Alfa Leisure Gets a Push From Entry Into Diesel
Founded in 1973 almost as a hobby, Alfa Leisure Inc., owned by Johnnie R. Crean, son of retired Fleetwood Industries Inc. founder and CEO John C. Crean, has seen a major growth spurt since 2000 as sales revenue has quadrupled.
The growth coincides with Alfa Leisure’s aggressive entry into the Class A diesel segment with the See Ya! motorhome.
Johnnie R. Crean acknowledges that in Alfa Leisure’s early days, RV manufacturing wasn’t his highest priority.
“Between 1975 and 1989,” he said with typical candor, “I’d only spend about 90 days a year working. I made money to spend money.”
Opening a factory in Kentucky in 1989 turned out to be a bad idea, particularly because California’s economy took a major downturn about that time.
“That was the first time I understood what working capital was, because I didn’t have any,” Crean said.
That led him to focus on business. Liquidating the Kentucky factory and turning his attention to the California operation, Crean recapitalized Alfa Leisure in the 1990s. After his father’s abrupt departure from Fleetwood in 1998, he decided to built Class A diesels.
“I didn’t really want to compete with dad,” he said. “That changed when (the board) at Fleetwood decided it was time for him to retire.”
The decision was fortuitous: The company’s sales went from $50 million annually to $200 million in 2004; and it led to a virtual cult following among U.S. motorhome enthusiasts sold on Crean’s unique, common-sense approach to motorhome design.
“I’d always been a big fish in a small pond,” Crean said. “Now I’m in a bigger pond, and I’m competing with people who have been in the business for 30 or 40 years. And now we take 10% of the chassis that Freightliner makes. It wasn’t very hard to go from $50 million to $200 million in sales.”
Crean’s flamboyant style and outspoken views regarding the industry general and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) in particular, have earned him a reputation as someone who isn’t afraid to rock the boat.
“I don’t enjoy or even really comprehend why people think I’m a maverick,” he said. “I believe in individualism and freedom. I also think that whenever you get a bunch of guys getting together in a room to make a bunch of decisions, the general public usually is getting screwed.”
Crean expects Alfa Leisure to begin building gas-powered Class A’s in the not-to-distant future.
“I want to have a three-legged stool – fifth-wheels, diesel and gas,” he said. “They are three different markets, and it will make the company more stable.”
Alfa RVs are sold by 60 dealerships nationwide operating about 100 stores. “We are distributed nationally, but most of our dealers are on the West Coast, in Texas and a few in Florida,” Crean said, adding that one of his goals for the company was to open a factory east of the Mississippi River. “After we get into gas I think we’ll put a facility in the East to be closer to the dealers.”
In 1976, Alfa was the first OEM to build a production version of what eventually came come to be known as the “toy hauler,” or sport utility RV (SURV), a niche that has grown in popularity.
“I’m not the creator,” Crean said. “Other people were building them in California, and I’d seen them, but we were the first ones to build them on a production line.”
Crean does claim credit for Alfa Leisure building the first stand-up, front bedroom and with engineering the first 7 1/2-foot interior ceilings into the See Ya! when the line debuted in 2000.
“We didn’t know that we weren’t supposed to be able to do that,” he said, explaining that such innovations are the result of out-of-the-box thinking by himself and people who work for Alfa.
Alfa Leisure’s most recent offering, the entry level See Ya! Founder Edition diesel pusher, came about in collaboration with his father. Although Johnnie R. Crean says the name came from the fact that both he and his dad were founders of RV firms, the name, curiously, rhymes with Bounder, a straight-forward no-nonsense motorhome brand developed and championed by the senior Crean when he led Fleetwood. The Bounder generated intense loyalty among consumers, and to an extent, has helped redefine the Class A sector.
The See Ya! Founder wasn’t intended to cater to those who want their coaches tricked out with the latest gadgets.
“All this techno stuff that we can put into a coach that I think is wonderful he thinks is useless,” he said.
Crean said his father’s involvement in developing product for Alfa Leisure likely will continue. “He’s working on a few things that nobody has seen yet, including developing a motorhome.”