MILFORD — On a recent morning inside his studio, Ed Kinney was gluing pebbles onto his latest creation, a fairy house, and listening to a recording of singer Tony Bennett. Behind him sat a barber chair, sink and large mirror for the times when someone drops by for a quick haircut.
Kinney is an artist, a barber, an entertaining talker and a former RV industry executive who watched Carriage Inc. crumble from the inside. He harbors sadness and anger over the demise of the luxury fifth wheel maker, admitting he had a difficult time coming to terms with the company’s closure.
Yet when he talks about Carriage, the stories that come out first are the happy ones.
“Carriage, I always told people it was a magical place because of the people,” he said. “They took the time to do things right. They had a schedule but if something was wrong, they stopped the whole line to fix it. They had a lot of pride in what they were doing.”
Founded in the late 1960s, Carriage produced well-built, high-quality recreational vehicles at its Millersburg campus. In October 2011, production abruptly halted and then a few days later, PNC Bank filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer, stating Carriage was in default of its obligations to the bank.
The real estate has been put into receivership at the request of PNC and the assets were auctioned in a marathon session that lasted 14 hours Feb. 21. Kinney, the former vice president of sales and marketing, said he attended the sale long enough to see CrossRoads RV, a division of Thor Industries, purchase the Carriage intellectual property, including the name and fiberglass molds.
Ironically, Kinney’s RV career ended at the same place it began, Carriage. He had just closed his small barbershop to pursue a job offer in the manufactured housing industry that quickly turned sour. Kinney was then thrown a lifeline by Clarence Yoder, the founder of Carriage, who offered him the opportunity to learn about making and selling fifth wheels.
“Carriage was special because it was a great company with incredible people,” Kinney said.
He eventually left Carriage and landed at the former Monaco Coach Corp. He started as a regional sales representative then was promoted to vice president of sales and, when he got burned out and was thinking of retiring, he was put in charge of corporate training and motorsports.
In those days, Monaco sponsored a racing team and the walls of Kinney’s studio are cluttered auto racing helmets and firesuits that the drivers wore. Being the storyteller he is, Kinney has tales of toting locally made apple sausages to the track and cooking breakfast for some of the drivers.
He remains surrounded by reminders of his RV career and fast cars but he now spends his time creating art. Along with building fairy houses and painting, Kinney works extensively with glass. He sculpts melted wine bottles into fish and he glues pieces of colored glass onto birdhouses to craft stunning mosaic designs.
“All my artwork, at least at this point, goes to charity,” Kinney said. “I don’t really do it for a living. It’s a hobby.”
It was during his time at Monaco that he became interested in the glass medium. For six of his 20 years at the company, he had to travel to the corporate headquarters in Oregon every week. And, instead of sitting in the hotel bar after work, he frequented a glass studio where he talked to the glassblowers and learned their craft.
When he finally did retire from Monaco, he spent more time honing his artistic skills and reopened his barbershop. Then Glenn Cushman, owner of Carriage, took him to dinner in 2010 and asked him to return to the company.
Initially, Kinney said, he was reluctant to go back to selling RVs but he changed his mind at a Carriage dealer meeting in Texas a short time later. There, he reconnected with friends he had not seen in years.
Less than two years in October 2011, production was shut down and PNC Bank was telling the court the company was insolvent or in imminent danger of insolvency.
At that time, Kinney and consultant Rick Van Es heavily blamed PNC, contending the financial institution demanded immediate payment and would not review a restructuring plan. Kinney still faults the bank but said the troubles were also caused by the economic recession and management issues inside the company.
Cushman did not return a call seeking comment. His brother, Craig Cushman, declined to comment, explaining he did not want to say anything that could be potentially damaging to his brother.
Kinney remained hopeful a deal could be negotiated with PNC but those hopes were dashed on a Friday evening not long after the production had shutdown. He had gone to dinner in North Webster, confident the parties would reach a new agreement.
Indeed, company management was even scheduled to meet on Monday to make plans for getting production started again. They had orders to fill and they had business, Kinney said. Yet when he checked his email after dinner, he learned that the negotiations had failed.
“We had a plan to make everybody whole within a few months and be profitable,” Kinney said. “Right now the only people who came out whole is the bank.”
PNC declined to comment on the Carriage situation. In an email a bank spokesman stated PNC “will not comment on current or former customers.”
Comfortable in his studio and telling stories of his life, Kinney is jovial and at peace. Yet, while talking about his work in art, Kinney makes a statement that could be a metaphor for the end of Carriage.
“There’s nothing worse than making a beautiful piece of glass and it shatters,” he said.