Look through a list of the top RV dealerships in the nation and many share one thing in common: They’re operated by industry veterans. In some cases, they’re even multi-generational businesses, passed along through successive broods of children brought up in the business.
However, like nearly every industry in the U.S., times are changing fast in the RV retail space. And it’s opening the door for a new group of dealers who – while fresh to the RV retailing business – bring a wealth of experience selling to a new generation of RVers.
Such is the case with Noteboom RV, co-owned by husband-wife team Greg and Mary Noteboom. The Notebooms, who opened their first of two stores just four years ago (in May 2014), brought a fresh perspective to the business from their years of owning a multiple-location chain of mobile phone stores.
“We’ve always been avid campers, but this is our first venture into being a dealer in the RV business,” Greg Noteboom says. “We had purchased from a number of other dealers in the past and we saw opportunities to do things better.”
Noteboom says that many of the skills he and his wife had developed operating five mobile phone stores in Iowa and Nebraska – of which they still own two – transferred directly as they made the leap into becoming RV dealers.
“From our experience as RV customers, we learned a lot of what not to do,” he says. “We experienced negative pricing issues, a lack of deep product knowledge and, maybe most importantly, a lack of sophistication in how dealers approached accessories. But from our experience in other industries, we knew we could do it better.”
In 2014, when the couple opened the first of their now two locations, in Sheldon, Iowa, they immediately put their retail sales experience to work in their efforts to create a better customer experience.
“We chose Sheldon as our first location because we owned a cell phone store and knew the community there and we found a location that used to be an automotive dealership, so it was a fairly easy conversion,” Noteboom notes, referring to the 6,000-square-foot dealership on 2.5 acres, including four service bays. “But we immediately set to putting our experience to work in doing things differently.
“Coming from the cell phone business, everything was about accessories,” he adds. “So, having a great selection of parts and accessories – and creating packages of accessories for customers – was a major focus from the start.”
In this way, the Notebooms treated the dealership operations in a similar fashion to how auto dealers or aftermarket automotive shops offer accessory packages to customers even before new vehicles roll off the lot.
“Particularly with first-time RV buyers, they don’t necessarily know what accessories they need to have a great camping experience,” Noteboom says. “Of course, you need a sewer hose and a power adaptor, but we offer $300 to $400 kits, as well as larger $1,500 accessory kits, to ensure a great time out camping. That’s all based off our own experiences as campers or RV owners ourselves.
“On that higher-end package, we have things like mattress upgrades, high-quality anti-sway control hitches, even a cutlery tray, fridge fan, interior and exterior chemicals, portable trashcans,” he says. “They are things that first-time buyers wouldn’t anticipate needing until they’re out on the road, but we’ve thought of that for them.
“The bottom line is that people like to accessorize their campers, and that’s why we do merchandising a little differently than other dealerships,” he adds. “Some dealers overlook that. For us, it’s obvious.”
Of course, having operated retail-oriented businesses in the past also helped hone the Notebooms’ skills in regard to building a relational – as opposed to transactional – sales philosophy within the dealership. Noteboom suggests that’s not as common in most RV dealerships, but he believes it’s what today’s younger, very discerning customers expect.
“Customer expectations in the RV market are changing quickly, including how they want to be sold to. This market will soon be, and to some extent already is, driven by Millennial buyers,” he says, noting that customers under 40 years of age make up about 60 percent of the dealership’s overall business. “That changes how you respond to your customers.”
For Noteboom RV, that shift means doing a great deal of digital marketing, including a heavy focus on search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM.)
“A lot of dealers struggle with SEO and SEM, but that’s a big focus for us,” Noteboom says. “And beyond just meeting cus- tomers where they are – online – being more responsive overall is also critically important. And we are heavily focused on marketing to our existing customers, as opposed to just chasing new ones.
“Back when I was just a customer, I’d make inquiries with dealers and they would take a day or two to respond; at best, a few hours,” he adds. “Our rule is that all customer inquiries get a response in 15 minutes, and we’ve achieved that now. As we mature as a dealership, our goal is to reduce that to five minutes. Today’s customers have come to expect a near-instant response.”
Overcoming Startup Challenges
Although many of the Notebooms’ previous experiences translated well to their new industry, the transition wasn’t always easy. There was a great deal of nuance to learn about the RV business itself, for instance:
“I was shocked by the challenge of finding parts, parts availability in general, and the amount of service work that campers need, both as they’re coming off the truck from the manufacturer and as they are out there in the world,” he says. “I wrongly assumed service would be a small fraction of the work but, obviously within two years we are now looking to build additional service bays. I didn’t necessarily want to, but you can’t sell RVs without a robust service department.
Still, even with such challenges, Noteboom RV has experienced significant growth in just a short time. After opening the Sheldon, Iowa, store in 2014, the couple soon opened a second, larger location in Harrisburg, S.D., a suburb on the outskirts of the large Sioux Falls, S.D. market. This second location – located on 6.5 acres and featuring 9,000-square-feet of under-roof space, including six service bays – was purposely built from scratch to house the new dealership.
“We had been searching for the right location near the bigger Sioux Falls market for at least a year, probably more, so we were thrilled to get this place secured,” Noteboom says.
The Harrisburg location opened in April 2016, adding 11 employees (including four service techs) to the Sheldon location’s four employees (including one tech), for a total of 15 full-time employees working under the Noteboom RV banner.
The growth in units and gross sales also has been impressive.
“Back in 2014, our goal for the first half-year of business was to sell 10 units, but we ended up selling 56,” Noteboom says with a laugh. “And it’s been all up from there. Last year we did $6.2 million in gross sales and our target for this year is $10 million.”
Noteboom suggests this growth curve – particularly for a new- comer to the industry – is a result of being driven by competition to provide better-than-average results.
“We joke that we’re not a normal dealer because we’re obsessively goal- and results-driven,” he says, noting that in Sioux Falls, for instance, there are four well-established dealers that directly compete with his. “We thrive off competition. Good competitors make for good business, and my motto is that success is the result of doing good business.”
Good business, in Notebooms’ estimation, amounts to outworking his competitors and achieving growth from referrals, which he sees as a great metric to measure how effectively he’s serving his customer base.
Exclusively Retailing Heartland RVs
Beyond just seeking to do good business on his own, he also seeks it in his strategic partners. Unlike many larger dealers, Noteboom RV is an anomaly in a few significant ways.
First is the dealership’s exclusive agreement with Heartland RV, as opposed to carrying a variety of different RV brands.
“We represent one brand because we believe in it passionately,” says Noteboom, who talked with other dealers before settling on Heartland RV as his manufacturer of choice. A visit to Heartland’s manufacturing operation in Elkhart, Ind., sealed the deal.
“We were impressed by their team. They know how their products compare to their competitors and they were excited to show us the differences,” he says. “And because we’re loyal to them, we get great support on warranty and service. If I have a problem, I can call Coley (Brady, vice president of sales for Heartland) on his cell phone and get a response. Even though I’m a smaller dealer, I believe we get better service because we’re loyal to them and our growth is their growth, too.”
For his part, Brady sees plenty of good qualities about Noteboom’s operation.
“Greg brings a fresh perspective and new ideas to how he operates his business and that has allowed him to be very successful in his market, very quickly,” he says. “He’s a salesman at heart, so he’s got all of those great qualities: He’s highly competitive and a very hard worker. But more than that, he’s an owner/operator that is there day in and day out, so he does a better job of creating a great experience for his customer. He markets differently, with a heavy focus on social media, and he runs lean and mean so he can be very competitive on price, all of which is attractive to today’s customers.”
Brady adds that the dealership’s exclusivity agreement with Heartland is something the RV maker appreciates and prompts it to be an even better partner.
“The fact that he has given his floorplan dollars to us exclusively, that he puts his trust in us, means we work our butts off for him to be good partners,” he says. “A guy like Greg sells what he believes in and, because of that, he puts his reputation on the line in every sale. We believe we owe it to him to work hard and provide excellent customer service to have his back. We have other customers that are like him in that regard, too, but Greg’s faith in our products doesn’t go unnoticed here.”
Noteboom RV also was as discerning in its selection of a parts distributor. Instead of going with the larger, national distributors who service much of the industry, Noteboom RV contracts with Northern Wholesale Supply, a smaller regional distributor out of Lino Lakes, Minn., north of the Twin Cities.
“As I mentioned, I’m big on doing business with relational operations as opposed to transactional ones, and that describes Northern Wholesale well,” Noteboom says. “Because we’re a smaller dealer, we get better terms and have a better relationship with a company like Northern. We’ve used the big distributors in the past and Northern just gets our business better.
“The other day I called my rep and he was out of the office and I got a call back in five minutes from another rep,” he adds. “That’s the type of service I appreciate.”
With a fresh take on the RV business rooted in Millennial-friendly, responsive, retail-oriented business practices – and experiencing tremendous growth in just his few early years in the business – Noteboom is bullish about his prospects in coming years.
“From our start just four years ago, we’ve grown far beyond our expectations,” he says. “To outgrow your own ambitious expectations is pretty cool. And we anticipate that we will continue to grow heading forward.”
Noteboom’s anticipation also is tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism, particularly about things that are beyond his control, like the broader U.S. economy.
“We’ve obviously thrilled to be growing so fast, but it also of course makes me a bit nervous,” he says. “This type of growth takes a big financial commitment and you just never know what will happen in the economy. As a company and as a country, we’ve been on a tear for a while, but you just don’t know what will happen tomorrow or a year from now.”
Still, Noteboom is searching for more land to expand and more talented workers to support that growth, an effort he says has become far easier of late.
“People see us growing and they want to come work for us,” he says. “They want to be a part of what’s happening here. We have a new perspective – we’re of a younger generation and we’re looking at this with fresh eyes. For people who like to camp, which of course is a requirement here, this is where the action is.”