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Diversity Key for Whited RV

Diversity is vital to investment portfolios, but for Whited Motorhome & RV Center, that age-old mantra of the financial world applies equally well to retail sales, too. As part of a family of stores that also sell automobiles and heavy-duty trucks in Maine, the RV division has been an integral part of the company’s strategy to thrive in a roller-coaster economy.

“We have three locations of Whited Ford and Whited Peterbilt, so having the heavy-duty locations – which did OK during the RV slump – kind of saved us because standalone RV dealerships really took a hit here,” says Gary Mynahan, Whited RV’s general manager and a 20-year finance and insurance veteran. “The years 2003 through 2005 were really good RV years and we carried the company through those times when they were struggling. It’s been kind of a little give and take.”

Co-located on an ample site in the southwestern Maine town of Auburn next to Whited Peterbilt, Whited RV was the latecomer to the group, which was founded in 1986.

“The company came here in ’91 and opened the heavy truck store. Our owner, Bob Whited, always liked the RV business and thought he would give it a shot. This location started off as a light-duty truck and car store, then they started acquiring a few franchises for RVs and it’s grown from that.”

Service & Parts Departments Stay Open Late

The dealership, which sells Winnebago and Tiffin motorhomes and Forest River, Keystone and Cruiser RV towables, has grown over the years due in part to its service department. Not only do the four technicians who work in Whited RV’s four bays know their way around motorhomes and towables, the shop stays open until midnight on weekdays, as does the parts store.

“It’s because that’s the truck mentality, and in heavy-duty trucks, we could work three shifts and have enough business,” Mynahan says. “You can get parts right up to 11:30, you can come drop your camper off at 10 o’clock and get it serviced the next morning and pick it up in the evening.”

Darren Brown, a former RV salesman turned service manager who heads both RV and heavy-duty staff in Auburn, says his customers enjoy more than just his convenient hours.

“We don’t turn anybody away. We work on everything, while a lot of places have the ‘service what you sell-type mentality,’” he says. “Today, I have five or six transient customers who are driving through and are in need of something. They understand they might be here all day, but we’ll get to them and we’ll fix them.”

Customers passing through the scenic region make up a large part of Whited RV’s service business, up to 10 a day, so Brown makes every effort to accommodate them.

“There’s a lot to be said for that because they called and said they’ve spoken to three different dealers along the way who are two and half weeks out. I don’t really believe that. The industry’s not that busy,” he says. “Even through the hard economy, we’ve just said ‘yes’ to everything.”

Another welcome practice: the dealership doesn’t mind direct technician-customer interaction, even though its service writers are the people most likely to speak with customers.

“The initial policy is to not deal with a tech, unless it comes to a point, for example, that somebody’s going to install a hitch they’ll tow their car with, but has never done it before,” he says. “Almost every single time we send the technician who installed it out with them to give them the tour and show them how things are done. We know the customer is going to ask questions and the service writer not always going to have the answer.”

The result from such a policy, Brown says, is clear.

“What you end up generating is people calling next summer and saying, ‘Hey, last year we were in and Cory worked on our coach. We really liked the way he did things and was able to explain issues to us,’” he says. “I think you gain a little repeat business by doing that.”

Service Shop Can Do Almost Any Job

Of course, the RV shop’s sheer capabilities – thanks to it sharing space with Whited Peterbilt – has a lot to do with attracting customers, too, since it’s capable of every type of repair but paint and bodywork.

“We’re a full-service chassis dealer for Freightliner Custom Chassis, Ford, and we’re certified in Caterpillar, Cummins and Detroit Diesel engines,” he says. “There are not a whole lot of places in this area in particular where you can come in and have somebody change a toilet and then 20 minutes later have somebody else changing a turbo, so that’s been very advantageous to us.”

Shop turnover hasn’t been an issue, as Brown has only lost a single tech since the store opened almost 20 years ago. After working together for so long, the job of deciding which tech gets what tasks in the hourly rate shop is pretty simple.

“We have four guys who are each good in their own niche,” he says. “By doing that, we don’t have any finger-pointers out there. Everybody knows what they’re good at, so that’s how we dispatch the work to them and there’s no confrontation in the RV shop.”

Brown believes his team has stayed around for so long for a couple of reasons.

“The key role for us is to just treat them like human beings. We don’t pressure them, but let them learn from their mistakes. So often, people are so ready to pull the trigger on somebody and let him go for a simple mistake. We have a more family atmosphere than that,” he says.

The other reason for the staff’s longevity is during the winter slowdown, especially distinct in snowy New England states, RV techs get reassigned to the heavy truck side, according to Brown, which negates the need for temporary layoffs.

Much of the work his techs perform is troubleshooting, he says, which isn’t surprising considering today’s electronics-heavy RVs, and ranges from generators to slides.

“The stuff we’re getting is all that diagnostic work that they can’t do at home,” he says. “There’s not many people calling in or off the street saying, ‘Can you put this awing on,’ unless you’re dealing with damage from Mother Nature and things like that.”

Whited RV First Choice for Parts, Accessories

Still, there’s enough aftermarket customization to keep the parts department humming, says Jeff Carson, parts manager and another Whited vet who came from RV sales.

“As far as what’s on display, it’s mostly the accessories. There’s a fair amount of chemicals, but there’s a lot of the every day stuff that people break like thermostats and heater controls and light bulbs, hoses and LP parts,” he says of the store, which shares shelf space with heavy truck parts.

Even with a nearby Wal-Mart and a Camping World less than two hours away, the big-box store intrusion hasn’t affected Whited’s sales, says Carson, who doesn’t mind a little competition.

“It seems that people come to us first, I think because they want the expertise and some kind of advice on which chemicals to use on their awnings, for example. They usually don’t price shop it,” he says. “If we don’t have it, they say, ‘Well, I’ll go try Wal-Mart.’ You often hear that.”

A monthly parts and service flyer is sent via e-mail to past customers to help keep stock moving out the door. It’s been a success for Whited; Carson says parts sales have greatly increased this year.

“We sell a lot of MaxxAir covers, weight and sway tow systems and a lot of brake controllers. As far as everyday items people use, I’m going to say it’s like replacement lights,” he says. “We get a lot of people in for lights and light bulbs, but we also sell a lot of chemical additives for the toilet and toilet paper. We stock a fair amount of stuff for faucet repair and replacement. Those things don’t last very long in a camper, so we sell a fair amount of that stuff.”

Not surprisingly, parts are only, well, part of the story. Carson gives a lot of credit to Tony Howard, Whited’s RV parts salesman.

“You see there’s an awful lot of interaction between Tony and the customers,” he says. “They’ll come in and they’ll ask for screen rooms, for instance. They’re not just left on their own. He’ll go through the whole book and show them the different styles and types and explain why one has a different price than another and what the advantages are. He really does an awful lot of hands on with customers on products and I think they like that more so than them just picking it out of a book and saying, ‘I want to order this.’ He’ll tell them, ‘Well, this one doesn’t have inside flaps for rain. If you camp in bad weather, you might want to consider ordering this model.’”

Due to glut of product information available on the Internet, today’s consumer poses a genuine concern for staffers who aren’t prepared, but Carson says his team has it covered.

“They do a lot of research on the Internet and in that case, they’ll come in and ask for a specific model. If it’s not something we sell, a lot of times the guys are knowledgeable enough to tell them why ours is the same or may be better,” he says. “Sometimes you pay a lot extra for a little flash you don’t really need.”

The same database that provides Whited RV with customer e-mail addresses also contains specific information about their units, Carson says.

“The shop will give Tony all the model serial numbers, when possible, of their refrigerators, radios, TVs and hot water heaters, and he puts that in the database with their name,” he says. “When they come in and need an element for their hot water heater, they’re in our database and he knows what they have. They love that.”

Internet Moves Parts During Slow Season

Whited RV also has fully embraced eBay, the phenomenally popular online auction and store, to sell parts.

“That was actually something we came up with to help fill in the winter sales when it’s slow. We put items on there and we’re quite busy in the wintertime with customers from the warmer parts of the country,” he says. “We get tons of calls from people in Arizona and Tennessee when it’s cold up here when they see that we have thermostats on sale to run their furnace. We may not make a lot of money, but we push a bunch of them out and it keeps Tony busy in the wintertime.”

As for unit inventory, Mynahan says he hopes to move more units in 2010 than the 150 sold last year.

“We’ve managed our inventory so that we’re in really good shape,” he says. “We ordered this year for a mild recovery so we didn’t overload our inventory, but we’ve done very well getting rid of it. Next year, we’re planning on probably getting half as much again in inventory. We’re banking on a small return. We’re under no illusions it’s going to return to 2004-2005 levels.”