Mahlon Miller cares about selling recreational vehicles very much. Always has.
The Florida Times Union reported that Miller, a humble innovator, who many have called the “last icon” of the recreational vehicle industry, has sold and designed many, many RVs during his 47-year career. And the company he founded, Newmar Corp. based in Napanee, Ind., almost certainly will sell many, many more.
But Miller said Newmar’s success and his role as an industry innovator goes beyond sales. That’s because Miller said, when he thinks of RVs, he thinks of how people live – not just vehicles. Miller said it is that difference that has defined Newmar, and where the key to its success can be found.
The innovations? The trend-setting?
All that’s important, but it starts with something more personal.
“It’s a lifestyle – that’s always the belief we’ve had,” Miller said, during a recenty visit to Dick Gore’s RV World in Jacksonville, Fla. “We wanted to sell vehicles. But it was more than that.”
Sitting in a state-of-the-art 2012 Newmar King Aire luxury motor coach, Miller spoke at length about his career and his approach. He discussed his signature innovation – the patented “Power Slide-Out” – as well as a few of the most recent innovations, including a full-wall slide table, the optional “Roll-Out Depth Dynamic,” and Comfort Drive steering.
“Comfort Drive isn’t new, but no one in the industry has it yet,” Miller’s son, Newmar President Matthew Miller, said. “That’s what makes it special.”
It’s such innovations that have made Miller a critical figure in the industry, and that made his first visit to Dick Gore’s RV World a special moment, Gore said.
“He’s the last of the real icons of the industry,” Gore said. “The rest of them are gone or sold out, but really, he revolutionized the whole doggone industry. He’s the last guy in this industry who builds residential construction. No one else builds like he does.
“There’s no one else like it in the RV industry. He’s the last of his kind.”
Called the “Father of Power Slide-Outs,” Miller was inducted in 1998 into the RV/MH Heritage Foundation Hall of Fame.
Miller, who began in the RV business in 1964 working in a cabinet shop, did so with the goal of “moving back to farming.” He moved quickly into research and development, which he said he loved so much farming soon wasn’t a goal anymore.
The development of the slideout in the early 1990s remains a watershed moment in the industry, one Miller recalled during the stop.
“When I told our engineers I wanted to have a slideout in a motorhome, they said, ‘You can’t do that,'” Miller said. “I said, ‘Why not?’ They had all kinds of reasons, so I said, ‘Look. We already have them in fifth-wheels. Have them hook up our pickup truck in a fifth-wheel and we’re going to get in that pickup where the slideout is and I want the driver to find the roughest road he can find.’
“We were in the back of that fifth-wheel and it didn’t move,” Miller said. “The engineer looked at me and said, ‘Maybe we can put it in a fifth-wheel.'”
Miller said Newmar had the slideout market basically to itself for three years. The first year, it was met with skepticism. By the third year, it had become a trend.
Miller also designed the concept of central air in an RV ceiling. Most recently, Newmar has designed the Roll-Out Depth Dynamic, a long table that slides in and out of the vehicle’s side for storing. It also has implemented comfort-drive steering, an electric motor on the steering column controlled by a computer.
“You can be driving down the road with a finger, whereas before you were driving with both hands and arms,” Matthew Miller said. “The computer compensates for crown in the road or wind. You’re just driving as if you’re on a perfectly safe road with no wind.”
Gore said, as has been the case with many of Miller’s innovations, the industry likely will incorporate the most recent ideas into their own vehicles – albeit with lesser results.
“People have followed him [Miller], but nothing compares with his systems,” Gore said.
Miller, who still works daily at Newmar’s Nappannee offices, said while he has helped the company remain at the forefront of the industry, he doesn’t have a grand vision of its future.
“I wish I knew,” he said, laughing. “I remember back in the late 1970s, we came out with some beautiful, neat things, and I thought, ‘What are we going to do for next year? Is this it?’ By the time next year rolled around, we had a lot of stuff, so I don’t know.”
Whatever the changes, each Miller said one thing will remain true – that Newmar will be as much about the feeling a person gets walking through a state-of-the-art RV as it will be about selling vehicles.
“It catches peoples’ eyes,” Miller said of a well-designed RV. “We try to stay on the cutting edge of things going on the industry.”
It’s an approach Gore said he has seen move on to the younger Miller. Because that’s true, Gore said Newmar’s place as a industry innovator may remain secure.
“He’s already involved in it – he’s really involved in it,” Gore said of Matthew Miller, who said the approach of his father won’t soon be lost within Newmar.
“This industry is a lifestyle,” Matthew Miller said. “We’re not just selling a vehicle. We’re selling a lifestyle. People who don’t RV or who aren’t familiar with the industry don’t understand – that it’s not about big gas-guzzling cars. It’s a house on wheels and a lifestyle.”