It was the motorhome that couldn’t be sold, brand new back in 2007, last on the lot, a rolling 31-foot beauty with a sofa, dinette and queen-size bed.
Month after month, the vehicle sat at DeHaan RV Center in Elkhorn, Wis., , sat through $4-a-gallon gasoline and the coming of the economic recession, sat through one winter and most of another until early March, when a customer plunked down about $90,000 and drove it off the lot.
“The general public assumes we just have these things sitting out here on consignment, free of charge, and when we sell one it’s all pure profit,” says David DeHaan.
This vehicle was sold at a loss.
David and Kim DeHaan, owner-operators of DeHaan RV Center, have been in the recreational vehicle business for decades and have never seen a recession like this one, manufacturers shutting, dealers struggling and consumers sitting on the sidelines, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
America’s love affair with the RV hasn’t ended – it has just adapted to the economic times. The yearning to hit the open road and see the country remains an American passion. When tough times hit, the tough go camping, even if that camping comes with all the comforts of home.
David and Kim DeHaan know all this from experience. They’re RV lifers.
He’s in the garage, running the service department. She’s out front, handling the business.
He’s a gregarious man with a shaved head and goatee. She’s a friendly woman, good with numbers and computers. She got the business on the Internet years before a lot of the competition and ended up selling product to customers as far away as New Zealand.
A DeHaan has been selling vehicles in this part of Walworth County for more than 50 years. David’s dad, Richard, started a car dealership in 1956 and got into RVs in the 1980s. David and Kim are carrying on a family tradition. Their two children also work at the dealership.
This time of year, there’s plenty to do. Customers are coming in to service their motorhomes and towable campers, a blown tire here, a leak there.
The DeHaans are running the business as lean as they can. For four months, they didn’t take a paycheck. For the first time ever, they closed for the month of January. And, for the time being, they’re no longer selling new motorhomes.
They’re concentrating on service, rentals and travel trailers, some that are so luxurious they include flat-screen TVs, fireplaces and king-size beds.
“We’re just selling big toys,” David DeHaan says.
Nationwide, the RV business boomed in the 1990s and flourished again after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as Americans craved control of travel. The industry was gearing up to serve the next generation of RV enthusiasts, retiring Baby Boomers eager to hit the road, when the price of gas spiked and the stock market collapsed.
Suddenly, fewer people want big toys.
But the DeHaans are confident that their business, and the industry itself, will endure.
“All indicators are it’s going to come back bigger and stronger,” Kim DeHaan says. “The recession is weeding out manufacturers and dealers. When things clean up, the strong are going to be stronger.”
The DeHaans stick to a vision that smaller is better.
When superstores became the rage in the car business, they got out of selling cars in the late 1990s. When fancy RV dealerships with huge inventories and multiple service bays began to spring up around the state, they didn’t budge from their vision.
Eighteen months ago, they saw the handwriting on the wall for motorhomes, figured Americans wouldn’t want to pony up for gas-guzzlers. They sold their motorhome inventory, right down to that last 31-footer.
But there’s no time to dwell on the last few months. The weather is growing warmer, the end of school beckons and business is picking up.
“Dealers aren’t making the money they should be making but it is still turning,” Kim DeHaan says. “That’s what makes me say, ‘It’s not bad.’ You might be at a break-even point, but this too shall pass.”