Dale Zimmerman, who became president of SunLine Coach Co. Inc. in November, literally grew up on the shop floor. “I cut my teeth and learned how to walk in an RV plant,” Zimmerman said. “I remember very vividly walking across the plant floor as a toddler.”
That was even before his father, John Zimmerman, partnered in 1975 with SunLine founder Lewis Martin and business acquaintance Wayne L. Lawrence Sr. (now retired, father of current CEO W. Larry Lawrence Jr.) to relaunch SunLine, which had been operating under Martin and another partner for 11 years.
“When Lewis’ partner left, the company was a little bigger than he wanted to manage by himself,” Zimmerman said. “That’s when he hooked up with my father, who had been general manager of an RV plant until it was sold. Wayne Lawrence was a friend of my father’s who had background in sales and marketing.”
SunLine, headquartered in Pennsylvania’s Amish region, remains closely owned today with members of the Martin, Lawrence and Zimmerman families occupying SunLine’s board and other family members counted among SunLine’s 220-plus employees. SunLine appointed 26-year employee Mel Weiler, vice president of production, as SunLine’s first non-family executive in November.
SunLine manufactures four brands of travel trailers: Solaris Lite, Solaris, slideout-equipped Solaris SR and Advancer.
“With the three different Solaris lines we are catering to three different markets,” Zimmerman explained. “Experienced customers are buying the Solaris and Solaris SR. Some people moving to travel trailers from pop ups are interested in the Solaris Lite. Younger campers also are looking at the Advancer because of its uniqueness and sleeker design.”
The Advancer features a frame sitting on a normal chassis that tapers out 6 inches from front to back, creating a more aerodynamic profile behind the tow vehicle, Zimmerman said. “You don’t have the whip or the draw that you get from a traditional travel trailer,” Zimmerman added. “It was an idea from Skip Hershey in our marketing department that we kicked around for five or six years. It came from thinking about NASCAR aerodynamics and the wedges that you see on the tops of semi-tractors. The air rushes by the front and helps keep the unit straight.”
Creating a tapered body was not without its challenges. “It was a whole different mindset going through production when we’d been telling everybody forever to keep everything square and everything flush,” Zimmerman said. “Now we’re telling them to build it at an angle. You have to hang your walls and you have to hang your cabinets on an angle.”
The sale of trailers with slideouts, all seven models in the Solaris SR line and one in the Advancer line, has grown to 35% of SunLine’s business, Zimmerman said, up from only 5% five years ago. The Solaris SR is built in a satellite plant opened in 1993 in the nearby community of Leola.
SunLine started marketing smaller trailers in the Solaris line as lightweight trailers several years ago. “Throughout the 1980s, we were known for our lightweight trailers,” Zimmerman said. “A few years ago, we refocused our marketing by creating the Solaris Lite to emphasize that.”
Zimmerman said the company expects to offer a fifth-wheel trailer in 2002 as an extension of the Solaris SR.
Acknowledging that SunLine trailers typically are priced higher than the competition, Zimmerman said surveys have found SunLine to be among RVs having the highest resale value on the used market. “There is a higher return on the investment,” he said.
— Bob Ashley