In 2008, a group of four Pilgrim International executives had been planning a new model that the recreational vehicle maker would market as more environmentally friendly.
They would incorporate more man-made composite materials rather than the commonly used luan, a wood that comes from trees in the rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia. Because the composite weighs less than wood, the vehicle would also get better gas mileage, reducing fuel emissions.
The group was excited about carving a new niche in the highly competitive industry. Because they wanted to use materials and processes that were new to the industry, it took them about three years to find and secure them. They had built two prototype fifth-wheels and were ready to launch in the fall of 2008.
But then came the Great Recession, causing Pilgrim, like many others in the area, to close its doors. Not only was their new idea suddenly grounded, but they were jobless.
“Obviously it was difficult to find employment,” said Doug Lantz, one of the former Pilgrim executives and now EverGreen’s vice president of sales and marketing. “As factories were going out of business and laying off management, and the wheels were coming off, we were all right in the middle of all that.”
As they pondered their own futures, the men still felt confident in their idea, Lantz said. But how could they possibly get their concept off the ground without a company?
They cleared a major hurdle when they won the support of influential investors Kelly Rose and Mike Schoeffler, longtime industry veterans whose buy-in soon attracted other investors. In late 2008, EverGreen RV was born.
More than five years later, EverGreen last year was the fastest-growing RV maker among the 15 largest companies in the industry, according to Statistical Surveys Inc., an independent Grand Rapids, Mich.-based firm that tracks the RV industry.
From January 2013 through November, the most recent data available, the company saw the number of RVs it sold grow 82.5 percent compared to the year prior, and its market share rose 58 percent, a Statistical Surveys spokesman confirmed.
Building from the ground level
That growth has come despite significant challenges, starting with uncertainty over their first production facility. In December 2008 the founders had been planning to lease a building on C.R. 2 recently vacated by Coachmen. At the same time, they learned that Forest River had bought Coachmen’s assets, but since the sale did not include the building, EverGreen was able to lease the plant.
In early 2009, the first 42 employees were all unemployed when EverGreen hired them. Many were former Pilgrim staff.
“It boded well for us because some of the top management that’s still here today were high-level top managers at companies that were let loose because of downsizing,” Lantz said. “We were able to pick them up and employ them, and get that value of those years of experience, people we probably normally wouldn’t have been able to attract as a start-up company.”
Their current director of purchasing had more than 30 years of experience and had held a high-level position at Coachmen.
“I called him up. He was wiring houses for his brother,” Lantz said. “I had known him because I had worked with him years prior at Coachmen. I’d heard he didn’t have a job. This guy ran all of purchasing for Coachmen. Here he is wiring houses for his brother. I said, ‘Hey, get over here!’
“We all had that excitement level of starting something new from the ground level, in the middle of the rubble of Elkhart County.”
While recently giving a reporter a tour of EverGreen’s Middlebury plant, Lantz proudly points out how the company differs from many of its competitors. For one thing, EverGreen builds the walls and floors of its RVs with more aluminum, steel and foam — a combination Lantz says is stronger and lighter than wood.
When making the aluminum framing for walls and floors, the company double-welds instead of tack-welds because it backs the craftsmanship with a three-year structural warranty.
Its 101-point quality inspection before each unit leaves the assembly line includes a rain test to check for leaks. Lantz said EverGreen’s competitors also water test, but only randomly selected vehicles.
Cabinetry is built like furniture, meaning joints are screwed and glued together instead of being stapled. Stapling doesn’t hold up as well over time because of the temperature fluctuations that RVs see when they are stored outside.
When a reporter pointed out some wood being used at the plant, Lantz acknowledged that although all models use composites in the side walls, the company realized it would need to use some wood in lower-priced models to reduce production costs.
New brands join the lineup
With the success of its first brand, Ever-Lite, EverGreen decided it was time to offer a full range of models across all price points.
“With adding more management and cast members to the company, we all got together and said it’s time to break out within the lineup,” said Mark Boessler, president and chief operations officer.
In 2010 they launched Element, their second brand. In 2011 came I-Go. Over the past two years, the others have come out, for a total of 10 brands under the EverGreen umbrella.
At December’s National RV Trade Show in Louisville, EverGreen announced three new brands and relaunched Element, hitting a new price point and segment, after idling it in 2012.
Boessler said the company, unlike some of its big competitors, does not produce cloned vehicles under different brand names.
“We’re not trying to be the largest manufacturer in North America, we just want to be the best and the best in each segment. We’re trying very hard to be innovative. When you buy our product and put it on your lot, Mr. Dealer, you’re not going to have a clone product five or eight minutes down the road. That’s really our hallmark.”
Finding best workers is a challenge
EverGreen’s challenge moving forward is far different than when it started. In late 2008, Elkhart’s unemployment rate was soaring at 18 percent, so the start-up had its pick of whom to hire. There were 73 employees in April 2012, a number that had swelled to nearly 400 by January 2014.
In December 2013, the county’s unemployment rate had dipped to 6.7 percent.
“I don’t know where underemployment is in Elkhart County right now,” Boessler said. “I’m sure it’s there. We’re looking for great workers and we’re trying to hire, right now, great workers. Our plans are increasing production all through January, February and March, so that’s going to involve hiring more people.”
As the labor market continues to tighten, EverGreen will rely partly on word-of-mouth from happy workers. It will sell the reputation that Rose, chairman of the board, and Schoeffler, chief executive officer, have established for running employee-friendly companies.
In short, it must work hard to recruit.
“Usually it’s pirating against other manufacturers, and everybody pretty much does the same thing because there’s only so many workers who can do this well,” Boessler said.
At some point, Boessler said the company will need to raise wage rates to attract quality workers.
“It is clearly what we look at to keep score and we’re in business for business, obviously, to make money,” he said. “But we want the best worker, the best product. We don’t want to have to apologize for what we sell. “