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Lane County May Turn to Green Manufacturing

August 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The pending loss of 450 jobs at Monaco RV’s plant in Coburg, Ore., strikes yet another blow to Lane County’s frail RV manufacturing industry.

But, according to a report in the Register Guard, Eugene, several people in the industry predict that, as bad as things look now, local RV manufacturing will re-emerge when the national economy recovers.

It will look different, however, from the glory years before the recession when scores of large, gleaming luxury motor coaches came off the assembly lines at Monaco Coach and Marathon Coach in Coburg and at Country Coach in Junction City.

Industry insiders say the area probably will never churn out the volume of high-end, luxury motor coaches it once did. Instead, RVs will be smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic and more fuel efficient, and Lane County could create a new niche as an eco-friendly innovator, they say.

“I don’t expect to see the type of numbers of manufacturing in the high-end that there was in the past; I don’t expect to see that ever return,” said Ron Lee, who early this year resurrected Country Coach — a company founded in 1973 by his brother, Bob Lee — although in a much smaller version.

While running a 22-employee parts, service and consignment sales operation in Junction City, Lee also is trying to raise money to begin limited manufacturing of a 40-foot Country Coach model priced at $550,000 to $700,000. Once the factory has been producing for three years, Lee said, he plans to unveil a diesel/electric hybrid coach.

“That’s a direction we have to go,” Lee said. “Green manufacturing processes and also more fuel-efficient vehicles — that’s something we have to do.”

Others in the industry say developing greener RVs is a natural fit for Lane County.

“We are so big on solar and alternative energy,” said Shannon Nill, general manager of Guaranty RV in Junction City. “I do think Oregon is a hotbed of innovations of this nature, and there’s no reason it can’t apply to RVs — it already is.”

It is still possible today for entrepreneurs to follow in the footsteps of RV pioneers, such as Bob Lee, to bring new products to market, industry insiders said.

“It’s a very entrepreneurial industry — it has been since the ’20s,” said Al Hesselbart, historian for the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind.

Indiana produces about 80 percent of the RVs made in the United States today, according to the RV Industry Association.

In Indiana, several start-up companies, including Evergreen RV and Earthbound RV, have emerged from the ashes of the recession and been quite successful, Hesselbart said. Both are “super-green, eco-friendly oriented companies,” he said.

Nill said the hot area for growth in this economy is trailers, smaller motorhomes and pre-owned motorhomes, all of which are cheaper than the large, luxury RVs.

If demand for high-end coaches bounces back, Lane County could meet that demand because the know-how is still here, said Frank Magdlen, a former RV industry analyst. He said he now works in investment banking for reasons unrelated to the demise of Oregon’s RV industry.

“Currently I don’t think there’s very many barriers to entry if you’re going to supply a niche segment,” he said.

“One thing the major manufacturers would tell you is it doesn’t take a lot of capital, so the guy with a barn or excess space can get in the business,” Magdlen said.

“It’s not robotics that puts the stuff together like an automobile, so it remains a labor-intensive business as opposed to capital-intensive,” he said.

 

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