inc. Led by CEO, John Draheim, Fleetwood RV adopted a lean culture, which resulted in a process of continuous improvement aimed to eliminate waste and increase efficient productivity while resulting in a product of superior quality and desirability. The workers on the production line embraced the new practice, implementing almost 1,000 minor changes since May. But they also understood it would take more than efficiency to survive the largest economic recession since the Great Depression.
We realized that we’re not invincible,” says salesperson for American Coach Janeen Gerke. “We realized that everybody has to work harder so that we are that number one manufacturer that customers want to come back to.” Loyalty to their customers is a tenet upon which Fleetwood has stood since its brand was founded in 1950. Almost 60 years later, the fundamental desire to exceed customers’ expectations served as a rallying cry among workers during the company’s most desperate hour. Yet as times worsened and the light at the end of the recession’s tunnel dimmed, Fleetwood looked deeper within itself and found the inspiration that would carry it through the worst of times.
“We stayed together through everything that’s gone on over the last two years just by leaning on each other,” explains National Sales Manager Lenny Razo. “We treat this company as a family. Sometimes you may not get along. Sometimes you have to work hand in hand.” The family at Fleetwood worked hand in hand. They survived tough times and not only saved the company, but revived a small American town.
“Fleetwood and Decatur, Ind., have been connected for quite some time,” explains Razo, “and I think what really makes this town special is the workforce. These people wake up early every morning and have dedicated their lives to this company. Decatur has been energized by what Fleetwood does. Our people are passionate and that’s what has drawn the company to lay its roots and foundation here in Decatur.”
Back on the production line, I notice the look in Liechty’s eye as he waves to a small crew putting the finishing touches on a 2011 American Revolution. This time I understand what he’s feeling. The worst was over and better roads lay ahead for Fleetwood RV. His company, his family and his home have come a long way.