ELKHART — Mike Leman is looking for a few good men and women.
His business, Carrera Custom Painting, is looking to double its workforce of about 100, in fact, as it rolls out two expansions between now and mid-April.
“This RV business, it’s either up or down,” Leman said Thursday, Feb. 28, as many of Carrera’s workers prepared and painted recreational vehicles at the company’s facility at 1101 Herman St., on the city’s east side.
“We’re trying to grow at a reasonable rate,” Leman said, but it’s not easy keeping up. The RV industry, heavily concentrated here, grew by 13 percent last year. In January the industry produced 30 percent more RVs than in January 2012. “We’re just trying to keep up with the demands of our customers,” Leman said as he walked into the 30,000-square-foot expansion built by DJ Construction.
That expansion will begin operations within the next two weeks, employing another 15 to 20 people.
Then, in April, Carrera will open another facility it bought and is outfitting on the city’s south side, Leman said. “We can’t just paint in any building in Elkhart County,” Leman said. They have to set up paint booths and get permits for those booths. For their customers, the RV companies, “it seems like they can ramp up production a little easier than us.”
The new Carrera facility will be the source of the rest of the new jobs, though they’ll be distributed between the two locations as seasoned Carrera employees help lead teams at the new site.
FEAST OR FAMINE
Carrera has been around since 1981. Leman took over in November 2011, when Bremen-based paint company Precision Painting bought Carrera. Leman is a partner at Precision, and talked about the industry’s ups and downs.
Carrera started out in the van conversion business but moved into the RV business as it overshadowed vans, Leman said.
Precision and Carrera took major hits along with the rest of the RV industry and its suppliers.
Leman said, “2008, 2009 were horrible. There was almost nothing to paint. The industry, it’s either all or nothing, feast or famine.”
Precision had been making investments in its business, founded in 1995, during the good years, and it allowed them to weather the recession and acquire Carrera on the upswing.
Since then, Carrera’s seen about 50 percent growth and Precision’s business has doubled, Leman said.
Painting is a critical part of the RV assembly process, and working with several customers to keep the process flowing requires some difficult choreography, Leman said. “We work hand in hand pretty closely,” he said. “We’re feeding several divisions of each manufacturer. It takes a lot of planning.”
Some manufacturers do their own painting in house, but many contract to outside suppliers like Carrera and Precision. Leman estimated there are about a dozen firms around.
The advantage to the manufacturers in using an outside painter is “paint’s a fixed cost for them. They get it at a reasonable rate. If they do it themselves, it’s a variable cost,” Leman said.
WHAT CARRERA NEEDS
“To find qualified painters and preppers, that’s been our struggle,” Leman said. Ideally they’d like experienced people. “We’re willing to train, but that takes time,” he said.
“We’re definitely looking for people with experience, but obviously if we’re hiring 100 people, not all of them are going to have experience.
“If they can show dependability, good attitude, good work ethic, we can train anybody,” Leman said.
They have high expectations, though. “The paint’s the first thing people see when they look at an RV. We can’t afford to jeopardize our reputation and our quality,” he said.
Interested applicants for the first-shift, full-benefits jobs can show up between 2 and 4 p.m. weekdays at Carrera’s building on Herman, which is south of Middlebury Street.
“Being able to bring 100 new jobs to Elkhart makes us feel great about what we are now able to give back to the community,” Leman said.