The RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum, based on the northeast side of Elkhart, Ind., recently received a collection of historic Fleetwood RVs from the early days of now defunct Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., Riverside, Calif.
According to a press release, the coaches were donated by the Crean Foundation. “Andy Crean, son of Fleetwood founder and Hall of Fame member John Crean, acquired these RVs from the bankruptcy of Fleetwood Enterprises specifically to present to the RV/MH Hall of Fame in his father’s memory,” noted Hall President Darryl Searer,
The RVs, now on display in the museum, include a 1950 12-foot Fleetwood Sporter that was the very first trailer built when Fleetwood grew out of Coach Specialties Co., a builder of venetian blinds for trailers. Also donated were a Fleetwood Sportster, a later version of the same trailer; a 1969 Pace Arrow that was the first motorhome produced by Fleetwood; and John Crean’s 1985 working prototype for the iconic 1986-87 Bounder which introduced the basement model concept to RVs.
Accompanying the early RVs is an extensive collection of Fleetwood documents and memorabilia from the company’s early days which will be added to RV/MH library collections.
“After learning of the Crean Foundation’s gift, we faced the problem of the costs of transporting the collection from California to the museum in Indiana,” Searer said. “That problem was solved when Wilbur Bontrager (Jayco Inc.) and Joel Pladson (RV transport company Starfleet) agreed to underwrite the expense and bring the collection to Elkhart. This collection of early Fleetwood RVs adds a new dimension to the museum’s extensive inventory of historic RVs.”
In addition to the Fleetwood collection, the RV/MH museum received a 1947 Westcraft 24-foot Westwood Coronado from its original owner, John Culp, who purchased it in 1947 upon his return from duty with the U.S. Navy during World War II. He used it continuously for 65 years, traveling throughout the U.S. and snowbirding each winter in Florida.
Culp, a charter member of the Tin Can Tourists vintage trailer club, and his trailer appeared in many TV documentaries on vintage trailer life. The Westcraft trailer is displayed on the large patio in front of the Hall of Fame building.
As many as 2,000 people lined up Saturday (Aug. 28) at a factory that used to be one of Inland Southern California’s manufacturing hubs, hoping for a job with a company trying to revive what has become a moribund Southern California industry, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported.
MVP RV LLC, which recently bought two Riverside facilities once part of Fleetwood Enterprises Inc.’s operation, held a job fair Saturday, looking to hire 80 people to start work next month. MVP RV will probably add 150 more people in October and continue to hire incrementally into next spring, the peak season for RV sales, officials have said.
Earlier in the week, the company’s officers anticipated 1,500 people would line up to fill out applications. That threshold was reached by 11 a.m., two hours before the job fair was scheduled to end. Also, about 1,000 had submitted résumés before the event started, said Pablo Carmona, the company’s vice president of manufacturing.
They had also asked that only people who know the recreational vehicle industry apply, and there is no shortage of them in Inland Southern California. As many as 3,000 people once worked for Fleetwood, which also made manufactured homes, in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Fleetwood filed for bankruptcy in March 2009.
Many others made RVs for Thor of California in Moreno Valley and National RV Holdings Inc. and Weekend Warrior Trailers Inc., both of which were in Perris. All of those companies have closed in the last three years, victims of a poor economy.
Saturday’s event had elements of a reunion for former Fleetwood employees, but Joe Rivera, who had been an engineering technician for 23 years at Fleetwood, saw the size of the crowd and knew he was facing a numbers game.
“My chances are not good, but it depends on what their needs are,” said Rivera, 49. “I’m not sure if they need an engineering department, but maybe there’s something for me.”
Another person looking for work had even more experience. Robby Crean is the grandson of John Crean, the legendary founder of Fleetwood who died in 2007. The younger Crean had worked for his father, Johnnie, who started his own company, Alfa Leisure Inc., in the 1970s. At 39, Robby Crean has essentially been in the RV business all his life.
Alfa Leisure, which had been based in Chino, went out of business in 2008. Robby Crean held several management positions with the firm and said the industry can make a comeback.
“If you start with the lower-end products and build up from there, that’s the way to come back,” Crean said.
The industry started to slide about four years ago because consumers became wary of high gas prices, but the bottom fell out when housing prices stopped rising and homeowners no longer had the equity to spend on RVs.
MVP, which makes towable trailers, was started in Moreno Valley in 2008 by three industry veterans and, after finding a new financial backer, was able to buy Fleetwood’s old plants for $18.6 million in cash in a bankruptcy sale. The company is eyeing overseas markets, especially Asia, for its RVs.
Brad Williams, the CEO, said MVP’s models are designed to be shipped in containers, making them easier to export.
“I’m not sure what the others in the industry are doing,” Williams said. “But we think there are great opportunities in Asia.”
Not all the applicants were veterans of the RV industry. Inland Southern California’s unemployment rate was 15.1% in July, one of the highest of any metropolitan area in the country, and people looking for work say they’re willing to be creative.
Cheryl Garcia-Wood, 52, of Riverside, has been unemployed for almost 18 months and came out early Saturday hoping for anything.
“Jobs are hard to find, but we’re out here doing our best,” Garcia-Wood said. “I see a long line of people, but it’s like playing the Lotto. If you don’t play, you can’t win.”
As the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) prepares to roll out a series of events and related activities commemorating the industry’s 2010 Centennial, RVBusiness magazine and RVBUSINESS.com are setting up a special Centennial issue focusing among other things on the “75 Most Influential People” in the history of the U.S. RV industry.
“Talk about a tough job,” says RVB Publisher Sherman Goldenberg, in commenting on the upcoming selection process. “We sat down recently to start making a list of likely nominees and soon realized just how intimidating this process is going to be. I mean, when you get beyond the most obvious individuals like Winnebago’s John K. Hanson and Holiday Rambler’s Richard Klingler and Fleetwood’s John Crean and start looking at who else might be on that list, you begin to realize just how difficult this process can be.”
To help build a pool of names, RVBusiness is adding an application this morning (March 13) to the RVBUSINESS.com homepage, a click-through feature through which website visitors can nominate anyone they think ought to be on RVB’s list of the industry’s “75 Most Influential People.”
That list will be published in a June issue that includes an array of centennial coverage and will be released in sync with RVIA’s 100th Anniversary Party June 7 at the RV/MH Heritage Foundation Inc.’s Hall of Fame and Museum in Elkhart, Ind., during what has been designated as “RV Centennial Celebration Month.”
RVIA’s invitation-only industry party, one of several Centennial projects spearheaded by RVIA designed to lift the industry’s post-recessionary spirits, will feature a “Salute to RV Workers,” a live band, fireworks, centennial salutes from RVing celebrities and other VIPs and the unveiling of an RV-themed time capsule that will remain on display at the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum.
“We know there are many possible candidates who would likely qualify as having been among the ’75 Most Influential’ individuals in the industry’s history, both from the past and including people who are still working in the industry today,” said Goldenberg. “So, we’ve decided to open the doors on this project to the industry at large to make sure we don’t overlook a lot of people who ought to be mentioned on this list.
“In saying that, however, we realize full well that we will inevitably slip up and overlook some people whose contributions were clearly vital to their companies and to the industry at large because the universe of names over a century’s time is simply too large,” he added. “But we’re trying to keep those oversights to a minimum.”
Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the Riverside, Calif., Press-Enterprise and recounts the history of Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. The newspaper prepared a special Fleetwood interactive package consisting of slideshows, archived stories and a video as well as an opportunity for readers to submit their own images. To view that package. go to http://www.pe.com/reports/2009/fleetwood/ <http://www.pe.com/reports/2009/fleetwood/>.
When Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. needed room to expand its Anaheim factory 46 years ago, its founder looked east, where there was ample land and labor.
John Crean, a pioneer in the recreational vehicle industry, didn’t want a fancy headquarters, “so Riverside suited them fine,” his son, Andrew, said. “It was strictly business.”
That business thrived, spending more than two decades on the Fortune 500 list of largest U.S. businesses.
Fleetwood’s presence in Riverside spawned a West Coast hub for other RV and manufactured housing suppliers and builders.
But a failed expansion starting in the 1990s buried the company in debt that it couldn’t overcome.
Today, a few executives remain to sell off the last vestiges of the RV and housing empire and finalize the company’s bankruptcy by October. Factories scattered around the country have been shuttered or sold. The RV and housing divisions have been split and have new owners in different parts of the country.
Fleetwood Enterprises, the Riverside-based company founded by John Crean and already all but gone, is about to dissolve completely when its bankruptcy becomes final in the next few months.
The company may not have been the first RV manufacturer in Southern California, “but they overshadowed all that came before,” said Allen R. Hesselbart, historian at the RV and Manufactured Housing Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind.
The milestones were many — selling $1 billion worth of RVs in 1989 and $1 billion of manufactured homes in 1994. The company broke into the Fortune 500 in 1973 — 230th at its height — and stayed on the list for nearly three decades.
“They filled the shoes as the largest manufacturer for both industries,” carrying the RV and manufactured housing businesses for at least 25 years into the 1980s, Hesselbart said.
For at least one kid growing up in Riverside, the company was a capitalist inspiration. Jeremy Burkhardt, CEO of Riverside-based Speakercraft, said his company’s success is owed in large part to a business deal with the RV maker.
A Fleetwood executive walked into the Speakercraft retail store in the early 1980s to buy box speakers, and Speakercraft got a contract to install its hidden in-wall speakers inside Fleetwood’s motorhomes.
“That was our first million-dollar customer,” Burkhardt said. “If it wasn’t for Fleetwood wanting to put our in-wall speakers in their motorhome, it wouldn’t have led to the Speakercraft brand.”
Fleetwood earned a reputation as an innovator. Crean designed the first motorhome with storage underneath, now an industry standard. Fleetwood also built a vehicle big enough to stand up to dinosaurs, the digital and animatronic stars in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” and comfortable enough for Pope John Paul II to use before his Mass at Dodger Stadium in 1987.
Not so Atypical
It was a place where someone could start as an assistant and end up on the company’s board of directors.
It also had the same challenges most businesses encounter — an economy outside its control, decisions about growth, power struggles and lawsuits.
Southern California economist John Husing said Fleetwood’s closure is a “big deal” and another hit at a time when the region’s economy and unemployment rate can’t take much more.
“It couldn’t happen at a worse time,” he said.
Every dollar Fleetwood spent on payroll or contracts or supplies was spent at least one other time by the recipients.
“When you cut off the gold mine, you end up with a ghost town,” he said.
As for Fleetwood’s legacy in Riverside, its current CEO likes to think it was just like any other company that called the city home.
“We were just another significant employer,” said CEO Elden Smith, who started in 1968 as a trainee and eventually led Fleetwood’s RV division before retiring. The board of directors tapped him to return in 2005.
It employed 21,000 people nationwide at one time, with a few thousand workers at the company’s Riverside headquarters and several Inland plants. When it filed for bankruptcy in March, it had 609 Inland workers.
Smith experienced the industry’s wild growth in the 1970s and ’80s, but also the severe challenges from the oil embargoes of that era that almost brought the RV business to a halt.
“It was a real roller coaster ride,” Smith said recently.
A new Fleetwood RV has emerged in Decatur, Ind., after a New York equity firm bought it in a bankruptcy bid. The manufactured housing division was sold to Phoenix-based Cavco Industries. Those companies have a stake in two Riverside factories; whether they will ever use them is unclear.
Now, dealers will get a Fleetwood that’s on solid financial footing again, “which they haven’t had for quite some time,” Smith said.
Mike Thompson’s RV has been one of Fleetwood’s largest dealers, with four Southern California locations, including one in Colton.
Frank DeGelas, the dealerships’ owner, said he’s glad a new Fleetwood emerged, even though it’s based several states away instead of just around the corner.
“If that’s what it requires for them to be successful, that’s a pill I have to swallow,” he said.
DeGelas has two photos hanging in his office — one of his wife and the other a black-and-white picture of John Crean handing him the keys to the very first Bounder that rolled off Fleetwood’s Riverside assembly line.
The Bounder became one of Fleetwood’s most popular RV models.
“I knew it was something special, but it was stone ugly,” DeGelas said of the Bounder.
“Fleetwood was a huge part of our success in our earlier years,” he said. “A lot of what we did was ride their coattails.”
Suppliers moved into the neighborhood to surround the RV maker in its heyday, and with more suppliers, other RV companies arrived to wrestle market-share from the industry’s giant.
“It was Fleetwood and the rest of us,” said Tom Powell, founder of Thor California and now owner of Pacific Coachworks in Riverside.
There had been Fleetwood — “they were the 500-pound ape all over the country,” Powell said — and Thor California, Weekend Warrior, National RV, Forest River Inc.and Cobra.
All of those manufacturers, among others, have since been sold, moved or gone out business.
For the RV makers who remain — Powell included — the cost of supplies has gone up as more vendors have been driven out of business.
When Smith came out of retirement, the company already was steeped in debt amassed in the late 1990s. Executives had spent hundreds of millions buying up shops to sell its manufactured homes directly to the public to fend off competitors.
As soon as he returned, Smith started consolidating factories and selling off the housing retail outlets that proved unprofitable, spending the next few years whittling Fleetwood’s losses.
But the price of fuel was rising, and by the time it stabilized, global financial unrest took hold last year when Wall Street powerhouse Lehman Brothers failed. The ensuing credit crunch and banks’ reluctance to lend made it difficult for consumers to buy RVs, and for dealers to stock their showrooms with new models.
Fleetwood got the cash it needed to survive the winter, but the stock started to free-fall, losing its place on the New York Stock Exchange.
“We were doing all the right things, but we were caught in that once-in-a-lifetime recession,” he said.