RoamingTimes.com recently commented on its annual “Green RV of the Year Award” winners and what has happened to them.
Earthbound RV was named the winner in 2010 and has now gone from small to having “more than 40 dealers” and David B. Hoefer, Earthbound’s director, says that the RoamingTimes.com award “played a major part in the success.” They added four new dealers to their roster last week and have added distribution channels for Germany and Australia as well.
Livin’ Lite Recreational Vehicles LLC was given the first award in 2008 (RoamingTimes.com found no suitable candidate in 2009). Since then, Livin Lite has gone from being very small to being recently named one of INC. magazine’s 500 fastest growing U.S. companies. INC. identified Livin Lite’s three-year growth figure as 611% and cited “Roaming Times’ Green RV of the Year” award.
Livin Lite went on to manufacture other RV products that RoamingTimes.com helped promote. For example, Scott Tuttle, president, cited the company’s CampLite lightweight trailer. Said Tuttle, “I received a great e-mail today — typical of what I’ve been getting from a lot of potential customers. It said, ‘We just found you on RoamingTimes.com, and discovered that we can pull your trailer with our new Jeep — the only trailer that we found that we can pull with our new Jeep!'” Since then, Livin Lite has produced a new trailer for Jeep.
Meanwhile, RoamingTimes.com is beginning the selection process for 2011 RoamingTimes.com Green RV of the Year honoree and is looking for suggestions from RVers, wannabe RVers, RV manufacturers and dealers as well as from the media. Send nominees to greenRV@RoamingTimes.com.
For 20 months now, Ed Neufeldt has kept the photograph in his wallet as a reminder of a promise made but not yet kept.
The small, scuffed print shows Neufeldt standing next to Barack Obama on Feb. 9, 2009, the day the U.S. president came to this recession-battered slice of the American heartland and assured its anxious residents the economy was soon going to improve, PrimeMedia News reported.
“One of the first things he said to me was, `I’m going to get you back to work,'” recalls Neufeldt, a 64-year-old father of seven. “But I really don’t think he helped me get back to work at all.”
Neufeldt makes this statement more out of disappointment than anger.
Like many other longtime residents in this county of 200,000, located about two hours east of Chicago, Neufeldt had been counting on Obama’s $787-billion stimulus bill to jolt the U.S. economy into recovery.
Known as the “RV Capital of the World,” Elkhart became a symbol of the Great Recession when its signature industry was slammed by a brutal combination of economic factors in 2008 – $4-a-gallon gasoline that sapped demand for gas-guzzling motorhomes, a consumer-credit squeeze and a collapse in Americans’ discretionary income.
The local unemployment rate shot to 18.9% in early 2009 from under 5% in 2007, turning Elkhart from one of the most prosperous industrial areas in the country to one of its most desperate.
“It was dire,” says Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County.
Neufeldt was among the recession’s earliest victims, laid off after 32 years working on the assembly line at Monaco Coach Corp., a maker of high-end recreational vehicles.
He received six weeks in severance pay and then turned to unemployment benefits to support his family.
In all, 1,400 workers lost their job at Monaco – one of several companies to close its doors or slash workforces.
The economic carnage in Elkhart caught Obama’s attention even before he was president. He visited the county twice as a candidate while courting voters in Indiana, a traditionally conservative state that he carried in the 2008 election.
Obama has visited twice more since entering the Oval Office, first to plead for the stimulus shortly after taking office and then again in August 2009 to announce a $39-million grant for the production of electric delivery trucks in the county.
But almost two years after passage of the stimulus, the economic recovery remains uneven in Elkhart — with signs of hope tempered by ongoing struggle.
The county’s jobless rate has fallen amid a welcome upswing in the RV industry and the arrival of some “green” manufacturing jobs. Even with the modest surge in economic activity, unemployment stood at 13.4% in August.
“Consumption has been pretty weak coming out of this recession. Consumers and households have decided to hunker down, and I think they will remain hunkered down for a while,” says Bill Witte, an associate professor in economics at Indiana University Bloomington.
“That will have an impact on discretionary expenditures, which include things like great big RVs.”
In Nappanee, a town of 6,700 in southern Elkhart County, street signs advertise a food drive to aid residents struggling to make ends meet.
“I don’t think the recession is anywhere near being over,” says Larry Thompson, Nappanee’s Republican mayor.
“Even those who got their jobs back, they might be getting those jobs back at $10 less an hour than what they were making, and maybe their spouse, husband or wife didn’t get their jobs back at all,” says Thompson.
Debate over whether the stimulus worked — or is working fast enough — has dominated the political conversation here ahead of next month’s congressional elections.
Just two years after Obama won Indiana, Democrats are at risk on Nov. 2 of losing the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Evan Bayh.
According to a September poll by Rasmussen Reports, Republican Senate candidate Dan Coats is leading Democrat Brad Ellsworth by 16 points. In Indiana’s second congressional race — which includes part of Elkhart County — incumbent Democrat U.S. Joe Donnelly is in a close race against Jackie Walorski, a Tea Party favorite one local resident described as “Sarah Palin on steroids.”
“The stimulus is a hard sell to the guy that is unemployed,” acknowledges Democrat Dick Moore, mayor of the city of Elkhart.
“As people go back to work across the country, the first thing they are going to provide for is their needs. What we make here in Elkhart, Indiana, can be considered a want, not necessarily what you need. So we will lag a little bit.”
Still, Moore says the stimulus has provided a vital boost – launching infrastructure projects that are rejuvenating the city’s streets, schools, airport and municipal buildings.
He also credits Obama for raising Elkhart’s national profile – saying it has paid off by driving interest among entrepreneurs looking for a place to locate new businesses.
On a recent morning, the local newspaper reported a start-up recreational vehicle manufacturer was bringing 40 new jobs to Elkhart after receiving tax breaks from the local government.
Think, a Norwegian electric carmaker, has announced plans to begin North American production in 2011 in Elkhart, promising another 415 local jobs.
“We have been through a lot of these cyclical times with the RV industry. We have always survived,” says Moore.
Indeed, there have been other success stories.
Prime Time Manufacturing, a start-up company backed by investor Warren Buffett, has 125 employees and is producing three lines of recreational vehicles in facilities left vacant at the height of the recession.
Challenger Door, which supplies companies making RVs and transit buses, rose from the ashes of another failed firm. It has hired 120 workers in Nappanee.
“Three-quarters of the workers were actually from the old plant and out of work,” says Merlin Yoder, Challenger’s president.
Some local officials say new businesses are thriving despite the stimulus, not because of it. Other companies that sought stimulus funds are still waiting for the money to be released, says Heiden-Guss.
“This county, in particular, has gone around government in order to get things done. They are entrepreneurs,” she says.
Among some local businesspeople, there is grumbling about the administration’s decision to give $39 million in stimulus to Navistar, a large truck manufacturer that acquired Monaco Coach, the failed RV maker.
After Obama announced the money would be used for state-of-the-art “Made in America” electric trucks, it emerged that the first vehicles were largely assembled at a company factory in Coventry, England.
“It was a scam,” says Wilhelm Cashen, vice president of Livin’ Lite Recreational Vehicles LLC, a small local company that designs light camper trailers for Jeep.
“The government gave (Navistar) $40 million. They went to Europe and built the truck. They didn’t do anything here.”
Among critics of the stimulus, Neufeldt may be the most surprising. He gained national prominence after being asked to introduce Obama during his first presidential visit to Elkhart.
“I came away feeling he was really going to turn this country around,” Neufeldt says. He felt that way until about three months ago.
Still unable to find full-time work in the RV industry, Neufeldt now juggles three part-time jobs in the town of Wakarusa. He delivers bread to local stores, cleans the office at a local medical clinic and is helping Cashen with the launch of the company making Jeep trailers.
Neufeldt makes enough money to afford the $400-a-month premium to provide health insurance to his wife and two children who remain at home. But he can’t afford the extra $500 a month it would cost to obtain coverage for himself.
“It took me a year to get back to work. I didn’t get back in the RV industry. My first job, delivering bread, had nothing to do with the stimulus at all,” Neufeldt says, who recently attended a Tea Party rally headlined by anti-Obama broadcaster Glenn Beck.
“I think I just did it on my own.”
Just as Livin’ Lite Recreational Vehicles LLC moves into an 18,000-square-foot addition to its factory in Wakarusa, Ind., the small northern Indiana RV manufacturer has been identified as one of the 500 fastest growing companies in the U.S. in the September issue of Inc. magazine.
Livin’ Lite builds modern-looking lightweight, all-aluminum folding camping trailers, travel trailers, truck campers and utility trailers.
”I think it’s pretty cool for a little company like us in Wakarusa, Ind., to be among the fastest growing companies in the U.S.,” said Livin’ Lite President Scott Tuttle. ”Next year, our growth will be even more.”
Inc. reported that Livin’ Lite’s revenue growth between 2006 and 2009 was 611% — from $418,000 to $3 million — ranking the company 491st in the magazine’s annual survey. Among manufacturers of consumer products and services, Inc. ranked Livin’ Lite the 30th fastest growing company.
Livin’ Lite’s private-label Jeep folding camping trailer, which became available Aug. 1 through Chrysler LLC’s Mopar parts subsidiary, also was featured on the cover in the October issue of Four Wheel magazine for a story on off-road trailers.
The Jeep popup camper, along with Livin’ Lite’s Quicksilver popup, will be built in the new plant expansion where Livin’ Lite will begin production next week.
With the addition of the new square footage, Livin’ Lite will have 53,000 square feet under roof, and plans to increase the number of its employees by 50 over the next year for a total of more than 80.
A private-label, all-aluminum Jeep folding camping trailer built by Livin’ Lite Recreational Vehicles LLC debuts today (March 31) at the 2010 Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah.
The diminutive 9-foot Jeep trailer, weighing about 1,000 pounds, is equipped with Jeep tires and rims, taillights, fenders, bumpers and Jeep logos and is fashioned after Livin’ Lite’s Quicksilver 6.0 pop-up trailer.
”This opens a whole new market for us to build off-road campers. There is a lot of interest,” said Scott Tuttle, president of the Wakarusa, Ind., RV manufacturer.
Tens of thousands of off-road aficionados are attending the Jeep Safari in the Utah desert that began March 27 and runs through Easter Sunday. The Chrysler LLC’s Jeep division is showcasing new products and aftermarket accessories during the annual event — Tuttle’s new camper among them.
Two versions of the new Jeep trailer — one for off-road use, the other for more traditional camping — include a bed and convertible sofa to sleep four people, plus a storage cabinet and removable dinette table.
An off-road package features an enclosed underbelly with a steel skid plate, a pintle hitch that rotates 360 degrees and a lift package that allows for 37-inch tires.
Full production is to begin in May. ”If they are here, Jeep dealers will be able to place orders,” Tuttle told RVBUSINESS.com while attending the event.
The Jeep trailer has been in development since the first of the year after a Chrysler executive saw a Livin’ Lite Quicksilver folding camping trailer in Australia where they’ve been sold for three years.
”There was a lot of prototyping with Jeep parts,” said Tuttle, adding that Livin’ Lite has added a special production line to accommodate the Jeep trailer. ”They wanted as much OEM equipment on it as possible.”
Livin’ Lite will begin production of a Quicksilver version of the Jeep trailer — without Jeep’s proprietary equipment — by early summer. ”This will be the first of some off-road vehicles that we will build to get more people camping,” Tuttle said. “That is what’s exciting for us.”
The standard Jeep trailer is expected to sell for $6,500 to $7,500 while the off-road edition will retail for $8,900 to $9,900, Tuttle said.
Livin’ Lite Recreational Vehicles LLC, Wakarusa, Ind., has introduced the lightweight aluminum-and-composite Camplite travel trailer, the company’s first traditional towable. Still, Livin’ Lite doesn’t do much in a traditional way. ”There is not a splinter of wood in this travel trailer. It is 99% recyclable,” said Livin’ Lite President Scott Tuttle, whose firm already manufactures the Quicksilver all-aluminum folding camping trailer and and cargo-style VRV utility trailer. The entry-level Camplite, with a base MSRP of $12,900, is available in three 10- to 15-foot floorplans, the longest featuring a combination wet bath and shower. All are equipped with cassette toilets and painted with automotive finishes. The 12-foot bunkbed floorplan — dry weight of 1,500 pounds — debuted this week at the 41st Annual Pennsylvania RV and Camping Show. ”The Camplite sticks with our concept of back-to-the basics,” Tuttle said.
Livin’ Lite Recreational Vehicles LLC this week is moving into a new 35,000-square-foot factory in Wakarusa, Ind., which replaces a temporary plant nearby that the company had been using to build RVs since an October fire destroyed Livin’ Lite’s production facility.
”It’s going to be like the Taj Mahal for us,” said Livin’ Lite President Scott Tuttle. ”We built it from scratch and we built it for our own needs, which is one blessing that came out of the fire.”
The new factory contains separate production lines for Livin’ Lite’s all-aluminum Quicksilver folding camping trailers and VRV cargo trailers and aluminum-and-composite Camp Lite travel trailers.
An Oct. 1 electrical fire in a Wakarusa factory that Livin’ Lite had moved into just that day destroyed most of the company’s production equipment.
”The timing for moving into the new factory couldn’t be better because (demand for) our product is virtually exploding,” Tuttle said. ”The biggest problem we have right now is there is more retail demand than we have dealers out there.
”In some cases, we are having to tell customers that the closest Livin’ Lite dealer is two states away. Colorado is my No. 1 state for leads and I don’t have a dealer there.”
Tuttle said that the RV industry has yet to come to terms with the emerging market for ‘automotive campers’ such as the lightweight Quicksilver that can be towed by small passenger cars and minivans. For instance, the recently introduced 6 1/2-foot long Quicksilver 6.0, one of six Quicksilver floorplans, has a 620-pound dry weight.
”This is whole new market and there are millions and millions of people out there who want to go camping but they are not going to buy a truck or SUV to tow an RV,” Tuttle said.
With traditional RV dealers reluctant to add Quicksilver to their inventories, Tuttle is turning to motorsports and cargo trailer dealers to stock his product.
Tuttle said that even during the RV industry’s downturn, demand for lightweight equipment for entry-level campers has been on the increase.
”We have been working six days a week this month in order to try to keep up with product demand,” said Tuttle, adding that June also produced Livin’ Lites’ two largest revenue weeks since the company’s founding in 2002.
Livin’ Lite Recreational Vehicles LLC, Wakarusa, Ind., has introduced the new Quicksilver 6.0, a longer and narrower version of its lightest all-aluminum folding camping trailer. ”It’s a little more aerodynamic and a little bigger than the 5.0, which was our smallest camper,” said Livin’ Lite President Scott Tuttle, whose company has recovered from an October fire that destroyed its factory. At 620 pounds dry weight, the Quicksilver 6.0 is 6 1/2 feet long, 5 feet wide and designed with a tear-drop style sloped front end. The 6.0, one of six Quicksilver floorplans that includes a truck camper and SURV, is designed for towing by small cars and three-wheeled motorcycles. A side door and a tent-like driver’s side foldout allow the Quicksilver 6.0 to remain attached to the tow vehicle in setup mode. MSRP: $5,190.