RV plant in Harrisburg gets new life

by Wendy on August 2, 2014

RV Plant in Harrisburg Gets New Life
by: Ilene Aleshire (www.registerguard.com)

Forest River Inc. buys the former Monaco Coach manufacturing site and plans to build towable trailers.

HARRISBURG — An Elkhart, Ind., RV firm has bought the former Monaco Coach plant in Harrisburg for an undisclosed sum and plans to restart production in a few weeks, a company official said Thursday.

Forest River Inc. completed its acquisition of the plant last week, has hired back the plant’s former management team and soon will be hiring office and production staff, said Paul Eskritt, who is general manager of Forest River’s plant in Dallas, Texas, and will oversee the Harrisburg plant.

“We’re going to build towable (trailer) brands from Forest River,” Eskritt said. “We’re going to start to bring more brands from the eastern region of the U.S. to serve our dealers. Vibe is the first brand we’ll open the factory with; shortly after, we’ll bring out the Cherokee brands.”

The company will have eight to 10 office staff to begin with and about 30 production workers, Eskritt said.

“I know that starting number looks small,” he said, but the company intends to quickly ramp up production — and employment.

“We will start with building one a day … it will take about three weeks to get the first unit out the door,” probably in mid-September, he said.

“After about two to three weeks, we’ll go up to two a day, then three a day. … Each one will require additional head count,” Eskritt said.

The plant closed in February when its then-owner, Allied Specialty Vehicles, decided to exit the small towable trailer market. Allied had bought the plant last year from Navistar, which in turn had acquired it from Monaco in 2009.

At the time it closed, the plant had about 120 regular and temporary workers.

Eskritt said that when Forest River has the plant fully up and running, employment should easily surpass the previous level.

“They were running one production line a day when the (closure) happened,” he said. “Our plans are to run two production lines there. I can’t give you a timetable on when this will happen but at some point in the future we’ll be much larger than (the previous employee count), given the plans in place.”

The deciding factor for how quickly Forest River ramps up production will be the volume of orders it receives, Eskritt said.

The deal, which had been in the works for some time, closed at an opportune time, he said.

“We do an open house, invite all the dealers to our Dallas plant,” Eskritt said, “That show is where we write a significant number of orders. We wrote eight months of orders last year — it gets you through the winter.”

This year’s show is scheduled for Aug. 19-21.

Getting staff on board and trained is another factor, but Eskritt said he’s not worried.

“We’ve got a good work force available in that area,” he said. “With some of the companies that went out of business, I think we’ll get really good workers.”

The managers that Forest River has already hired “are really top quality,” he said.

The RV industry in general and Forest River in particular have been growing in recent years, Eskritt said.

“The industry’s been very healthy the last four years,” he said, and has fully recovered from the recession: “We’re at or above pre-recession levels.”

And Forest River has been growing its share of the market, he said: “We’re one of the largest producers in the industry.”

The timing was good to open another plant in Oregon, Eskritt said.

“The market out here has been extremely hot,” he said. “Our sales are up 50 percent a year at our (Dallas) plant alone.”

Shifting production of some of the towables to the Harrisburg plant from back East eliminates a big expense for the company, namely the cost of shipping RVs cross country, Eskritt said. And it means better service for dealers in the West, he said.

“This is a large market area, (and) the closer you are to your dealers, the better service you can give them,” he said. “We build products here that only serve the Northwest.”

Harrisburg City Manager Brian Latta said the reopening of the plant is very good news for the town of 3,640 people in southern Linn County.

Some of the people who lost jobs when the plant closed and had to find work elsewhere will now be able to work closer to home again, he said. Others who haven’t been able to find work, or have only been able to find part-time work, now have a shot at a full-time job in an industry where they have experience, he said.

Also, the restoration of jobs will benefit downtown businesses who lost customers when the plant closed, he said.

The plant is within Harrisburg’s urban growth boundary but just outside the city limits, so it’s reopening doesn’t mean additional direct taxes for the city, but the company will pay for city-provided utilities, Latta said.

Forest River was acquired in 2005 by Berkshire Hathaway, a conglomerate headed by legendary investor Warren Buffett. Buffett called Forest River founder and CEO Pete Liegl “a remarkable entrepreneur” and said he would not interfere with Liegl’s operation of the business.

Today, Forest River has more than 6,000 employees and 60 manufacturing facilities throughout the country and is approaching $2 billion in annual sales.

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