Being in the right place at the right time never has been his forte, small business owner Larry Troutt points out.
The Houston native bought into his father’s travel trailer business in the ’80s, just before the country plunged headfirst into a recession, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Having survived that, Troutt moved Topper’s Camping Center to Jersey Village in 1987, built up sales to almost $8 million annually, and employed up to 24 people. The business stayed there until last year, when Troutt elected to move it to the outskirts of Houston, just as the country slid into another recession.
“There’s one thing I learned from the first recession, and that’s you can’t really increase your revenue, so you have to control your expenses,” Troutt, 59, said. “Everything from inventory to staffing, you cut where you can.”
Another lesson learned, he said, was the need for strong nerves and a stubborn nature.
“You have to be willing to tough it out,” Troutt said. “So many people bail out when things go bad. But I’ve learned I can survive if I just stay with it long enough.”
Evidently, Troutt has done more than survive the current economic downturn.
According to Statistical Surveys Inc., a provider of market data to the marine, manufactured housing and recreational vehicle industries, Topper’s posted the highest volume in lightweight camper trailer sales in Texas last year.
Camper trailer sales are synonymous with popup campers, which expand to anywhere from 24 feet to 26 feet, Troutt said.
“Last year there were 995 camper trailer sales in Texas, and 96 of those were through Topper’s,” said Scott Stropkai, Statistical Survey’s national sales manager for RVs. “You’re talking about 75 dealerships throughout the state and Topper’s ranked No. 1.”
As a category, sales of towable RVs – which include travel trailers, truck campers and folding camping trailers – are down 45.6% as of February, the survey company found.
For Troutt, the challenge has been to attract buyers to a rural setting without much advertising. His biggest draw, comes from Internet shoppers and travelers on U.S. 290 going to Texas A & M University or the University of Texas.
“Families driving down the highway see our inventory and they’ll pull over,” Troutt said. “But what’s really helped us is the Internet. Nowadays, people shop on-line for the features they want, then come here to see it for themselves before they buy.”
Even though the company is now based in Waller, 41 miles northwest of downtown Houston, it managed to post better sales than its big-city rivals. According to Troutt, the key was to specialize in lightweight vehicles, which are less costly and more fuel-efficient than the grand RVs normally seen in the media.
“When fuel got to $4 a gallon last summer, people stopped buying big RVs,” he said. “They’re (lightweight campers) also better for a dealership because you can fit eight lightweights on a transport truck, but one RV needs its own. Which means I can get my vehicles sooner, and I can carry less inventory.”
Normally, Troutt carries between 200 and 250 vehicles on his property, which spans 4.5 acres, and two-thirds of them fall into the lightweight category.
In addition to owning his own camper dealership, Troutt serves as chairman of the national Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA), based in Fairfax, Va. He tends to a take a long view of his industry’s future.
“Americans will always have a love affair with RVs,” Troutt said. “It’s a lot cheaper than other vacations. You get to spend time with your family in a different setting. What could be better than that?”
Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) Chairman Larry Troutt, owner of Topper’s Camping Center, a towable RV dealership in Houston, Texas, has raised a question that has vexed the RV industry for years: Should there be a uniform model-year release date, preferably sometime in the fall?
In his “Chairman’s Report” column in RVDA’s RV Executive Today magazine, Troutt comes down squarely in favor of a more orchestrated, industry-wide release date. And he suggests that the date be tied to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) seal, which he said shouldn’t be issued for the following model year until the preceding August.
It’s not an original suggestion, Troutt acknowledged. But swinging his weight as chairman of the nation’s largest RV dealers association, behind it, he feels, could make a difference.
“I decided I liked (the idea) so much I would endorse it myself,” he wrote.
Primarily, Troutt said that a model-release date would reduce consumer confusion while assisting dealers who are finding it more and more difficult to find floorplan financing for units made at about the same time ye with different model-year designations.
“Some manufacturers are predictable. Others are not,” he wrote. “Some introduced 2010 model-year product in late February or early March. Others have not yet introduced new model product.”
And still others won’t announce a model-year change at all; they upgrade their coaches on the run, he noted.
“This year, in part because of the national economic recession,” he said, “… at the beginning of 2009, our new, unsold 2007 product was deemed by some lenders not worthy of new-trailer retail financing terms. By mid-March, the same restrictions were on new 2008 product. With the early introduction of 2010 product, many dealers are concerned that new 2009 model product might come under the same time retail lending guidelines during the year.”
In the past, RVIA has declined to support a uniform model-release date, citing restraint-of-trade regulations. For part, individual manufacturers have insisted that the timing of when they release their new models is a competitive issue.
Troutt thinks RVIA ought to rethink the position.
“I personally doubt the issuance of a plastic seal with a model year clearly printed on it would cause any disruption of free-market trade,” he wrote, noting that non-RVIA manufacturers aren’t required to apply any seals to the units they build.
“I see it as a modest proposal intended to solve many of the problems associated with all the different model-year introduction days of so many manufacturers,” he wrote.
The Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) contends that its hands are tied with regard to the issue of RV manufacturers being forced — under various circumstances — to buy back product from dealers.
So the national trade association, based in Fairfax, Va., isn’t taking a concrete stand one way or the other in what is becoming a major issues within the RV industry.
”We are a national dealers association made up of dealers from many states,” said RVDA Chairman Larry Troutt, owner of Toppers Camping Center in Waller, Texas, in a Q&A session with RVBusiness due for publication next month. ”It’s not our position to take a position on what the states do.”
In a March 9 letter to RVDA President Mike Molino, Richard Coon, president of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), asked RVDA to support amending or defeating ”buy back” legislation pending in 17 states, warning that RV manufacturers and dealers alike could be put out of business by the slew of legislation.
However, Molino immediately dismissed the request and has continued to do so as recently as a meeting held this week.
At issue are what RVIA characterizes as onerous provisions requiring inventory, in some cases regardless of age, to be repurchased by manufacturers ”with or without cause,” along with ”blue sky” requirements that would mandate manufacturers to compensate dealers for the value of their businesses and ”facilities assistance” for up to three years.
”The dealers in the different states will take initiatives (that) we will support, possibly reinforce, at their request,” Troutt told RVBusiness. ”But we do not think it is appropriate to take initiatives as a national dealer organization that would cause dealers in different states to have to abide by some ‘law’ that they didn’t initiate or address themselves within their states. It’s a state’s rights thing.
”I’m not aware of any (dealer) who disagrees with that.”
RVDA Treasurer Andy Heck, president of Alpin Haus, Amsterdam, N.Y., said coordinating state laws would be too large a task for RVDA to muster.
”Each state has different laws,” Heck said. ”(Buy back laws) just happen to be one of them. For RVDA to get involved at the state level would be a gigantic task.”
Debbie Brunoforte, RVDA 1st vice chairman and owner of Little Dealer, Little Prices in Mesa, Ariz., said dealers are ”reasonable (and) fair-minded” and that manufacturers should communicate directly with dealers about state laws that concern them.
”The difference between RVIA and RVDA is that most of the manufacturers are in Indiana and a couple of other places,” Brunoforte said. ”Yet, (RVs) are retailed throughout the entire country. So RVIA has to have a more political view and I understand that. At RVDA, we have dealers in every single state, and we’ve always felt that dealers in a particular state should choose how they want to do business.”