More than 400 people made the annual pilgrimage Monday night (Aug. 5) to the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind., to honor the latest inductees into the Hall.
Nine industry pioneers or their family members came forward to receive praise and appreciation for the sacrifices and devotion to the intertwined RV and manufactured housing industries, two industries with deep roots in the greater Elkhart area.
On the RV side, inductees were Kirwan M. Elmers, Lawrence C. Lippert and Thomas R. Walworth along with the late Clarence M. Fore and Matthew M. Perlot.
As president of Statistical Surveys Inc. (SSI), Grand Rapids, Mich., Walworth established the company as the recognized official scorecard for sales in the RV and manufactured housing industries in the U.S. and Canada. His data is relied upon for marketing planning by every major company in both industries. He also served for over 20 years on the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) Market Information Committee.
Walworth noted that in his 35-year career with SSI, he has had the honor of working directly with 70 of the 339 inductees in the Hall of Fame.
He praised both the RV and MH industries as the “best examples of capitalism,” adding, “With the capitalistic spirit, you can do whatever you want.”
Walworth named a long list of industry pioneers, including Thor Industries Inc. Founder Wade Thompson and Forest River Inc. founder Pete Liegl (both Hall inductees), as examples of “dreamers and hard workers” who achieved the American dream.
He said each person has a “compass” which steers him through life and for him, it has been God, his family and SSI.
Another dreamer was Clarence M. Fore, who started drawing plans for his first motorhome in 1966 and built it under the pine trees in his back yard in Nacogdoches, Texas. Fore drove his first unit to an RV show in Elkhart in 1967 to make contacts and find suppliers in the Elkhart area.
Fore almost shut the business down after five years because he was losing $1,000 on every coach he built. He was one of the early users of fiberglass front and rear caps and side panels. He pioneered dual roof air conditioning units and central vacuum systems in RVs and was the first to build motorhomes on monocoque chassis.
He is credited with being the first to develop an owners club for his consumers. Fore led the concept of factory-owned stores by creating factory outlets in major markets around the country.
Fore died Aug. 5, 2011, exactly two years prior to his induction. His grandson, Tyle Fore, accepted the award on his grandfather’s behalf.
Mathew M. Perlot, founder of Safari Motorhomes, Junction City, Ore., also did not live to see his induction into the Hall, passing away in October 2012. But if he were alive, his son, Martin, said on his behalf in accepting the honor, he would have been a feisty inductee.
Perlot was known as a “rebel” in the industry for his unconventional approach to business. He introduced affordable diesel pushers to the RV world and patented the electronic “magic bed’ that raises to the ceiling to provide additional living space.
He took Safari and Beaver public in 1996 and eventually sold to Monaco Coach.
Martin Perlot described his father as a fierce competitor, noting that he would have arrived in Elkhart, discovered that competitor Bob Lee of Country Coach had already been inducted (in 2000) and said, “Bob Lee got here first? Finish your drinks, son, we’re out of here!”
But Martin Perlot said his father’s induction has allowed he and his brother, Dave, to step back and further appreciate their father’s accomplishments and contributions to the RV industry.
The fourth RV inductee, Elmers, co-founded with his father Custom Coach in Columbus, Ohio, in 1955. The first firm to commercially convert buses into RVs, Custom Coach installed the first automatic transmission in an inner-city bus shell (in 1956), installed the first back-up camera in an RV (in 1965) and was the first to install cruise control (in 1967).
Elmers also served on the Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA) Commercial Council since the mid-1960s and was chairman from 1990 to 1999.
Perhaps more than any other inductee, Elmers personifies the perseverance that characterizes the RV industry. Elmers’ parents were told at birth that their son had a weak heart, couldn’t compete in sports and wouldn’t live past the age of 40.
Not only was he able to travel to all 48 states with his father on business trips by the time he was in high school, he was able to celebrate his 85th birthday recently.
Lippert also started his own company in 1955 in Alma, Mich., with two employees – he and his wife – first supplying to the manufactured housing industry with aluminum and steel roofing.
In 1959, he began LCI’s chassis and chassis parts business. The company enjoyed steady growth until Lippert’s retirement in 1977 when he handed the reins to his son, L. Douglas Lippert. Today, as part of Drew Industries Inc., LCI is one of the largest suppliers to the mobile home and recreational vehicle industries, employing more than 5,100 people in 11 states. It provides everything from frames and chassis to roof materials, axles, countertops, mattresses, draperies and furniture.
Lippert remarked that LCI today does a greater sales volume in a half day than his firm produced in an entire year. The company is recognized as a generous corporate citizen. His grandson, Jason Lippert, now runs the company.
From the manufactured housing side, inductees were:
• Craig M. Bollman, Mobile Home Communities.
• Theresa Desfosses, State Manufactured Homes.
• Thomas P. Meyers, Guerdon Industries.
• Claude N. Palmer (deceased), Palmer Homes.
State of the Hall
In his “State of the Hall” address, Darryl Searer, president and treasurer of the RV/MH Heritage Foundation, reported that the Hall of Fame “is in even better (financial) shape than I reported last year.”
Developments this year have included burning the outstanding bank note; a final $600,000 payout to David Woodworth and his wife for their RV collection that now is on display at the Hall; a final settlement with the city of Elkhart on an outstanding water bill for which the city forgave a $150,000 debt; and presentation of a preliminary check to the family of Boots Ingram three years earlier than expected.
The Ingram family has agreed it will match 50% of every dollar paid toward the principal payment going forward, Searer said. Revenue over the past year has risen 40% over a year earlier, he added. With these developments, Searer said, he hopes the Hall will be debt-free by the end of this decade.
In other developments, Searer noted that Fairmont Homes has broken ground on a multi-section manufactured housing display on the Hall’s grounds. The Hall’s website continues to undergo improvements, and there is a new website for the Hall’s commercial facility, doing business as the Northern Indiana Event Center.
Searer recognized staff and volunteers and presented the Hall of Fame Spirit Award to Tom and Charlene McNulty, who have worked at the Hall for the past 25 years.
Dick Jennison, president of the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI), gave the keynote address. He reported that after a prolonged downturn, the manufactured housing industry is on a steady upturn, with shipments growing 16% since 2010.
He said tight mortgage lending and government overregulation continue to hamper the industry, but he cited several victories this past year bode well for the future. He called for industry unity to wage a campaign against the outdated perceptions of the manufactured housing industry.
Forty-six golfers competed in the annual Hall of Fame Golf Classic at Bent Oak Golf Course in Elkhart earlier in the day. Foursomes representing Lippert Components finished first and second.