Louisiana saw its share of tough times over about a five-year period.
And Billy Thibodeaux’s Premiere RV – like pretty much every business in the state during that time – took its share of lumps from every event that struck the state.
It just so happens that the five-year time frame came just after Thibodeaux had established a new RV service center in New Iberia, La., and was featured in the first issue of RV PRO magazine in April 2005.
That fall, Hurricane Katrina came rolling ashore as one of the most destructive storms in U.S. history, devastating coastal areas and causing an estimated $110 billion in damage.
A storm of an entirely different kind struck Louisiana and the rest of the country when the Great Recession of 2008-09 laid waste to the U.S. economy and set the RV industry back a number of years, as many prominent manufacturers, suppliers and dealers shuttered their doors and thousands of industry jobs were lost.
Then, in 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill sent an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil gushing onto the Louisiana shoreline, costing the state an estimated $2.4 billion in tourism revenues and 26,000 jobs. It also led to the loss of many well-paying jobs in the state’s oil and gas business, even to this day.
As a result of all of those body blows, Thibodeaux’s service shop based in New Iberia faltered. However, he went on to found a successful service shop that has since prospered in the small community of Scott, La., located in the south-central portion of the state.
“Right after that piece ran (in RV PRO), we moved out of there to north of I-10 in Scott, and that’s where we’ve been ever since,” Thibodeaux says.
“We got back to what made me famous – and that was RV upgrades and performance. Subsequently, we became service centers for the now-defunct Workhorse chassis, Spartan chassis, Tiffin chassis, the Power Glide chassis.
“We are highly mechanical working on running gear for the systems that run the motorhome. That’s probably, I would guess, 75 to 80 percent of our business,” he adds. “We’re very heavy into the into the operating systems, whether it be pneumatic, hydraulic, electrical, electronic or mechanical.”
Appeal Extends Across North America
Fortunately for Thibodeaux, he isn’t just reliant on the customers he can draw from around Lafayette Parish, the fifth-smallest parish in the state. He has developed a word-of-mouth network that even he can’t fully explain.
He has always prided himself on doing quality work, being certified in his trade and being able to convey his knowledge to anyone who was interested, either at a trade show education setting or just hanging out in his shop.
But the fact that he gets customers from as far away as the upper reaches of northeastern Canada, who plan their annual summer vacations around a stop at Billy Thibodeaux’s Premiere RV for some annual service or the latest upgrade, speaks to the fact that people will come from far and wide when they hear about a good thing.
“My furthest referral came from a campground in Nova Scotia,” Thibodeaux says. “I had a guy come from White Castle, La., who told some other campers up there about us. The guy who called said, ‘I’m calling because we’re sitting around a campfire at a campground in Nova Scotia and this guy said the sun rose and set over you.’ It’s just amazing how far the word travels.”
Building the network has sort of happened organically over the years. Thibodeaux says he has become well-known within the industry from articles that have appeared in RV PRO and Trailer Life Magazine, but also partly by conducting educational seminars at RV rallies and shows around the country.
He has narrowed those events down to just the mid-February Houston RV show, but he still can’t help but reach out to RVers he meets across the country.
Thanks to that kind of network, Thibodeaux has pretty much all the work he can handle. He estimates he and his small staff service well more than 100 vehicles per year.
That staff consists of Thibodeaux, his stepson, Phillip Lander, and technician Blake Boulee, who both started with the business in 2015. Thibodeaux’s wife, Helen, handles the office work and bookkeeping
“We’re literally a mom-and-pop shop and I’ve been that way pretty much all my life,” Thibodeaux says. “So, what we’re offering now is my favorite thing to do anyway.”
Even when he isn’t working on RVs, chances are Thibodeaux and his wife are out enjoying the RV lifestyle.
“I’ve been concentrating solely on the RV industry since the ’90s,” he says. “So, it’s been my bread and butter. And we love the lifestyle. Helen and I own an old ’94 Barth motorhome that we travel in. It’s not just a matter of fixing them and selling products. We actually live the lifestyle, too.”
Living the RV lifestyle makes Premiere RV more than just a business and more than just a way to make a living for Thibodeaux.
“I do a lot of the things I do just to promote the RV lifestyle,” he says. “There’s a lot of fellowship in the industry.
When was the last time you made lifelong friends in a hotel? It just doesn’t happen. It happens all the time in state parks and camp- grounds and camping destinations and such. And RV service centers,” he snickers after being prompted by Helen to add that part.
“Our customer database is literally nationwide. We do have people that are full-timers and there are a bunch of them that plan their annual travels around coming to Scott, La., starting to get their annual RV services done. To me, that’s nuts. It’s just a level of trust that they have developed in us and we’ve made so many friends in this business that go clear back to the ’90s.”
Surviving the Bumps
Thibodeaux’s network, his commitment to helping people and his general likeability have made a lot of difference, causing his business to succeed where others may have failed during some of those tough times over the past 15 years.
Especially tough were the years after the BP oil spill, when many well-paid oil workers lost their jobs and had to leave Louisiana to find work elsewhere. Customers were fewer when it came to general service, and even fewer when it came to add-ons and the kind of premium work in which Thibodeaux specializes.
Nevertheless, he says that, while his business was hurt, he survived those days to come back strong. He says many similar businesses, such as those servicing the marine industry, haven’t been as fortunate and haven’t been able to find quality technicians – many of whom left when the technician jobs in the oil industry dried up.
However, Thibodeaux prides himself on staying up to date not only on service techniques, but also on being on the cutting edge of the types of products he offers his customers.
The latest development he is excited about is the Starlink system of satellites being deployed by rocket manufacturer SpaceX. Once the full fleet is in place, Starlink will provide high-speed internet service via satellite to pretty much anybody anywhere.
Starlink isn’t quite ready for its business model to go public yet, but Thibodeaux sees a day in the not-too-distant future when he will be able to sell a system allowing him to mount a receiver on the roof of an RV with a couple of screws, digitally connect that receiver to a router inside the coach and broadcast that satellite signal throughout the vehicle, allowing the customers to stay connected with the outside world no matter how remote their destination.
Thibodeaux gave two presentations about Starlink during the February Houston RV show.
“That’s the kind of stuff we stay on top of,” he says. “We’re cutting-edge, early adopters and that’s bit me on the behind a few times, too. But this looks like it’s real.”
Although Thibodeaux has been in the business since the late 1980s and recently turned 65, he doesn’t necessarily plan to hang up his wrenches anytime soon.
He says his stepson and another employee are interested in working with him to come up with a succession plan for the business, but adds he isn’t ready to get completely out of the business.
He says that when Helen reaches age 65, the two of them will probably take some time away from the business to do some serious RVing and get away for a while.
“Then I might just like to come back and just work for them,” he says. “That is in the plans, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow.”
But that’s probably to be expected. A lifetime of learning through the ups and downs of the RV industry and a lifetime of passion for the product doesn’t just go away. There’s still time to pass that learning along to the next generation.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but that’s just the way it is in the modern time,” he says. “There’s a saying that goes, ‘A smart man learns from his mistakes and everybody knows that. But a wise man learns from other people’s mistakes.’ And I started noticing the mistakes of others – and that knowledge has been very fruitful.”