Dodgen's Class C Doctrine
John Dodgen, 75, president and CEO of Born Free Motorcoach Inc., tried to retire in 1991. "I went to Florida for the winter," Dodgen said. "They asked me to cover the Tampa Supershow and I ended up selling five units. I went to another show a week later and sold three more. That ended my retirement. It lasted two and a half months. They said I couldn't leave."
Being unable to walk away wasn't unusual for Dodgen. He founded Dodgen Industries in 1947 to build automated feed and seed equipment for farmers in the Midwest. Since the company entered the RV business in 1969, Dodgen has experienced more than a few of the ups and downs of the cyclical RV sector that put manufacturers and suppliers in jeopardy and three times cost him his dealer network.
"We grew out of the mentality 'make it simple and make it strong,' " Dodgen said. "If we didn't, farmers would tear up the equipment and we'd have a lot of warranty work." Dodgen builds Born Free Class C's in five floorplans in lengths ranging from 23 feet to 26 feet. Models can be manufactured with a slanted front roof or with a cabover for additional sleeping space.
The Born Free is built on a Ford E450 chassis with a 6.8-liter, V-10 engine. A 7.3-liter Ford turbodiesel engine is available as an option. Born Free does its own fiberglass fabrication and cabinetry.
Four employee teams make about 200 Born Free minimotorhomes each year. In addition, the company builds about 100 specialty units annually. "We make a lot of showmobiles for the golf industry and the clothing industry. And most of the commercial balloons you see – the Pepsi balloon, Coca Cola balloon and the America Online balloon – we've built chase vehicles for them."
Born Free specialty products also include mobile veterinary, and dental medical clinics and police command units. "We built padded mobile jails for the state of Missouri," Dodgen added. The company also constructed four special units used in the cleanup after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union and recently finished building a prototype for the U.S. government's nuclear security program.
"We do a lot of exotic units," Dodgen said. "About a third of our business is commercial. That helps us because we don't have the fluctuations that we would have being strictly in the RV business."
In getting into the RV business, Dodgen first built what he calls a "detachable motorhome" in 1969. Today, the unit would be called a truck camper. Sitting on the bed of a pick-up truck, it had a 6-foot gooseneck overhang in the rear supported by a tag axle.
"We grew out of that into the motorhome business," said Dodgen, adding that he built his first true motorhome in 1973 on a Dodge chassis. But then came the first oil embargo and Dodgen put production into mothballs after losing his dealership base, which had grown to 50, for the first time. "Nixon closed the gas stations on Sunday and that ended that," Dodgen said. "We still made campers, but there was a two-year moratorium on motorhomes."
While Dodgen rebuilt the company's distribution network, the second oil embargo came along in 1976 and President Carter declared America's energy troubles to be the moral equivalent of war.
"We lost our dealers again, but we didn't lose any business because we guaranteed if a Born Free owner got stranded, we would get gas to them or give them a per diem for a hotel and meals," Dodgen said. "We never put out a dime."
Rebuilding the network again, he finally gave up selling Born Free motorhomes through dealerships when the prime interest rate hit 22% in 1979. "I decided the only way we could go was to custom build and ship factory direct," Dodgen said.
In addition, Born Free sells at company-owned stores in Clermont, Fla., and Carson City, Nev., and has consignment agreements with dealers in New Braunfels, Texas, and Apache Junction, Ariz.
A recent $1 million expansion that increased Born Free's manufacturing capacity to 500 units a year included a $250,000 state-of-the art testing facility to check for leaks. "If it's going to leak, I want it to leak here," Dodgen said.