MILLERSBURG — The auctioneers and crowds had already passed through the plain white building on the western edge of the campus. But walk through the small door, turn and there in the partial darkness sat a pair of oval signs with the name Carriage proudly displayed.
They were symbolic of a company lost in a financial mess. At the same time, the yellow tags attached to the molds stacked beside the signs indicated legacy of the brands would continue under another manufacturer.
More than 40 years after Carriage Inc. started building and selling fifth wheels, the company came to an end Tuesday amid the staccato cries of auctioneers. A large crowd ringed the mobile auction stand as it moved from one lot of raw materials to the next while individuals and small groups in other buildings appeared to have staked out the items they wanted and were just waiting for the auctioneers to arrive.
All the remains of the luxury fifth wheel maker, excluding the real estate, were scheduled to be auctioned Tuesday. Myron Bowling Auctioneers Inc. from Ohio had organized and was overseeing the one-day event.
A mix of manufacturers, vendors and dealers were there, along with retail consumers looking to get a finished Carriage unit at a bargain price. At 1:15 p.m., 785 potential bidders had registered at the auction office, 250 had signed up during the inspection Monday and another 220 were bidding and buying online.
RETURNING ONE MORE TIME
Mark Musselman of Ligonier had made counter tops at Carriage for 34 years and never thought of leaving until the manufacturer closed. When the company stopped production in October 2011, the employees were assured they would be called back in two weeks. Musselman kept in regular contact with his plant manager until the day he was told the financial issues were too great and Carriage was done.
He came to the auction, in part, to see what was available and also to take one last look around.
“I would have come back,” said Musselman, who has since found a job in Syracuse. “It was such a great place to work.”
As the bells from a nearby church echoed through the cold air, Musselman walked up a small hill and into the main production facility, dubbed Building One. Here, he explained, a bare chassis started at the beginning of the line and was rolled through the entire length of the building, parts and components were added until a finished recreational vehicle arrived at the end.
“They made sure things were right,” Musselman said. “They didn’t throw things together and make a junk unit.”
Tuesday, towables in various stages of construction sat along the production track. An empty chassis gave way to a unit with the floor installed, some of the outer walls constructed and the spot of the slide out left open. Next to that were units with floors, cabinets, interior walls, fiberglass exterior walls and, as one auction attendee explained as he pointed to the storage compartment in the rear of the unit, a mother-in-law suite.
All around were neat piles of supplies used to make RVs. Spools of electrical wiring, stacks of plywood, rows of axles and tires, microwave ovens, refrigerators, stoves and shower stalls were among the array of items tagged and waiting to be sold to the highest bidder.
Scott Tuttle, founder and president of Livin’ Lite Recreational Vehicles in Wakarusa, had ended up purchasing six boxes of screw guns and was looking at some racks, all of which he said he needs for his company’s booming production.
He was stunned by the prices the lots were garnering. Usually, he said, things could be picked up at an auction for 60 cents on the dollar but within the last 18 months a trend has emerged in many auctions of articles going for 80 to 90 cents on the dollar.
At the Carriage event, he noted a radial arm saw, that normally retails for $275, went for $375. And a welding machine that costs about $3,300 new was sold for $2,800.
“It’s crazy,” he said.
THOR BUYS NAME
By noon the buzz of the auction was the sale of the intellectual property, including the Carriage name, the brand names, engineering drawings and molded dies. A separate ring was opened at 11 a.m. in the plain white building specifically to auction off the intangible assets.
The highest bidder was Redwood RV, a division of Thor Industries, buying the lot for $100,000.
“We plan to bring the name back,” said Redwood president Don Emahiser. “I’m not comfortable saying where or when but we bought it not just to sit on the shelf.”
That Redwood purchased the legacy of Carriage is not surprising. The Thor fifth wheel company was started by Don Emahiser, former president of Carriage, and has several former Carriage employees from senior executives all the way down to production workers.
So entwined are the two companies that Emahiser described Redwood as having Carriage in its DNA.
DIFFERENT PLANS FOR THE LAND
By order of Elkhart Superior Court 1, the real estate was placed into receivership in December 2011. The assets that went on the auction block Tuesday were not part of the receivership estate.
Key Auctioneers Inc., based in Indianapolis, has been designated the receiver and is handling the sale of the property that includes 17 parcels of land totaling nearly 60 acres and 19 buildings with a combined space measuring about 415,000 square feet.
The real estate should be listed in a couple of weeks, said Tim Boeglin, senior vice president at Key Auctioneers. He is optimistic the property will sell and could likely be purchased by a single buyer.
Either the land and buildings will be sold in a private transaction between the buyer and Key Auctioneers or, Boeglin said, at some point the property could be auctioned.