Sunline: Finding Big Success With Small Recreational Vehicles
For 2007, Sunline Coach Co. debuted two light-weight, compact travel trailer lines — the Que (rhymes with “you”) for couples and the Advancer 20, believed to be the first production-line RV designed for the disabled.
“That’s our history,” said President Joseph C. Bucara. “Based on surveys we’ve done via the Internet and of our own customers, small RVs are the strongest market for us. Generally, what we tend to find is that we have greater appeal to small families and couples. And obviously, our units take smaller tow vehicles and they tow well. That’s our reputation.”
In fact, the pint-sized Que — available in two 17 1/2-foot floorplans with either side or rear entrances — is being marketed, as a couples’ trailer with the slogan: “Que. For Two.”
“With a 17-foot unit, we revisit 20 years ago when Sunline was the leader in small trailers,” said Bucara, who was among a small group of investors who purchased 42-year-old Sunline in 2004 from its second-generation owners.
“The Que was born based on a lot of research on our part,” he said. “We ended up with a highly responsive, small travel trailer that feels bigger than it is.
“The target market is couples — from newly wed to empty nesters. It gives folks affordability and is manageable being pulled by a smaller tow vehicle. It’s going to be a very good market.”
Sunline has focused its attention on smaller trailers almost from the beginning. Sunline’s first unit was a truck camper produced for a cross-country honeymoon trip by Wayne Weaver who founded Sunline in 1964 in a garage in Schoeneck, Pa., with partner Lou Martin.
In 1975, Sunline was purchased by RV industry veterans John Zimmerman and Wayne Lawrence Sr., who joined Martin in anticipating the trend toward smaller cars and trucks and began building small, lightweight towables and truck campers.
In 1978, W. Larry Lawrence Jr. joined the partners, becoming president and CEO in 1988. In 2001, Dale Zimmerman, John Zimmerman’s son became president.
Bucara came to Sunline from the contract furniture industry where he’d served in a number of corporate positions including general manager and CFO. He was joined in acquiring Sunline by principal owner Paul Kozloff, Dale Zimmerman, who remains with the company as executive vice president of production, and John Whitehall.
“The previous owners were looking to retire at the appropriate moment,” said Bucara, adding that the new investors were drawn to the company by its stability and long-standing reputation for quality.
That fact was underscored by Sunline’s having received the 2005 Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) Quality Circle award for scoring higher than 80% on RVDA’s dealer satisfaction index.
“The RV industry is a very good industry and Sunline had an excellent reputation for quality,” Bucara said. “A lot of the quality structure had already had been built into the company.”
Sunline also introduced the Advancer 20 for 2007 with an assist from wheelchair athlete Mike King and Philadelphia yacht designer John Kelly.
Standard with an aluminum ramp, it’s marketed with optional Braun power lifts through Accessible Vans and Mobility in nearby Norristown, Pa.
“Over the past several years, we’ve been doing semi-custom trailers, and last year one of our dealers asked us to make an accessible trailer for the Hershey RV show,” Bucara said. “With that experience, we decided to make a mass-produced coach that could cover 80% to 90% of the needs of the market.”
Advancer 20 initially is being sold by 10 Sunline dealers whose employees are trained at the Sunline factory. “There needs to be an understanding about how to address the customers, what their needs are and what accessories can be put in the trailer,” Bucara said.
“It is our intention for Advancer 20 to be usable in a campground. We had to understand how to design the trailer so that it is significantly more responsive to a larger segment of the market for people with disabilities than a custom unit would be.”
Bucara said Advancer 20 also is expected to appeal to people who aren’t disabled, but have a difficult time moving around. “With an aging population, sometimes mobility gets limited,” he said. “We have incorporated features here for people who don’t need a wheelchair, but just need some things designed differently.”
Since Advancer 20 is such a new concept, Bucara said the company isn’t expecting spectacular sales in the disability accessible line. “We are looking for small-to-moderate growth,” he said. “But over a period of time, sales will grow.”
Because of its location in Pennsylvania — Sunline has been in its present factory in Denver 45 miles northwest of Philadelphia since 1969 — Sunline products primarily are sold through dealers in the eastern part of the U.S. and throughout Canada. “Once you get beyond the Mississippi River, it can be a problem because your competitors are 600 miles closer from a freight standpoint,” Bucara said.