An Industry Reinvented – Long after the bust, RVs are still a big part of Junction City

by Wendy on December 10, 2012

by: Rosemary Howe Camozzi (reprinted from The Register-Guard)

As a child, Julie Greenwald sewed her own doll clothes and loved to tinker with old radios and other small appliances. “I would take something apart and try to make it work, or turn it into something else,” she said.

In the past few years, that resourcefulness has been quite an asset for Greenwald, now 56, and her husband, Jeff. When the local recreational vehicle industry tanked five years ago, the couple gathered up the pieces of their business, Interior Creations, which had supplied fabric and finished fabric products to the RV factories, and used them, quite literally, to create something new.

The RV industry was once Lane County’s second largest industry. But, in 2007, when the recession hit, many consumers stopped buying high-ticket luxury items. In 2009, Junction City-based RV manufacturers Country Coach and Coburg-based Monaco Coach declared bankruptcy. Monaco was bought later in 2009 by Navistar International, which moved most of the jobs to Indiana. All told, Lane County’s RV industry has lost 3,200 jobs since 2007.

The decline of the RV industry was a heavy blow to Junction City, the RV epicenter. But rather than giving up, many of the people who were suppliers to, or employees of, the once bustling RV factories have reinvented themselves.

Some of the people who once made their living working for, or selling things to, the RV manufacturers took their knowledge of the RV industry and found new ways to use it. Some have started companies to sell, refurbish and repair high-end used coaches.

Others have created textiles and cabinets for people wanting to remodel their RVs. And others are using the skills they learned in the RV industry to branch out into other consumer products.

A number of these new companies continue to benefit from the reputation Junction City built as a center of RV manufacturing. They profit from clients who once bought their RVs here, and who return to the area to have work done on their RV or for rallies – such as this year’s sold-out Country Coach Friendship Rally in Harrisburg, attended by about 170 RVers.

While business is not necessarily booming for all of these companies, it’s steady, the owners say.

Interior Creations

The Greenwalds purchased Interior Creations in 1996, just as the RV industry was really taking off. The business grew from two employees to 20 over the next 10 years, and their 7,500-square-foot shop in Junction City was bustling as workers sewed bedding and pillows for 20 coaches a week for Monaco.

Marathon, which produces ultra-high-end custom RVs, also was giving them sewing jobs for four or five coaches each week. Then they started getting work from Country Coach, lots of work.

In 2006, the couple celebrated their first year of sales of close to $1 million. It was a short-lived celebration.

“In 2007, there was nothing left,” Julie Greenwald said. “It was an incredible nose dive.”

When the Greenwalds went to the Monaco bankruptcy sale and saw even the tiniest hand tools being liquidated, she said, they realized the ride was over.

But here’s where her resourcefulness kicked in. Greenwald had saved all the remnants and rolls of high-quality fabric from the work they had done for the big coach companies. She saved pieces of trim, extra buttons, welting, tassels and other items that were left over from big jobs.

“My employees laughed at me,” she said, “but I couldn’t see throwing such a nice resource away. I said, ‘Some day we might need these, if things go bad.’”

In 1999, the couple brought the rolls and remnants out of storage and turned half their facility in downtown Junction City, into a retail shop called Remains of the Day.

“As much as things get ugly, there are ways you can make it work,” Julie Greenwald said.

Now, about only a quarter of the building is devoted to sewing. Along two sides of a 60-foot interior wall, neatly folded remnants are stacked floor to ceiling, arranged by color. Another wall holds rolls of fabric.

Artfully displayed here and there are trims and buttons, spools of colorful thread, tassels and welting. Julie’s collectibles are sprinkled in. High-end rolls of fabric, left over from jobs or purchased at bargain prices when Country Coach went out of business, sell for about 50 percent of wholesale.

The store is frequented by crafters, interior decorators and of course, those looking to redecorate their RV. A new design center allows customers to look at sample books if they don’t find fabric they like.

The production area where actual sewing is done is down to 1,400 square feet, but that side of the business is picking up. Last week, Julie was busy sewing a duvet cover for a custom coach being built at Marathon.

“We haven’t seen a big job like this for a while,” she said. “Now I wish I still had my crew.”

She does most of the sewing herself these days, with the help of one part-time employee.

Interior Creations also is getting a lot of work from Premier RV, a two-year old company made up of people who used to work with at Country Coach, she said.

All in the family

When Country Coach closed its doors in November 2009, it left more than a few owners, managers and employees high and dry. But several companies have emerged from its ashes, selling used high-end RVs as well as doing repairs and renovations.

These include Premier RV; a revamped Country Coach, named Country Coach Corp., back in business under the direction of Ron Lee, brother of one of the founders of the original Country Coach; and Oregon Motorcoach, co-owned by Bob Lee (one of the founders of both Monaco Coach and Country Coach) and Pat Mason, his son-in-law who worked at Country Coach for 15 years.

Premier RV was started in June 2010 by Gary Obermire, previously senior vice president/operations at Country Coach, and Louie Courtemanche, the company’s regional sales manager.

The pair bought two unfinished motor homes in the Country Coach bankruptcy auction at a fire-sale price – $100,000 for both coaches – then rented one of the buildings on the shuttered Country Coach campus — also for a low price, they said, declining to give the figure. Then they finished the two RVs off.

“That gave us enough money to start the business, and off we went,” Obermire said.

Inside Premier RV’s hangar-like warehouse, once Plant 10 at Country Coach, rows of gleaming luxury RVs, wait on consignment for new owners. But they don’t wait for long.

“We sell about eight to 10 a month,” Obermire said. “People fly in from all over. The high-end RV business is a very small world. It’s all about reputation.”

A luxury Country Coach RV that once sold for $800,000 can now be obtained for $300,000 to $400,000, he said. Some of the older ones sell for as low as $120,000.

Premier has sold more than 70 high-end coaches since opening two years ago.

“On the used side, business is very good,” Obermire said. “A lot of people are looking to buy, and … there is nothing like a Country Coach being made any more.”

The company, which has seven full-time and one part-time employees, also is busy doing RV repairs and renovations. Obermire is optimistic about the future.

“Now our hurdles are much like any business,” he said. “Make sure you’re profitable and manage your growth. I’m looking to hire more people, especially for the summer.”

Still going strong

Over at Guaranty RV, business is steady and the company has hired 16 new RV technicians this year. While sales are strong, buyers have shifted from the high-end coaches of years past to trailers and fifth wheels (which now comprise 60 percent of sales) and from new to used, general manager Shannon Nill said.

“People can see paying $200 a month for a trailer,” he said, “but they don’t want to spend $1,000 a month for a coach.”

The company also has started a rental sideline this year, and sees that side of the business increasing as people check out the RV lifestyle, he said.

“We were the largest RV dealer not to go bankrupt,” Nill said. “We reduced overhead, and went from having a presence in three states to just one. We brought the products home, tightened up and kept the good service.”

Guaranty has employed new marketing techniques that have been highly successful, Nill said, including twice-monthly seminars and a barbecue every Tuesday during the summer, which they promote by handing out fliers at RV campgrounds and service centers. At a recent gathering, 134 couples showed up.

Guaranty, which employs about 300 people on the RV side, is selling about 120 trailers and fifth wheels and 50 to 60 motor homes per month, Nill said. The service department is also doing steady volume.

“We’re back in the black,” he said, “and headed in the right direction.”

Looking afield

Shaun Davis of Davis Cabinets, a custom cabinetmaker and longtime supplier to the RV industry, said business is looking up. But he has taken a novel business approach, he said, because customers are not coming to Junction City in droves the way they used to. So now he goes to where the customers are.

While he used to go down to the Palm Springs area for a couple of weeks every winter for a trade show, he now spends several months down there in Oregon’s off-season, gathering customers.

“I take orders, hand-draw the plans on my iPad, and send it home to my guys who make the cabinets,” he said. “It’s been a revolution in how I’m doing business.”

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