April '19

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10 • RV PRO • April 2019 rv-pro.com W hen Thomas H. Corson and his brothers, Keith and Claude, started Coachmen Industries in 1964 in a 5,000-square-foot garage in Middlebury, Ind., little did they know that their fledgling business would one day become a Fortune 500 company, a pillar of the RV industry nationwide, and perhaps just as notably, an incubator for a bumper crop of future RV executives. The list of RV industry executives who cut their teeth at Coachmen Industries over the years is long and notable, including the likes of Thor CEO Robert Martin, Forest River CEO Pete Liegl, Grand Design CEO Don Clark, Coachmen RV President Mike Terlep, former longtime Dicor President Gregg Fore and former Thor and Grand Design top executives Ron Fenech and Bill Fenech. The RV industry was burgeoning in northern Indiana in the mid-1960s when the Corson brothers got their start in the business. Claude, regarded as the idea man among the three brothers, was credited with the idea of putting the Middlebury building to use by going into the travel trailer business. Keith was put in charge of production. Tom quit his successful job at The Associates investment firm to join his brothers and became the man responsible for finance and marketing. In the first year of operation, Coachmen produced 12 travel trailers, 80 truck caps and one truck camper. The Leadership Factories, Part 1 Editor's note: The CEOs of the two largest RV manufacturers in the U.S. – Thor's Bob Martin and Forest River's Pete Liegl – got their start at Coachmen Industries. Meanwhile, at least 10 future presidents of RV companies worked at Keystone RV. These pillars of the RV industry from these two vital companies inspired the title of this series: The Leadership Factories. This month's article focuses on Coachmen as a cultivator of industry leaders; the May issue will focus on Keystone RV. R V M A N U F A C T U R E R S Coachmen forged ahead of the competition during the "Go, Go" years of the late 1960s through innovations, such as its "The Buck Stops Here" warranty. Back then, RV man- ufacturers offered a warranty only on what they actually con- structed. Coachmen removed the inconvenience for dealers and the retail public by taking responsibility for everything included in the RV manufacturer's products. "If we built the product, we would guarantee everything," recalls Tom Corson. "The primary impact was on the dealer, but we just did some things for the benefit of everybody." In 1969, Coachmen Industries went public and joined the American Stock Exchange; the company joined the New York Stock Exchange in 1978. In addition to creating a highly successful company, Coachmen also produced a bumper crop of top-notch leaders, several of whom went on to run other RV busi- nesses. Which prompts the question: What was so special about Coachmen? Corson says the company's formula was actually remark- ably straightforward. "We were always honorable with our people as well as our customers and everybody else," he says. "In addition to those skills, we always gave them (key employees) a share of the wealth we had and we tried to continue our products in a way that would benefit not only our customers, but also our dealers and ourselves. We came up with ideas. We stood behind that." Now 91, Corson is proud of the legacy that Coachmen's RV business (now part of Forest River) has spawned. He coined the term "Coachmen College" to describe that environment that evolved at his former company. "I look around and see who's doing what and heading these companies. They're all guys I brought in and trained," he says. "We tried to help them be successful and if they decided to move on, that's something we couldn't help. That's OK. I have no bad feelings about that." 'Coachmen College' served as a training ground for many of today's RV industry leaders. By Steve Bibler

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