Riverside, Calif.-based towable builder Pacific Coachworks Inc. reported initial sales of its recently introduced Panther series of premium travel trailers.
According to a press release, Baird Family RV in Irvine, Calif., and Tip’s RV in Layton, Utah, have retailed their first Panther trailers “despite just receiving them at their respective dealerships.”
“The positive response for Pacific Coachworks’ all-new products from dealers as well as retail consumers have been very exciting,” said Jeff Daily, general manager for Pacific Coachworks. “However, we know that we must remain open to suggestion as we rely heavily upon the dealers and their customers for feedback or suggestions as to how we may continually improve as a company.
“With the help of the dealer network we expect tremendous growth for Pacific Coachworks as we continue our quest to becoming the fastest growing RV manufacturer in the Southwest.”
Panther sales representatives Bobby Combs and Ernie Kish are working the territory and, according to the company, “are actively seeking the proper Panther representation in each market while responding to the several inquires that they have received regarding the new products.”
Pacific Coachworks Inc. has begun shipping its initial offering of the all-new Panther Xltralite, Widelite and Elite series trailers, according to a press release.
Brett Bashaw, CEO and president of the Riverside, Calif.-based company, said that the Panther “premier series trailers” will be introduced in August of this year with fifth-wheels scheduled for release in early fall.
The Panther product lineup will consist of three tiers of products designed to “meet the needs for every RV consumer,” said General Manager Jeff Daily. The line will include the Panther Xltralite, Widelite and Elite series trailers, each offering its own “exclusive set of standard and optional items based solely on consumer demand.”
Daily added that the initial response for Pacific Coachworks Panther products has been both “exciting and overwhelming.”
“Our order intake for the past six weeks has caused us to double our daily production rate and we’re just getting started,” he said.
Next up for Pacific Coachworks will be the Panther Powerlite toy hauler line with several innovative features designed to meet the needs of the most demanding off-road enthusiast.
The company said that Panther sales representatives Bobby Combs and Ernie Kish are actively seeking the proper Panther representation in each market while responding to the several inquires that they have received regarding the new products.
Riverside, Calif.-based Pacific Coachworks Inc. announced today (Oct. 11) it has sold a major interest in the company. The significant capital infusion will allow the company to establish a new operating line to fund current and future products, according to a release.
Founded in July 2006 by Tom Powell and Dane Found, the mid-market towable manufacturer is best known for its line of Tango travel trailers, fifth-wheels and Outdoor Kitchen Slideout models.
“We are pleased we can now say with certainty that we will be able to continue to provide the quality RV products and service our dealers and customers have come to expect,” Found said.
The company currently builds three to four units daily, a number that Powell anticipates will more than double by spring 2011.
“Pacific Coachworks intends to use its stronger post-merger balance sheet, combined with access to new capital resources, to expand its business through growth and/or acquisition,” Powell said, noting that the company plans to roughly double employment from recent levels. Pacific Coachworks expects to reach 150 employees by the second quarter of 2011, mostly by rehiring staff impacted by the slowdown.
“We want to thank our dealers, suppliers and customers for their continued support throughout the difficult market these past two years,” he added.
Pacific Coachworks also is participating in a number of upcoming RV shows and expects to introduce an expansion of their Tango, Twist and Turbo product offerings later this year, including new advancements currently in development.
A Canadian RV dealer who opened American All-Star RV in late 2009 off Highway 91 in Riverside, Calif., his first U.S. dealership, has closed the store less than a year later, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported.
Bruce Urban, owner and president of Western RV Country Group of Companies in Alberta and American All-Star RV, said in late October 2009 that he chose Riverside to be close to manufacturer Pacific Coachworks, whose travel trailers were some of his biggest sellers in Canada.
The dealership at 7207 Indiana Ave., which featured a patriotic color scheme and tall statues of athletes visible from the highway, closed in July.
Urban did not return calls seeking comment.
The dealership hadn’t sold any new travel trailers in 2009 and sold just nine in the first five months of 2010, according to vehicle registration information from Statistical Surveys Inc. (SSI) based in Michigan.
The company’s statistics don’t account for used RV or travel trailer sales, which can account for two-thirds of all dealership sales on average, according to SSI.
In six Southern California counties — Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Orange County, Inyo and Ventura — there were 2,292 sales of new RVs between January and May. There were 2,304 vehicles sold during the same five months in 2009. Nationally, sales were up 4% through May, according to the company.
Now that the dealership has closed, trailers built by Pacific Coachworks are no longer carried at any dealerships in Riverside, San Bernardino or Orange counties.
Dane Found, president of Pacific Coachworks, said the company is working on securing a new dealership locally.
When Gary and Dottie Williams ordered their MVP RV Inc. trailer in April 2009, complete with nameplates attached to the bunk beds for their grandsons, they expected to get it a month later.
They planned a cross-country road trip, but stayed in hotels instead.
When they took a vacation to the lake, they rented a trailer.
In between April 2009 and April 2010, the Moreno Valley company that was building their trailer shut down its factory like several other RV makers had done, according to The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.
While the company looked for investors and tried diversifying its business by going into the electric vehicle industry, salespeople at Giant RV showed Gary Williams other trailers. He said he couldn’t find anything comparable.
He didn’t need to. Gary and Dottie Williams picked up their finished MVP RV trailer at the Giant RV dealership in Montclair this month.
MVP RV, the Moreno Valley maker of their trailer, didn’t get the funds they needed to build electric vehicles but they found an overseas investor willing to back their RV factory.
“It’s such a great feeling to come back,” said Brad Williams recently in his Moreno Valley office. “We survived.”
Manufacturers and RV dealers are beginning to climb out of the wreckage wrought by the recession much like the industry has done early on during past business cycles when the worst appears at an end.
Would-be campers are hardly stampeding to RV dealers to purchase high-end Class A diesel motorhomes, Class C RVs or even pop-up tent trailers but they are looking, and some are even buying.
“We’re first to get hurt, and the first to recover,” said Tom Powell, CEO of Riverside-based travel trailer maker Pacific Coachworks.
In 1979, preceding the 1980 recession that lasted from January to July, RV shipments fell a staggering 48.9% to 199,200 vehicles sent to dealers.
Wholesale shipments fell another 46.2% in 1980 to 107,200 RVs. By 1981, the number picked up 24.6% to 133,600 units. Despite a recession that stretched from July 1981 into November 1982, shipments increased another 5.2% to 140,600.
With the exception of a dip in shipments in 1985, RV production increased nearly eight straight years until 1989. The recession started July 1990 lasting until March 1991. RV shipments picked up 24.6% by 1992.
With the exception of another dip in 1995, RV production grew again year over year for nearly eight straight years until 2000 when it dropped 6.6%. A recession began in March 2001, ending November. That year RV shipments dropped another 14.4%. But by 2002, it was up 21.1%
The most recent recession started December 2007.
Two popular Inland recreational vehicle makers, Weekend Warrior Inc. and National RV Inc., bowed out early on before the economy started to exhibit true signs of stress.
Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., a longtime RV industry icon based in Riverside since 1963, had managed to navigate recessions before usually emerging a stronger company after other competitors blew a tire. This time though, saddled with too much debt, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2009 selling off the motorhome division to an equity group out of New York that moved all of the company’s operations to Indiana.
Before, Southern California dealers could pick up the RVs they ordered in Riverside. Now some say they pay extra for shipping.
Elsewhere, Monaco Coach Corp. filed for bankruptcy in March 2009. Country Coach Holding Inc. was liquidated late last year.
In 2007, RV makers shipped 9.5% fewer vehicles. The number dropped another 32.9% in 2008, and continued to cascade another 30.1% in 2009 until there were just 165,000 shipped to dealers, the lowest level since 1991.
First to recover
The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) is expecting shipments to jump 30% this year to 215,900 vehicles.
“When things go down, the RV industry takes it in the gut,” said Joe Laing, director of marketing for El Monte RV which rents ands sells trailers. But it also seems to be one of the first to recover, he said.
Laing said El Monte RV staff noticed year-over-year sales growth since January.
“We don’t know that it means anything,” he said, hesitant to herald economic recovery based on their business. “We’re pretty optimistic that it looks like we’ve come through the worst of it.”
Frank DeGelas, owner of Mike Thompson’s RV Super Stores including locations in Colton and Cathedral City, said he dumped older inventory at a loss to clear out his dealerships for new models being released by the manufacturers who remained.
Usually the recovery after a recession is strong and fast. This one, though, is taking its time.
He sold 11 Coleman folding camping trailers in three weeks, a sign that family buyers are looking for an affordable alternative, as well as Class B motorhomes and the larger Class A diesel RVs.
“I think I’ve been helped by my competitors failing,” he said. The pie may not be any bigger, he said of the RV selling market, but he gets a bigger slice now, he said.
DeGelas credits manufacturers who spent their downtime during the downturn designing new features.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, over 30 years, and I have never seen the amount of innovation,” he said of new models from manufacturers like Fleetwood RV Inc., now under new ownership. The Encounter, Fleetwood’s latest model, features a bunk bed that converts into a dinette.
“It’s almost like a ‘Transformer’ motorhome,” he said.
Pacific Coachworks Inc., which survived the lean times after having shut down production in the first half of 2009, developed a trailer with a slide-out outdoor kitchen and in another trailer, a slide-out queen bed.
“When things are going extraordinarily well, there’s not as much impetus to be innovative,” said Tom Powell, CEO of Pacific Coachworks.
The company has 100 employees, about half of the staff compared to its height in 2007.
Powell described new orders as solid, “but it’s not sensational” especially compared to stratospherically successful years in 2005 and 2006.
Powell said he wished more Inland RV manufacturers had survived the recession, that way suppliers would take root in the area too. As companies closed, though, so did suppliers and the cost of doing business for those who remained rose.
His company and others are now building based on orders rather than making RVs with the hope someone will eventually order it.
“I think we all learned to be a little more cautious,” he said.
Pacific Coachworks’ recent launch of the industry’s only powered outdoor “KSO” (Kitchen Slide-Out) exceeded company expectations, according to a news release.
“Dealers saw a huge opportunity to purchase a unique product that is sure to draw lots of retail attention during their spring show season,” said Dane Found, president of the Riverside, Calif.-based manufacturer. The Kitchen Slide-Out option is available on eight Tango travel trailer models ranging from 26 feet to 3 feet. It will also be offered on 2560RBSS and 2790BHSS fifth-wheel models. The outdoor kitchen concept is becoming more and more popular with customers simply because it reinforces the consumer’s desire to spend time outdoors with family, Found said. Tango’s patent pending slideout design can be incorporated into many more floorplans and sizes than side-mount kitchens currently offered by other manufacturers.
In addition to Tango “KSO” models, Pacific Coachworks launched a new line of Turbo toy hauler travel trailers.
“The Turbo received a huge thumbs-up from dealers for its outstanding quality and creative design,” Found said. The The 285KS displayed at the National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky., featured a king-size bed slideout extending 49 inches on the roadside of the unit. The huge front bedroom featured exceptional change room space and storage.
Pacific Coachworks CEO Tom Powell said that “with the departure of several West Coast toy hauler manufacturers, we saw a void in the segment for a quality-built toy hauler.”
The aluminum-framed fiberglass laminated toy hauler is offered in four floorplans ranging from 24 feet to 34 feet. All Turbos feature particleboard free construction, roomy solid surface edged kitchen counters and country maple finished pocket-screwed lumbercore cabinetry that extended to the ceiling for additional strength and storage. Popular options include LCD TVs in the bedroom and living room, an 1,100-watt Jensen stereo with subwoofer, power lift bed, 4kw Onan generator with fuel pump station, power tongue jack and 16-inch aluminum wheels with Goodyear tires.
Undeterred by a recession that has battered the RV industry and its presence in the Southern California’s Inland region, a multimillion-dollar Canadian RV dealer is opening its first U.S. dealership in Riverside to be closer to a travel trailer manufacturer that the owner considers his “hidden secret,” according to the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
The dealership, American All-Star RV at 7207 Indiana Ave. off Highway 91 near Madison Street, will soon be filled with Riverside-based Pacific Coachworks’ line of Tango travel trailers, said Bruce Urban, owner and president of Western RV Country group of companies in Alberta.
Pacific Coachworks trailers, built at a factory in Riverside, have been one of Urban’s biggest sellers in Canada, he said, citing the company’s attention to detail and use of plywood inside the trailers instead of particle board.
And if the trailers can stand up to the Canadian wilderness, “they’ll definitely stand up in California,” Urban said.
When Dane Found and Tom Powell — founders of Thor California in Moreno Valley — started Pacific Coachworks in 2006, Urban was one of their first customers, and he remains the company’s largest dealer “by a long shot,” Found said.
At Thor, Found and Powell began selling Urban their recreational vehicles in 1996.
Urban may not be selling arcade games, but he has them in his dealerships anyway to entertain the children of would-be trailer buyers who may visit the red, white and blue sports-themed dealership once it’s finished. That’s why there’s sometimes a monster truck sitting outside, and perhaps a mini-golf course too.
“Atmosphere can sell,” he said.
For the adults, he plans weekly tours to see Pacific Coachworks trailers being made inside the Riverside factory nearby.
“There aren’t many dealers who have their manufacturing facility 15 minutes away,” Urban said. “When I knew we’d be that close and be able to give weekly tours, I thought this would really, really help people see what they’re buying.”
Urban got his start selling used cars in his mom’s driveway before expanding his dealership to a one-acre gravel lot in 1992, he said.
Today, he has six storefronts and sales of $130 million, he said. The Riverside store will be his seventh.
He thought about opening a dealership in the United States about a year ago, but “the market really cratered down there,” he said.
But he didn’t want to wait for another dealership to seize the chance to sell Pacific Coachworks trailers to the degree he wants to in Southern California.
“I wanted to have that product in that market,” he said. “History shows it’s a great RV market.”
The site of his new Riverside dealership has an RV past, having been home to Country Time R.V. Center and later Richardson’s RV, which has a few Inland locations.
An RV dealer industry group points to Census data that there were 3,129 RV sales locations nationwide in 2007, and about 160 have closed since January.
Dan Merkowsky, executive vice president of the RV Dealers Association of Alberta, called Urban, a member of the group, one of the smartest marketers he knows.
The number of RVs sold in Canada had fallen by about 50% to 50,000 vehicles this year because of the global recession, he said.
Urban said his sales have suffered a 15% decline this year.
He said he’s confident, however, that the travel trailer market will continue to fare better than sales of other RVs, such as Class A motorhomes, since they generally don’t cost as much.
“It’s not cool for grandpa to show up in a $200,000 motorhome when other people are struggling (financially),” he said. “The days of bigger-are-better is behind us.”
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.
After facing an uncertain financial future, Riverside, Calif.-based Pacific Coachworks, a travel trailer manufacturer founded by two former executives of Thor California in July 2006, is returning to full production, according to the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
The company, which builds the Tango and Tango Twist brands of travel trailers and fifth-wheels that can be towed, laid off most of its 150 employees in December. Executives plan to rehire 85 workers immediately. Tom Powell, founder and CEO, said he’s confident the travel trailer market will see a rebound in the fourth quarter, but “we’re still going to remain staffed as though it doesn’t,” he said.
He expects to have his full staff back by spring to work at the company’s 66,000-square-foot factory, he said.
The nearly 60 dealers in the Western United States and Canada that the company still sells its recreation vehicles to have reported a pent-up demand for trailers, he said.
“The feeling now of most people is, ‘OK, I’ve been through the worst recession since the Great Depression and I still have my job, my camper is still old and needs to be replaced,”‘ said Powell, adding that lending for trailer purchases has loosened.
At its height, the company employed 187 workers who were building 10 to 12 trailers a day. Now the company can manage to make a profit by building just four to five trailers a day, he said.
Powell, a 32-year RV industry veteran, said he had hoped to restart production by February or March but, despite having orders, he didn’t have the capital.
His company’s fate may have been much different had he not made a private stock offering that closed on June 30 and gave him the funding necessary to stay open.
Powell wouldn’t say how much was raised.
“There are a lot of people who are optimistic about 2010,” said Jeff Kurowski, director of industrial relations for the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA). But they’re not unrealistic, he said.
Industry forecasts indicate that the next year will see an increase in shipments but won’t exceed the volume of shipments in 2005 and 2006. Financing remains a challenge both for dealers seeking loans to buy new models to sell and for customers who have to put more money down, sometimes 20%, on trailers and motorhomes than they did prior, he said.
Kurowski said dealers are saying they’re running low on inventory and would like to order more if they can get loans.
There were 128,100 conventional travel trailers shipped in 2008 and another 57,000 fifth-wheel trailers, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA). The trailers accounted for 78% of the total recreational vehicle market in 2008.
Only 3.7% of all conventional travel trailers and about 4% of fifth-wheel trailers were built in California, according to the group.
Powell said 24 of his competitors have left the industry in the past two years — including Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. in Riverside, which filed for bankruptcy March 10 and sold its trailer division.
“There are dealers scrambling to replace Fleetwood products and Weekend Warrior products and 22 others,” he said.