The words “recreational vehicle” and “motorhome” might not conjure up associations with leading designers, A-list actors or trophy homes but it appears that the cumbersome “lounges on wheels” ridiculed by the style police for decades have come into their own.
In Aesop’s fable the tortoise, handicapped by that lumbering carapace on his back, crossed the line ahead of the sprightly hare. So it is that roving homes and the outdoor lifestyle are in vogue even during the economic downturn, according to the Financial Times.
”We have lots of RV parks where occupancy rates are up 13 to 14%,” says Cheryl Smith, of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), which represents more than 3,700 sites across the U.S. The national increase averages out at nearer 5%.
”We expect that to increase when the winter kicks in and the snowbirds are on the move again,” continues Smith, referring to RV-owning retirees from northern states and Canada who typically head south during the winter.
Smith attributes this upturn to Americans’ bullish spirit of optimism in the toughest of times. “People might not be able to afford to fly or stay in hotels but they’re all remembering that RV in the backyard, dusting it down and taking to the road,” she says.
In so doing, friends and family not only bond with nature but with one another, reckons Smith. For in our high-tech age of multiple distractions, families sometimes need to get away from their main home and turn to a second home, on wheels, in order to reconnect with each other.
“People often come to parks without their cellphones. They make their own entertainment; they cook and eat a meal together, she said. Furthermore, the process of simply “getting there” in an RV is a family adventure that is easily more appealing than the horrors of peak-time airline travel associated with bricks and mortar second homes. Crucially in the U.S., such vehicles are also classed as second homes and are tax deductible.
News of the increased demand at RV parks and campgrounds in most of the U.S. is a welcome boost to RV manufacturers, who have been in the doldrums throughout the recession.
The sales of market leader Winnebago were down almost 80% in 2008 – ironically, the year that the company celebrated its 50th birthday. Not that Winnebago remains the byword for the RV it once was, as company spokesperson Sheila Davis concedes.
“Today it refers to all kinds of recreational vehicle, from motorhomes to travel trailers and pop-up campers,” she says. “In the past 10 years (especially), there’s been a huge growth in active lifestyle interests so both the image of the RV and kinds of vehicles available have changed to reflect this.”
Cultural cachet doesn’t get much better than being acquired by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA). In 2007 it hailed the 1963 Airstream Bambi travel trailer an American design icon.
It became only the seventh automotive design in MoMA’s collection, joining such classics as the Volkswagen Beetle, the Jaguar E-Type and the original Jeep. Suddenly not only was the Airstream, its riveted aluminium design resembling a bomber’s fuselage essentially unchanged since the 1920s, a metaphor for wanderlust, adventure and freedom, it was also chic.
“Design aficionados see Airstreams as cool retro collectables. They use them in new ways, from mobile architecture and fashion statements to guest houses,” says Airstream president Bob Wheeler. Indeed, one fashion designer uses his as a pool house and when fashion festivals come around hooks it to his car and hits the road.
Celebrity “Airstreamers” include actors Tom Hanks, Andy Garcia, Sean Penn, Sandra Bullock, David Duchovny, Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaughey and director Tim Burton. Designer Ralph Lauren owns four. Actress Pamela Anderson added a stripper pole, a vibrating bed, ceiling mirrors and white shag carpeting to hers but most prefer more sophisticated furnishings.
Gone are the days of the Formica kitchenette and spartan amenities. Most upscale RVs, from the Airstream (now also available in Europe) through to the market-leading Winnebago Adventurer, now come with all of the features you would expect in any modern home.
Revamped vehicles are attracting a new generation of “cashmere campers” in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom who crave the gypsy lifestyle but with the luxury and style of a five-star hotel. Moreover, should owners choose to use RV parks, they will find the standard of services and facilities in the US and their equivalents in Britain and Europe have improved greatly. Not only are golf courses, tennis courts, gymnasiums, spas and adventure playgrounds a part of the package but open-air cinemas, theatres and concerts are now de rigueur.
Recent increases in the use of RVs build on a dramatic upturn in the US market earlier this decade, albeit for very sober reasons: the attacks of September 11 2001.
“Between 2001 and 2005 our company doubled in size,” says Wheeler, a rise in demand shared to differing degrees by most manufacturers, including Winnebago. “Americans were reluctant to travel by air plus there was a focus on family values and family activities within the US. This led to a boom in the motorhome industry.”
According to a 2005 University of Michigan study, one in 12 U.S. vehicle-owning households now owns an RV. More than 60% of recreation vehicles are made in Elkhart County, Ind., or “The RV Capital of America”. Earlier this year that label turned into the “job loss capital” when Elkhart County posted America’s largest jobless rate increase, up more than 10%.
“Usually consumers will trade their motorhomes every four to six years and so if 2004 was the peak year, we are hoping that people will be looking to upgrade to a newer model next year,” says Davis of Winnebago, which is based in Iowa. “Certainly consumer confidence is coming back and the market is improving.”
This is partly fuelled by the rise of sports and activity-based pursuits and attendance at countryside competitions which has seen enthusiasts turn to motorhomes as the best way of getting between meets.
“A lot of people have hobbies and will jet ski or sail every weekend,” says Ross Edwards, managing director of Travelworld, which imports European-built RVs into the U.K.
“Most want something big and substantial so that they don’t feel as if they are in a caravan. [They] can attend various meetings all around Europe, towing a couple of motorbikes. Other enthusiasts are older people who sell up and live in them instead of a holiday home or go to the continent and park them on a plot of land while they build their home.”
Then there are the music festivals – from Glastonbury in rainy Somerset, south-west England, to the Burning Man, in the scalding heat of the Arizona desert. Today’s “hippy” is unprepared to forgo his creature comforts and so opts for an RV over a tent.
“The UK industry is worth 6 billion pounds a year, between sales of new and used products and holiday spend,” says Louise Wood of the National Caravan Council. “In all there are about 360,000 non-mobile caravan homes scattered across 2,000-3,000 parks, about 500,000 touring caravans and 164,000 motorhomes.”
Particularly in areas such as the U.K.’s Lake District, where second homes are hard to find and expensive, a caravan holiday home is a good alternative. They are usually situated in the heart of a beauty spot and can earn decent rental income, arranged through the resort, when not in use by the owner. “In a good park, for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom caravan you can earn up to £1,000 a week,” says Wood.
According to Maxine Soghmanian of the Caravan Club, Europe’s largest touring association, which represents more than 1m individuals, the mobile home business in Britain is up 40 per cent this year. With a weak pound and uncertain property market, a lot of baby boomers are taking to the open road rather than sinking their assets into a second home on the Costa del Sol.
“It is increasingly common,” says Soghmanian. “France, Spain, Italy and Portugal are the most popular destinations but a lot are also now heading to Scandinavia and Holland and even Australia and New Zealand, where they will rent motorhomes.”
A yearning for Route 66 and the spirit of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road might be U.S. phenomena but wanderlust is by no means uniquely American. It is more than equalled in both Canada and Australia, countries whose scale and diversity lend themselves to prolonged periods of roving.
“Twelve per cent of our members live in their RV full-time and the number is growing,” says John Osborne of the 54,500-member-strong Campervan and Motorhome Club of Australia (CMCA), the country’s largest RV club. “Membership has trebled in the past 10 years, with 700 new members joining each month.”
“Growing numbers of Australians want to fully experience their country,” Osborne says. “The majority also own real estate. Some have sold their home to go on the road full time, after which they intend to settle down in the part of Australia that they find as their special place.”
As an era of conspicuous consumption, decadent trophy homes and one-upmanship is eclipsed by one of environmental concern and family values, the RV and even the humble caravan symbolise a quest for personal fulfilment and discovery. Even President Obama is a fan. “As soon as this convention is over, we are loading up our kids in an RV. We are travelling around to county fairs, eating ice cream and taking our two girls to the swimming pool,” he said during his presidential campaign.
Bob Olson, the top executive of Winnebago Industries Inc. (WGO.N), said on Thursday he is not sure how high motorhome industry production will rebound once the market recovers, but said he is confident the business is nearing a turning point after five years of falling sales.
In an interview with Reuters, Olson, the company’s chairman, chief executive and president, also said he is not happy that one of Winnebago’s chief suppliers, Navistar International Corp (NAV.N), has entered the motorhome business itself by buying Monaco Coach Corp, the RV and trailer maker that filed for bankruptcy in March.
Navistar’s Workhorse Custom Chassis division supplies Winnebago with the platform for its biggest and most profitable motorhomes.
“I’ll tell you right now I don’t like the fact that I’m buying a major component from a competitor,” Olson said.
“They assure us that they are two separate entities. We’re still concerned. There’s no doubt about it.”
Winnebago and other motorhome manufacturers have watched demand for their pricey, gas-guzzling vehicles evaporate as a result of the current economic downturn and related credit crunch.
The industry expects to ship just 14,100 motorhomes this year — the industry’s worst showing in the 38 years data has been collected. That would be down over 50% from the 28,300 motorhomes the industry shipped last year and down over 80% the 71,800 vehicles it shipped in 2004.
Asked what he thought the new normal might be, Olson said he was not sure. But he said that since 1971, the industry has averaged 54,000 to 55,000 vehicle shipments a year.
“Now that’s a far cry from 2004,” he said. “But it’s also a far cry from the 14,000 wholesale rate we’re on now. I’d love it to be back at 55,000.”
Falling dealer inventory levels and a growing order backlog have encouraged Olson to believe the industry may be on the verge of a replenishment cycle.
“I think what’s going to happen is one day these (dealers) are going to wake up and say, you know, ‘Business is starting to improve.’ And they’re going to look out the window and realize they don’t have a lot of units out there that they can show their customers.”
He said the sharp decline in fuel prices over the past year, and the rebound in stock prices, are lifting consumer sentiment and making the job of selling motorhomes — which can easily cost $100,000 — a little easier.
“I think people are starting to recover and feel better,” he said. “That helps. People can look at their stock portfolios and 401(k)s, and they’re feeling better about themselves.”
But he said any replenishment cycle triggered by dealer restocking would be muted because the few remaining wholesale lenders have increased their scrutiny of the business, pressuring dealers to run lean.
“That will temper it somewhat,” he said. “I don’t think (the restocking) is going to be at the pace that we’ve seen in years past.”
Winnebago Industries, Inc. reported a net loss of $78.8 million for the fiscal year ending Aug. 29, $50.2 million of it being recorded in the fourth quarter.
Revenues for the fourth quarter were $59.5 million versus $85.3 million for the same period last year. The company reported an operating loss of $9.2 million for the quarter versus an operating loss of $18.9 million for the fourth quarter of fiscal 2008.
Included in the operating loss for the quarter was a non-cash charge of $855,000 related to the asset impairment of the Hampton, Iowa, fiberglass facility. Net loss for the fourth quarter was $50.2 million versus $12.7 million for the fourth quarter of fiscal 2008. The net loss for the quarter included a non-cash charge of $41.1 million, or $1.41 per diluted share, related to the establishment of a full valuation allowance against its deferred tax assets. Excluding these non-cash charges, the Winnebago’s tax-benefited net loss for the fourth quarter would have been $5.4 million, or 19
cents per diluted share.
The fourth quarter was negatively impacted by lower motorhome deliveries resulting in a reduction in plant utilization. Revenues were also negatively impacted by a continuation of wholesale and retail
product incentives, but benefited from a better mix of Class A diesel products, according to a news release. There was a positive benefit to cost of goods sold, however, from the liquidation of last-in, first-out (LIFO) inventory values due
to a significant reduction of inventory levels. This had the effect of decreasing the gross deficit by $2.9 million.
Revenues for the 52 weeks of fiscal 2009 were $211.5 million versus $604.4 million for the 53 weeks of fiscal 2008. Net loss for fiscal 2009 was $78.8 million versus net income of $2.8 million for 2008.
On a diluted per share basis, the company had a net loss of $2.71 for fiscal 2009, versus earnings of 10 cents for 2008. Excluding non-cash charges, the company’s tax-benefited net loss for fiscal 2009 would have been $37.2 million, or $1.28 per diluted share.
“While fiscal 2009 was one of the most challenging in our 51 year history and in the history of the RV industry, we have taken many necessary steps to preserve adequate liquidity, manage our balance sheet
and costs, and maintain our ability to make investments in products and processes important to our long term growth and profitability,” said Winnebago Industries Chairman, CEO and President Bob Olson. “As an
example, we increased our cash flow by dramatically cutting our inventories by 58% from the end of fiscal 2008 to the end of fiscal 2009.”
“Just as important as managing our balance sheet and costs for today’s market, however, is planning for growth once the economy recovers,” continued Olson. “Research and product development was a top priority,
with over 50% of our lineup new or redesigned for the 2010 model year. From top to bottom, we raised the bar in creating innovative products with exciting floorplans and features with an emphasis on form,
function and styling.”
According to Statistical Surveys, Inc., the Michigan retail reporting service for the RV industry, Winnebago Industries’ gained market share in the combined Class A and C markets with 19.1% for the first eight
months of calendar 2009, compared to 18.5 % for the same period last year.
“We are pleased with our market share gains and believe we have further opportunities to gain share going forward with our innovative new products,” said Olson. “As testament to the appeal of our new motor home
offerings, our sales order backlog was 940 motor homes at Aug. 29, 2009, an increase of approximately 58% compared to the end of fiscal 2008; and an increase of 146% from May 30, the end of our third quarter. We have seen particular strength in the backlog for our Class A gas and diesel products.”
“Nevertheless, the economic environment and the level of retail demand remain uncertain. Additionally, credit availability remains difficult on both the wholesale and retail level,” said Olson. “Floorplan lending
institutions continue to manage dealer inventories very closely with an emphasis on the aging of inventory and the number of times a dealer turns his inventory each year. As a result, dealer inventory declined 54% during fiscal 2009, to 1,694 motor homes as of Aug. 29, 2009. Since retail sales have been much higher than wholesale shipments throughout the past year, we believe dealer inventory is very close to reaching the bottom, and our dealer partners will need to start to replenish soon to satisfy retail demand going forward. The increase in our sales order backlog referenced above may also be a sign that the replenishment process is now beginning.”
Winnebago Industries Inc. (NYSE: WGO), the nation’s top-selling motorhhome manufacturer, will issue an advisory release and host a conference call on Oct. 15, according to a news release.
In compliance with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent guidance regarding ”notice-and-access” news releases, the company plans to discontinue issuance of full-text financial news releases via a wire service and will issue only advisory press releases notifying investors when new and material information is available on its website.
Winnebago Industries plans to issue an advisory release before the market opens on Oct.15, notifying the public that a complete and full-text press release discussing the financial results for the company’s fourth quarter fiscal year 2009 ended Aug. 29 will be available no earlier than 7 a.m. (EST) in the “Investor Relations” section of the company’s website at: winnabagoinc.com/investor.html.
Camping World has launched a “Cash for Campers” incentive, giving up to $7,500 cash allowance for motorized RVs when current RV owners purchase a new vehicle.
It is designed to mirror the the government program “Cash for Clunkers” currently supported by the automotive industry and Department of Transportation.
Camping World’s self-funded recycle and save initiative is focused on improving the quality of vehicles currently in circulation as well as stimulating the economy in heavy-hit manufacturing states such as Iowa and Indiana, according to a news release from the Lincolnshire, Ill.-based retailer. The “Cash for Campers“ program incentivizes RV consumers to transition into new and more fuel-efficient motorized RVs when they trade in an older, less fuel-efficient model.
Camping World has aligned itself with the three top selling motorhome manufacturers who are leading the charge toward improving environmental issues with efforts in such areas as chassis selection, fuel savings through design and long-term durability. These changes are evident in their current motorhome line-up such as the Winnebago View and Navion, Damon Avanti and Four Winds Serrano.
Marcus Lemonis, Camping World chairman & CEO, said, “As the market leader, Camping World currently retails over 18% of all new motorhomes sold in the U.S. We believe that an accelerated transition of the current installed base ultimately accomplishes several important goals: to remove less fuel efficient models from the roads, increase the demand for new and more efficient motorhomes which will ideally result in assisting the RV manufacturers in putting people back to work.”
Camping World also plans to permanently retire less fuel-efficient models ages 1984 and older through a salvage process. Lemonis further detailed, “If a consumer owns a less fuel-efficient and less technologically advanced motorhome and is interested in trading it in through the”Cash for Campers“ program, their unit is eligible for a cash allowance toward select new models at Camping World.”
The company expects to launch similar programs in the near future on recycling towable models as well as select RV accessories with more details to be released as plans get underway.
More details about the program can be found at CampingWorld.com/cashforcampers.
Winnebago Industries Inc. today (June 11) announced the closing of its Hampton, Iowa, fiberglass manufacturing facility, which primarily makes fiberglass components for motorhomes.
The majority of the production capabilities for fiberglass components will be shifted to Winnebago’s main Forest City facilities during the company’s fourth fiscal quarter, ending August 29.
The relocation reportedly won’t affect Winnebago’s customers or product offerings.
“Current market conditions continue to be challenging, necessitating further capacity reductions,” the northern Iowa corporation’s management states in a press release. “The company believes these actions will better position it for a business environment that it expects will continue to be challenging in the near future.”
“The decision to close the Hampton facility has been very difficult,” adds chairman, CEO and President Bob Olson. ”Unfortunately, it has become necessary to decrease our manufacturing footprint to reduce overhead expenses for the company. It is particularly difficult to lose valued employees. However, the wholesale and retail market for the company’s motorhomes continues to be very challenging, and it is important to downsize to market demand.”
As a result of the closure, Winnebago expects to incur a non-cash impairment charge of $1.4 to $2.4 million on the facility in its fourth fiscal quarter. In addition, other associated out-of-pocket costs with the idling of the facility are estimated to be approximately $600,000.
Winnebago, according to a press release, will continue to evaluate the need for additional right-sizing measures in accordance with market demand.
Winnebago Industries’ management met with the plant’s 40 employees today and will help coordinate employee support from state, regional and local agencies in an effort to assist with job placement, training and various other services and benefits available to dislocated workers, the release states.
“Although the current economic environment is extremely challenging,” Olson added, “we continue to believe we are in a strong financial position with sufficient cash and investment balances, no long-term debt and with the benefit of a respected brand known for its quality products.”
As summer kicks into high gear, spokespeople for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) are kicking off a busy season promoting RVing to a diverse group of potential customers.
The Herzog family is gearing up to show once again why they are the ideal family to tell the media that RV travel is the best way to see America, according to an RVIA news release. This summer the Herzogs will travel in a Winnebago hybrid RV on a Freightliner chassis powered by a diesel engine and electric motor.
Their trip coincides with the release of Brad’s latest children’s book, “S is for Save the Planet: A How-to-Be-Green Alphabet.” His book details the many environmental issues we face and suggests simple ways to help protect the planet.
Since 1996, the Herzogs, who live in Pacific Grove, Calif., have logged nearly 100,000 RV miles, spending time in all 48 contiguous states. As they travel, their RV is a summer classroom for their sons and an office for Brad as he blogs for GoRVing.com.
The Herzogs have effectively delivered RVIA messaging during countless interviews since they became RVIA spokespeople in 2000. In 2008 alone, these interviews resulted in more than 60 media hits that delivered over 1.3 million impressions. Brad’s blog postings have also received favorable response from RVing followers. The blog, which includes photos and anecdotes about the family’s trip across the country, was so appealing to readers that Brad continued to write for GoRVing.com even after the tour concluded.
RVer, adventurer and RVIA spokesperson Brian Brawdy is making the most of the media’s interest in Americans “going green.” Brawdy outfitted his Lance truck camper with an array of solar panels, a wind turbine and a rainwater collection and filtration unit, making the unit highly environmentally friendly. Brawdy’s RV attracts a lot of media interest, and allows him to talk to the press about what the RV industry and other RVers are doing to be green.
Over the past weeks Brawdy has been interviewed by several local television stations in Phoenix and Albuquerque, N. M., and has been featured in both the Chicago Sun-Times and the Albuquerque Journal. During his many print and broadcast interviews throughout the country, Brawdy delivered RVIA’s message points while putting a green face on the RVing experience.
Rialta Heaven Inc., a small outfit in the northern Indiana community of Milford, is marketing used Winnebago Rialta Class C motorhomes, last built by the Forest City, Iowa, manufacturer in 2005, on a limited national basis as “Earth Friendly RVs” because of their high fuel mileage and wind-cutting aerodynamics.
“Over the last two years, we’ve sold about 200 of them,” said Karen Rowland, co-owner and sales manager. “We find them all over the country”
Built on the 7,275-pound GVWR Volkswagen extended Eurovan cutaway chassis with a 6-cylinder Volkswagen gas engine that in the later years of production were rated at 201-hp, the sleek, low-profile Rialta today would be considered a “B-plus” style motorhome due to the lack of a cabover compartment. Typically, 22-foot Rialtas get 18-21 mpg, Rowland said.
Winnebago built about 8,000 Rialtas from 1994 to 2005; Volkswagen quit building the chassis in 2003.
Like others in the RV industry, however, Rialta Heaven, located in a former used-car lot on Ind. 15, has experienced a downturn since late last year. ”This time last year, we were selling half-a-dozen a month,” Rowland said. ”Since September, times have been tough.”
Depending on mileage — usually with fewer than 50,000 miles on the odometer — prices typically range from $22,000 to $50,000. Currently, the company has five Rialta’s and a Winnebago Vista, a true Class C built on the Eurovan chassis with a cabover sleeping compartment.
“Rialtas are very popular,” Rowland said. “Once people get to know them, they find the Rialta is small and easy to drive. And they are totally self-contained — bigger than a van but smaller than a bus.”
Winnebago Industries Inc., the industry’s top-selling motorhome maker, is scheduled to report fiscal second-quarter results on Thursday (March 19). The following is a summary compiled by the Associated Press of key developments and analyst opinion related to the period.
Overview: Things have gone from bad to worse for the RV industry in recent months. Facing collapsing sales and mounting debts, two of the industry’s top names, Monaco Coach Corp. and Fleetwood Industries Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection within days of each other earlier this month.
RV sales have been in a state of steady decline recently, as the souring economy and deadlocked credit markets drive consumers away from showrooms. While Winnebago has fared better than some of its competitors, the Forest City, Iowa, company has been forced to slash costs to cope.
Last month, Winnebago announced a round of pay cuts for its salaried work force. President, Chairman and CEO Robert Olson took a 20% pay cut, while executive officers faced 10% pay reductions and remaining white-collar workers took 3% cuts.
By the Numbers: Wall Street analysts expect Winnebago to post a second-quarter loss of 30 cents per share, on average, for the quarter ended Feb. 28, according to Thomson Reuters.
Analyst Take: Citi Investment Research analyst Gregory Badishkanian said motorhome sales trends remain ugly. “Dealers continue to struggle as credit remains extremely tight,” he wrote in a note to investors last week.
However, Winnebago might benefit over the next 12 to 24 months following the bankruptcy filings by two rivals as the company picks up lost market share, he said.
As the economy sputters like a car engine running on fumes, no other place in Iowa feels the economic downturn like this community of 4,300.
The Des Moines Register reported that nearly one in 10 people is unemployed in Hancock and Winnebago counties, which Forest City straddles.
Many of those without jobs here once worked at Winnebago Industries Inc., the motorhome manufacturer that just five years ago had 4,220 workers and three buzzing production lines. These days, instead of getting overtime pay, factory employees who still have jobs work 32-hour weeks. One production line that’s eight football fields long is shut down. The company’s employment is down 60%, to 1,700 workers.
The border between Hancock and Winnebago counties has become the fault line where Iowa’s manufacturing economy has cracked.
The state’s most recent unemployment rate showed 4.6% of Iowans were unemployed in December, up from 4.3% the month before. New numbers are expected to be released this week, showing whether Iowa’s economy has worsened.
Nationwide, unemployment rose to 8.1% in February. The economy has shed more than 4 million jobs since the recession began in late 2007. Two states, Michigan and Rhode Island, topped 10% unemployment in December.
Iowa has the country’s sixth-lowest unemployment rate, according to the most recent data. And even though there are 13,200 more unemployed people than a year before in Iowa, the jobless rate is nowhere near a record high. That came in 1982 and 1983, when 8.5 percent of Iowans were unemployed during the farm crisis.
Still, in the counties that most lean on struggling Winnebago Industries, the employment picture seems bleak.
The Register reported that Hancock County, home of Winnebago, has Iowa’s highest unemployment rate at 9.1%. Neighboring Winnebago County is third at 8.5%.
“We don’t have 50 companies up here that are laying off half (of their) employees,” said Teresa Nicholson, executive director of Winn-Worth Betco, an economic development organization for Winnebago and Worth counties. “We have one.”
That one company, however, has shed some 2,500 jobs in five years.
Driving into Forest City, rural charm meets you at the door. The first noticeable building in town is the Forest City Cow Palace, a livestock wholesaler. Forest City is a place where neighbors call if your dog’s loose, the elementary school principal knows every student by name and $4 still buys a movie ticket at the one-screen Forest Theatre.
Residents brag that their small town comes with bigger-town amenities: Two locally owned grocery stores. Other big employers such as 3M and an engine filter manufacturer. A college, Waldorf, still attracts international students despite financial worries. A new aquatic center. And a full-service YMCA.
But it’s a sign of the times that the Forest City YMCA now offers scholarships for families of laid-off Winnebago employees. The food bank served 146 families last month, twice as many as a year ago. Twenty of those families had never visited before.
An outsider might expect ex-employees to be angry. But people here are loyal. They know what Winnebago has meant to this area.
When the travel trailer factory opened in 1958, Forest City’s future wasn’t bright. The farm economy was struggling. Young people were leaving.
In 1970, Winnebago expanded, and the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock appreciated nearly 500 percent in 1971. Playboy magazine wrote about Forest City in an article titled “Oh, Little Town of Millionaires.”
According to the Register, Winnebago grew the next several decades. Annual sales surpassed $1 billion for the first time in 2004, the good days, when gas was cheap and credit was easy.
Times have changed.
“When the market is down like it is and people aren’t buying large discretionary products like RVs, it’s hard to have a work force standing around, waiting to fill orders,” said Kelli Harms, a Winnebago spokeswoman.
People in this town have faith the RV market will turn around.
“When this market comes back, it’ll come back crazy and it’ll come back fast,” Harms said. “People love traveling, love RVs, love the great outdoors.”
But people also love a surplus of jobs. For now, that’s something Winnebago can’t offer.