Pilgrim Intl. Makes Significant Progress in RV Towable Sector
Dave Hoefer, founder of two successful RV manufacturing companies and a participant in several other manufactured housing and RV startup firms that remain key participants in the industry today under new owners, didn’t take retirement well.
That was fortunate for a small group of RV industry veterans who joined Hoefer in 2002 to form Pilgrim International Inc., Middlebury, Ind., which in a short time has amassed as much as $150 million in annual sales.
“Chiefly, my return was caused by my former employees who thought that there was room for another quality RV manufacturer,” Hoefer said. “That’s what brought me back in.”
Hoefer, whose first industry job was at Coachmen Industries Inc. during the Tom Corson era, has worked in the RV sector since the late 1960s. He was involved as an executive at Gulf Steam Coach Inc. and Carriage Inc., and was among the founders of Dutchmen Manufacturing Inc., and Four Winds International Corp., both of which were later sold to Thor Industries Inc.
After a stint on the manufactured housing side and his subsequent brief retirement, Hoefer came back to RVs, gathering Pilgrim President Steve Bennett, the owner of a steel and aluminum fabricating company; Vice President of Sales and marketing Bill Harris, who owned a company supplying steel and aluminum to RV OEMs; and partner/ investor Larry Hughes, a former vice president of Fleetwood Enterprises Inc.’s towable division.
“We all saw that the RV business was going to grow,” said Harris. “The Baby Boomers are going to drive the industry, and they are not going to stop camping. They may change the style of their camping, but they are not going to stop.”
While expanding from one brand in 2002 to five diverse offerings today, Pilgrim International in 2005 purchased a 75,000-square-foot plant to build Cirrus and another 50,000-square-foot building to house Pilgrim’s own lamination shop – both adjacent to the company’s facility in Middlebury.
Pilgrim recently passed a major milestone when it moved the construction of its Puresport towable SURV to a company-owned factory in Middlbury from a rented facility in Bristol, Ind. “We now own all of the facilities that we are manufacturing in,” Harris said.
Harris said that most of Pilgrim products reflect the industry’s overall trend toward manufacturing more models with laminated fiberglass. “We see all towables heading toward lamination, even in entry-level products,” he said, noting that a lamination option is available on Pilgrim International’s entry-level, wood-and-aluminum Pilgrim brand. “We are seeing the buyer going toward lamination and away from stick-and-tin across the board.”
“Our dealers over the years have become more educated about laminated products. There are weight issues, and companies are getting better at lamination. Most of us have our lamination lines now.”
In Hoefer’s view, however, those lamination lines might soon be antiquated. He suggests that even current state-of-the-art fiberglass laminating processes need to be vastly improved upon to meet customer demand for higher quality. “We need to find replacements for wood and fiberglass,” maintained Hoefer, noting that the composite body of the GM Saturn automobile can be struck hard with a baseball bat and not damaged.
“We should be able to do the same thing on an RV. There is an opportunity in front of us to improve customer satisfaction by changing the material content of our coaches,” he said.
Starting from scratch, Pilgrim International’s first product was the laminated Open Road travel trailer and fifth-wheel line, and the company has been aggressively expanding ever since. In fact, Pilgrim’s only wood-and-aluminum series today is the self-named Pilgrim line.
The lightweight Cirrus towable line, introduced in 2005, is fully laminated. Product design is motivated by dealer needs, Harris said. “From day one, one of the things we heard from dealers is that we would be like the rest of the RV manufacturers – that we’d build something that was popular and then we’d clone it,” Harris said. “We decided from the beginning that we weren’t going to do that. When we build something like the Open Road or the Pilgrim – whatever else we build – they won’t be clones.”
At this point, Pilgrim International, with 145 dealers nationwide, doesn’t have plans to expand its brand offerings any further. “We want to keep it simple for our dealers,” Harris said. “We are covering from the lightweight travel trailer market to the mid-range fifth-wheel market, so from here on we’ll refine what we are doing.”
Among the refinements this year, he said, was making the Puresport SURV less pricey. Introduced in 2005 with a retail price of about $68,000, the 2007 Puresport’s MSRP is closer to $45,000. “Originally, the Puresport was probably too well built,” Harris said. “It had a lot of stainless steel and digital electronics that were expensive, and it was too hard to build.”
Among the added benefits of removing much of the stainless steel cladding was the Puresport’s weight was reduced by 3,500 pounds.
Harris doesn’t agree with the opinion of some RV industry insiders who think towables – in a seismic shift – are taking market share permanently away from motorized RVs primarily because of the cost of fuel. For the first three months of the year, wholesale motorhome shipments dropped 18% compared to 2005 while towable shipments for the 1st quarter were up 15.2% – a 30% increase in March alone.
“I don’t think that trailers are replacing motorhomes,” Harris said. “The demand for motorhomes is building up, and people are going to get used to the price of gas. A few pennies on a gallon of gasoline isn’t much, and even people with trailers need tow vehicles.
“But it’s an emotional thing when they hear the price of gas is $3 a gallon. We (towable manufacturers) may be picking up some of the motorhome business because people aren’t moving around as much by not driving as far or staying in one place longer. But we aren’t picking up a lot of it.”
Harris said he remembers the effect of the first OPEC oil boycott in 1974 while with AMF Skamper Corp. “We had a tough year, but I also know that motorized came back as soon as the price got off the front page of the newspaper and off the nightly TV news. People got used to the cost and they started buying again.”