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?”
Keystone RV Co.’s Hornet brand outperformed all other brands in its class to post double-digit market share gain with increases of 15.6% through February and 11.1% through March, according to Keystone, citing a recent Statistical Surveys Inc. retail market report. “Hornet’s goal is to give dealers a conventionally constructed travel trailer with an exterior and interior appearance that looks and feels like an expensive laminated trailer, all at an aggressive price,” said Chris Hermon, left, Hornet general manager. In order to deliver a product that excites the retail buyer, he said, Hornet focused on several key areas. The new Hornet is roomier inside with taller ceilings (84 inches), larger windows and 25% larger overhead cabinets. The Mega-Slide system, a Hornet exclusive, expands the dining and living room area and offers many features the retail sales person and customer can get excited about. The exterior of the Hornet has also been completely redesigned. Hornet product manager Jeff Wagner, right, described it as “sharp and cutting edge.” Says Wagner, “Customers love the way it looks because it is sleek and aerodynamic and stands apart from the crowd.”
Wholesale deliveries of RVs to retailers in April remained well off the 2008 pace but showed some improvement over March, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) reported today (May 26).
April shipments totaled 13,300 units, compared with 31,400 units in April 2008, or a 57.6% decline, RVIA noted.
Towable shipments totaled 12,300, compared with 27,400 in April 2008, while motorized shipments totaled 1,000 units compared with 4,000 in April 2008.
Meanwhile, wholesale deliveries of towable RVs to retailers did continue their steady climb toward normalcy in April. The April shipment total of 13,300 for towables was slightly better than the 12,800 shipped in March.
Motorized shipments remained flat between March and April.
By segment, April shipments for each vehicle type were off by at least 50% in a year-over-year comparison. The vehicle type, April shipment total and corresponding figure for 2008 was as follows:
- All travel trailers, 7,900, down from 16,600 in 2008.
- Fifth-whele trailers, 2,900, down from 7,100 in 2008.
- Folding camping trailers, 1,300, down from 3,100 un 2008.
- Truck campers, 200, down from 600 in 2008.
- Class A motorhomes, 300, down from 1,800 in 2008.
- Class B motorhomes, 100, down fromn 300 in 2008.
- Class C motorhomes, 600, down from 1,900 in 2008.
For the first four months of 2008, the industry has shipped 43,700 units, down 61.7% from the 114,000 shipped in the corresponding period in 2008.
Towable shipments in the first four months totaled 40,300 units, down 59.3% from the 99,000 shipped a year ago, while motorized shipments totaled 3,400 units, down 77.3% from the 15,000 shipped a year ago.
In the nearly six months since it acquired the company, Forest River Inc. has restructured the former Coachmen RV Co. into six internal divisions under the leadership of former Coachmen President Michael R. Terlep.
Forest River in December purchased the Coachmen RV brand along with its manufacturing facilities in Middlebury, Ind., and Centerville, Mich. — creating its own Coachmen RV division — from Coachmen Industries Inc.
“The integration has gone remarkably well,” Terlep said. “It was a great move for Forest River and it was a great move for our brand and our customers.”
Each of five Coachmen RV divisions has a general manager and its own plant in Coachmen’s Middlebury manufacturing campus: Class A, Dave Miller; Class C, Mike Bear; laminated travel trailer, Bob Dumm; conventional travel trailer, John Babcock; and fifth-wheel, Don Medd. Folding camping trailers are being built in Centerville under General Manager Gar Warlick.
“We just ripped the complexity and cost out of our structure,” Terlep said. “Our overhead is running an absolute fraction of the matrix organization we ran before. Basically, we are getting all of the advantages and benefits of being Forest River and all the reductions in complexity and cost with timeliness of our product to the market.
“We are going to be a high-volume producer in the industry.”
Terlep said the Coachmen RV division is in the process of reintroducing the Mirada Class A motorhome as an entry level coach that will be available at the end of June.
He said the company also has just introduced the Freedom Express lightweight laminated travel trailer, shown at left, in lengths of 20 to 29 feet, and in January introduced the wood-and-aluminum Catalina travel trailer brand with an average price of $17,000.
Also, the Chaparral fifth-wheel has been “totally revamped,” according to Terlep, and a new fifth-wheel line is under development. “They are perfectly positioned for the market,” he said.
“We are signing up a lot of new dealers, and in some cases we are doubling plant rates, depending on orders.
“The big thing is that this is an all-new Coachmen RV and with that comes a tremendous amount of confidence and newness. This team is fired up, despite challenging market conditions.”
In celebration of its 125th anniversary, Victorinox Swiss Army -makers of the Swiss Army Knife – has announced a partnership with Airstream Inc. to produce the first “Victorinox Special Edition Airstream” travel trailer.
These two iconic brands have created a 19-foot trailer, production of which will be limited to 125 units and which embodies their shared qualities and philosophies: precision, functionality, reliability and a classically elegant design, according to a press release.
“When you enter into the trailer, the design cohesion between the two brands is both intuitive and natural – it’s comfortable and truly defines a luxe camping experience,” said Scott Swaebe, director of visual merchandising for Victorinox Swiss Army.
Like the legendary Swiss Army Knife, the details of the trailer are precise and clean, the release stated. And to ensure consumers are fully equipped, a collection of Victorinox Swiss Army timepieces, kitchen cutlery, Swiss Army Knives and accessories are included with each trailer
“It’s rare to find another brand that so closely represents the Airstream values of outdoor adventure in style,” said Bob Wheeler, Airstream president and CEO. “Victorinox is clearly such a company and we were thrilled to collaborate on this very special travel trailer. Whether it’s a Swiss Army knife or an Airstream, it’s something you buy to last a lifetime.”
The specially numbered special edition units are available beginning June 15. The commemorative, serialized plaque bears the famous Swiss Army Knife cross and shield emblem. This special edition Airstream travel trailer will retail starting at $59,000 and will be available at participating Airstream dealerships nationwide. For more information, please visit www.airstream.com
Last Friday’s offer by American Industrial Partners LP for a portion of the motorhome operations of Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. is “very preliminary” and “not a done deal,” a Fleetwood spokeswoman stressed on Monday (May 18).
First reported in the Dow Jones Daily Bankruptcy Review, New York-based private equity firm AIP has offered $53 million for most of the company’s motorhome business — including five plants in Decatur, Ind. and all of its motorhome brands, according to the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
What isn’t included in the deal is the company’s manufacturing location in Riverside or any of its closed travel trailer plants. Fleetwood has also been attempting to sell its manufactured housing division.
Fleetwood has asked the court to approve an auction that would set American Industrial’s offer as the minimum bid.
In the filings Friday (May 15), American Industrial’s bid was described by a Fleetwood investment consultant as a “reasonable purchase price.”
The equity firm doesn’t run the day-to-day operations of companies it buys, and focuses on buying mid-size industrial companies that it can streamline, according to information on its website.
But much remains to fall into place to make the sale happen, stressed Heather Everett, public relations manager for Fleetwood’s RV group. Fleetwood has not “inked a deal,” as the Dow Jones publication first stated in its headline, she told RVBusiness. And the proposed sale still has some hoops to jump through.
If Fleetwood’s auction proposal is approved by the court at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, initial bids would be accepted until June 18 and the auction would take place June 22, with American Industrial’s bid the one to beat.
Fleetwood started trying to sell its RV and manufactured housing businesses Feb. 6, before it filed for bankruptcy March 10. Fleetwood contacted or heard from more than 75 companies since then. Of those, 10 met with management or visited Fleetwood’s operations.
Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. has $20.7 million in assets compared to at least $265.2 million worth of debts, according to recent financial filings the company has made in bankruptcy court. Of that, at least $183 million is money owed to unsecured creditors.
The RV and manufactured homebuilder filed for bankruptcy March 10 but hadn’t filed a comprehensive list of debts and assets until now.
Fleetwood remained the country’s largest manufacturer of Class A motorhomes in 2008, accounting for 18.6% of the market share, according to industry results from Statistical Surveys Inc. The company held a 20.4% market share the year prior.
Keystone RV Co., Goshen, Ind., has introduced a rear outdoor “Camp Kitchen” in the Keystone Laredo fifth-wheel and Laredo Super Lite travel trailer (shown here) lines. The outdoor kitchen is equipped with a two-burner gas range, 4-cu. ft. refrigerator, sink with hot and cold running water, a storage drawer and four overhead cabinets. With a single slideout, the 33-foot Laredo 291TG travel trailer features a front queen bedroom, rear bunk beds and a convertible air-mattress sofa to sleep nine people, and is equipped with a 26-inch LCD TV, U-shaped dinette and electric awning. “Since so much RV camping time is spent out of doors, we focused on creating a fully equipped outdoor kitchen as the centerpiece of this new floorplan,” says Ryan Juday, Laredo product manager. “Dealers loved the product when we first showed it at Lousiville and it’s been a big hit at retail shows. Sales of our two outdoor camp kitchen models, a Laredo travel trailer and fifth-wheel, are greatly exceeding expectations.” MSRP: $26,900.
A bidding war of sorts Wednesday (May 13) in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Riverside, Calif., netted Riverside-based Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. a slight premium for its defunct travel trailer plant in La Grande, Ore.
Judge Meredith Jury approved the sale of Fleetwood’s plant to Northwood Manufacturing, a 15-year-old company based in La Grande that has 400 employees. Northwood paid $2.05 million for the plant.
Arbutus RV and Marine Sales Ltd., a British Columbia-based retailer, had initially offered $1.8 million for the facility. Arbutus, a Fleetwood retailer that would have had to find someone to run the manufacturing operation, raised its offer to $2 million, but the judge ruled Northwood the winner, according to the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
Fleetwood, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March, is selling off some of its assets to raise enough money to help it continue to operate without accepting an $80 million debtor-in-possession financing plan from Bank of America. Fleetwood hopes a buyer for the entire company can be found while it continues to operate, according to the newspaper.
The judge also approved the sale of equipment in Fleetwood’s Mexicali, Mexico, travel trailer plant to Krystal Enterprises LLC of Brea, Calif., for about $150,000. Krystal manufactures high-end Class B and C motorhomes,stretch limousines and midsize luxury buses.
Fleetwood opened the Mexicali plant, its first foreign operation, in 2007. Craig Millet, Fleetwood’s bankruptcy attorney, told the court he offered to show others the factory but there were no takers.
“The market is extremely thin for this equipment,” Millet said.
Bank of America must still agree to Fleetwood’s financing plan, but approval of that was continued until May 26.
Since Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 10, the Riverside, Calif.-based RV maker indicated that securing financing was vital to its survival.
On Wednesday (April 29), three hours before Fleetwood was scheduled to ask the judge in its Chapter 11 bankruptcy case to sign off on a final $80 million debtor-in-possession financing plan with Bank of America, the company told the court it didn’t need it, according to The Press-Enterprise, Riverside.
Instead, Fleetwood officials say they’ll be better off using cash collateral they had access to originally, allowing them to focus on operations while trying to find a buyer for the entire company, or its RV or manufactured housing divisions.
Company officials wouldn’t say how long they expect the cash collateral to fund their operations. In the court filing, they estimated they have at least $156 million worth of raw materials, finished but unsold goods, real estate and current work that can either be sold or used to get loans.
In court filings, Fleetwood said the financing plan with Bank of America, which took weeks to craft before the judge approved it temporarily, included “unrealistic” financial and time constraints and cost too much to implement. The filing mentioned a $2.4 million fee that it has already paid Bank of America for crafting the plan.
Fleetwood has cut costs, and sales have been slightly better than they expected, leaving the company with more cash than anticipated, according to Fleetwood’s Wednesday court filings.
The company continues to close plants, like its manufactured housing operation in Glendale, Ariz., which will be shuttered and consolidated with its Riverside plant. The company hopes to sell its La Grande, Ore., travel trailer plant for $1.8 million.
At the Wednesday afternoon hearing held at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Riverside, Bank of America lawyer Gregory Lunt bristled at the indication that the $2.4 million fee could be refunded and told the judge the first he had heard of Fleetwood’s proposal was that morning. An assistant had read the new proposal to him over the phone while he drove from Los Angeles to Riverside, he said.
“We have not had a chance to really look through these things,” he said.
To give Bank of America more time to respond, Judge Meredith Jury continued the hearing until May 13 at 1:30 p.m.
Lawyers representing unsecured creditors and Deutsche Bank, the trustee for bonds that were issued by Fleetwood in December, were pleased with Fleetwood’s decision to rely on cash collateral instead.
Dutchmen Manufacturing Inc. has introduced the Denali SuperLite travel trailer and mid-profile fifth-wheel series, a lightweight version of its popular Denali towable line designed for towing behind mid-sized pickup trucks. Six of eight Denali SuperLite floorplans feature dry weights of 7,500 pounds or less, according to the company. The Goshen, Ind., Thor subsidiary was able to shave 800 pounds off of comparable units by employing a six-way welded aluminum cage superstructure with lightweight laminated floors and walls. An aerodynamic front profile also is intended to promote enhanced fuel economy. “The weight saving makes Denali SuperLite towable by most half-ton and one-ton trucks,” said Brent Stevens, vice president of marketing and sales. Four 26- to 31-foot travel trailer floorplans are equipped with up to two slideouts, while 26- and 27-foot fifth-wheels feature single living room slides. Solid wood cabinets, enclosed and heated underbellies and flat screen HD TVs are standard. MSRPs start at $21,500.