RVs and Elkhart County benefit from an enduring partnership

Elkhart County has become synonymous with recreational vehicles.

Posted on Feb. 27, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.

ELKHART — While the RV industry is more than just the Elkhart County area and Elkhart County is more than just RVs, the two are inextricably intertwined.

“If you mention to anybody throughout the United States or Canada, you mention you’re from Elkhart, the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, that’s the RV capital,’” said Darryl Searer, head of the RV/MH Hall of Fame and heritage foundation.

While the recession hit this area hard because of the discretionary nature of RVs, even as it shrank the industry shored up its position here. Today, 83 percent of RVs made in North America are made in this area, said Richard Coon, president of the RV Industry Association. “Elkhart’s a very important area, as you know,” Coon said.

The share of production of RVs on the west coast dropped off significantly in favor of production here, where the industry really grew over the decades.

“I wasn’t around when it started, but from what I understand it’s mainly centered around that area because of the Amish population which brings a strong amount of craftsmanship. It was a good place to be,” Coon said.

Jayco, a home-grown RV success story, started in Middlebury and is still there.

“I can’t think of any other place I’d rather be than right here in Middlebury, Ind., Elkhart County, Ind., for home,” said Derald Bontrager, CEO of the company his father started.

“I think one of the more important things for us and the reason we stay put here is the workforce is second to none, in my mind, anywhere in the country. Just loyal, hardworking, consistent, honest. I could go on and on. They’re just a great workforce we’ve been blessed with,” he said.

Last month Jayco honored its 173rd active employee with at least 20 years of service, Bontrager said. “You don’t find that in a lot of companies, a lot of loyal, long-time employees. A high percentage of our direct-labor workforce is Amish. We don’t track that, but I would say 70, 80 percent is an Amish workforce, skilled craftsmen.”

The second reason Bontrager cited for Jayco’s contentment with this area is “the county and the state have been very good to not just us as a company but to the industry, working to keep us here. We feel on a regular basis that the county and the state really appreciate our industry.”

Thor Industries is moving its headquarters from Jackson Center, Ohio, to Elkhart because of the concentration of its RV operations here.

“We have 8,800 employees, approximately 6,000 in northern Indiana. That’s kind of a significant number,” said Bob Martin, president of the RV and bus giant.

“We’re central to our vendors, we’re central to all our divisions. Most of our manufacturing is from right here in this area. I’m from Elkhart. I was born here, went to high school here. It’s very central to me,” Martin said.

“The supplier base here is one of the main reasons there’s so much production here,” Martin said. “We’re primarily assemblers. We rely on the suppliers to provide the parts,” he said.

Al Hesselbart, a historian with the hall of fame and heritage foundation, said three men brought the industry to the area in the 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression, and it flourished. “By the ’50s there were over 50 companies making trailers in Elkhart. As that happened all these supply firms, the vendors, said, ‘Well, gee, if I’m going to have a warehouse to deliver to the trailer builders, where am I going to put it? I’m going to put it in Elkhart. If I’m going to build a plant, I’m going to put it in Elkhart,’” he said.

The remarkable thing about the industry’s survival of the most recent recession is that most of the brands are still around. In the 1970s, “better than half of the industry crawled into the hole and died,” said Hesselbart.

This time around, “the remarkable thing I think about this recession, the most recent recession, that differs from the disaster of the ’70s is that there were companies that were in the position to acquire the failing companies and we didn’t lose near as many brand names,” Hesselbart said.

Forest River and Thor “have had deep enough pockets that they’ve picked up the pieces,” Hesselbart said.

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