S & S Campers
Building truck campers in a small Rocky Mountain valley town in Montana is not without its challenges. “You need to do whatever you have to do,” said Doug Sieler, vice president of S & S Canopies and Campers Mfg. Co., a maker of truck campers in Kalispell, Montana.
That might mean building a forklift from the remains of an old school bus to move frames and finished campers around the yard. Or, it might mean trekking to the nearby Plum Creek Mill to select plywood by hand. Or, it might mean routinely lending a pickup truck and camper to employees on weekends so they can become better acquainted with the product they build.
It also might mean staying a small and relatively obscure company. But what Sieler is intent on doing right now is expanding the 50-employee company beyond the Mountain West and Pacific Northwest.
S & S displayed its campers for the first time at the National RV Trade Show in November to solicit orders from a broader dealer base. “The whole United States is out there. It look like an open door to me,” Sieler said. “The show was an opportunity for us to get some dealers where we don’t have dealers.”
Sieler’s father, Elmer, founded S & S in 1969 and, although retired, he remains S & S president. “He worked at Bell Campers and saw a market for truck canopies,” Doug Sieler said. “And he made what we call a doghouse, a cab-high slide-in camper that sat in the truck bed. He kept getting calls for more elaborate campers. He’d build a few, and he’d sell them and get enough money for more material and he’d build a few more.”
S & S offers three floor plans in its entry-level Bitterroot brand. The mid-line Ponderosa, available in four floor plans, is manufactured in lengths up to 11 feet and is more user-friendly, with electronic-ignition water heaters, electric jacks and dual battery capability.
The Avalanche, available in five floor plans in lengths of 8 feet to 11 feet, feature a 20-inch deep galley/dinette automatic slide out that is only 12 inches shorter in length than the unit itself.
The single-piece 3-inch aluminum roof is tapered and creased every 12-inches to add strength. Floors, which can be heated in the winter, countertops, and tables are made from 7-ply 3/4-inch plywood and screwed and glued to pre-framed floor joints. A unique bubble-window on the front of the camper is made from non-breakable Lexan, the same material used for windshields in NASCAR cars.
Currently, Sieler said, 75% of S & S’s market is retired couples who already own a larger RV. “We see a lot of people like that who want to go out and play but don’t want to have to haul a big trailer or fifth-wheel behind them,” he said.
The market is sure to expand with the influx of Baby Boomers into the RV market, he said. Sieler said that while he is tempted to expand his company’s dealer body because of its success, he intends to focus on moderate growth. “I’d hate to have 100 new dealers who want product and me not be able to take care of them,” Sieler said.
The company makes about 450 units a year in a 50,000-square-foot manufacturing plant. S & S operates its own truck fleet and even builds the haulers that deliver its campers to dealers to keep the cost of materials down. “I can backhaul and don’t have to pay freight,” Sieler said.