Phoenix USA Focuses on B+ Motorhomes, Carves Solid Market Niche
Being associated with camper vans for most of his lengthy career in the RV industry, Kermit Fisher, president of Phoenix USA Inc., Bristol, Ind., in the late 1990s recognized the trend toward “B+-style” RVs – rather small and affordable Class C coaches providing the handling and feel of classic van campers but with the living amenities of minimotorhomes.
Founded in 1996, Phoenix USA of Bristol, Ind., produced the Phoenix van camper during its first four years. That changed in 2000 when Phoenix USA converted to C-body construction and launched the Phoenix Cruiser.
“I wanted to concentrate our assets on B+ motorhomes, which I really believed would become a substantial part of the RV market” said Fisher, the former president and minority owner of International Vehicles Corp. (Intervec), Bristol, a well-known manufacturer of Falcon and Horizon van campers that went out of business in the mid-1990s.
Phoenix builds two minimotorhomes – the Phoenix Cruiser and the more affordable Phoenix Sport. The Cruiser is the company’s best-selling coach by far.
“It’s tough to compete against high-volume manufacturers and to sell just the construction of the unit,” Fisher said. “The Sport is a nice product, but customers want to see some bells and whistles and functionality.”
Although more expensive than some Class Cs, the Cruiser’s price is justified, Fisher maintains. “Phoenix Cruisers are not an entry-level product,” he said. “When you walk into a Phoenix Cruiser, you see the quality and the workmanship that goes into it.”
Major product upgrades now justify Phoenix Cruiser’s price in the eye of the consumer, he said.
“We spruced things up a bit, and they can see it. Now customers don’t come in and ask why our coaches are a little more than some of the others. It is apparent to them.”
Fisher said the Phoenix Cruiser’s primary appeal is to seasoned RVers downsizing from larger Class A’s, and to Baby Boom buyers who are more likely to make motorhomes their first RVs than was case with the previous generation.
“We are a step up from the typical van camper, but Cruisers and Sports aren’t big and bulky like typical Class C’s or Class A’s,” Fisher said. “We can build most of our stuff on the Ford E-350 because we are a relatively light vehicle. The 29-footer is on the Ford E-450 because of the double slideouts. You really have to make sure you are not overloading to one side.”
The idea of becoming a Class C manufacturer struck Fisher a short time after the company started building the Cruiser as a van camper.
“We didn’t build a Class C at first,” he said, "but I sit across the street from one of the major transporters. I saw a lot of inexpensive Class C’s shipping out of there. I realized there was a good-sized market that we were missing. The next year, I upgraded the Cruiser to a Class C, and that’s when our product took off.”
With Phoenix minimotorhomes being sold by 28 dealers nationwide, company revenue in 2003 reached $6.2 million. The company currently builds five coaches a week. According to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), shipments of Class C RVs grew more than 40% through July compared to 2003.
Fisher planned to take advantage of that growth by doubling Phoenix USA’s production capacity by moving sometime this fall to a new plant in Bristol that would allow the firm to build as many as 300 coaches a year, compared to the 220 the company expects to build in 2004.
“We are limiting ourselves right now, and it’s not because of a lack of sales,” Fisher said. “It’s production capacity that is holding us back. We need more of it.”
Fisher said he hadn’t totally abandoned the thought of producing a coach on a classic Class B platform.
“I’m watching the Mercedes Sprinter (commercial van) a little bit. My interest will depend on how they are going to be distributed to manufacturers. Right now you have to purchase them directly through dealers, and that’s a little iffy as far as I am concerned.”