Having been in the RV business for 36 years, Charles Langdon, president and co-owner of Rancho Cordova, Calif.-based Folsom Lake RV, knows full well that it is a cyclical business. Add to that the reality that this most current decade-long economic expansion is already getting a little long-in-the-tooth, and you’ve got all the necessary elements of a downturn on the horizon.
So, why, in the midst of this looming uncertainty, would a seasoned dealer like Langdon make a nearly million-dollar bet on new infrastructure, including a massive field of energy-generating solar shade structures?
There are multiple reasons, but maybe the most important for Langdon is because it is aligned with the values that he and his family and staff share with their customers, who trend younger by the day.
“A lot of people who don’t RV might not realize that RVers are very conscious of conservation,” he says. “They’re conscious of water consumption, energy consumption, packing weights and fuel economy. And now with solar energy on their rooftops, many are creating their own green energy.
“And secondly, solar power and green energy is the wave of the future, not just for buildings but for RVs, too,” he adds. “RVers are travelers. We are adventurers and we enjoy getting out in the great outdoors, seeing and experiencing the world we live in. We care about our National Parks and natural beauty throughout the United States and beyond.”
The Langdons show off a solar panel. A nearly $1 million project is upgrading the dealership with solar energy panels and systems.
Multiple Returns on a Single Investment
Financially, the dealership believes the solar investment alone, by way of energy cost savings, will have a direct financial ROI within 10 years. The other returns, however – some of which are not financial in nature – will be far greater and longer-lasting, he says.
The investment is a demonstration that Folsom Lake RV isn’t just talking the talk when it comes to sustainability, but it’s walking the walk, too. The owners are putting their money where their – and their customers’ – hearts and minds are.
“One part of our motivation is really that we believe strongly that solar is the future,” says Langdon. “Electric cars and trucks, even electric RVs. So, that segment of the customer base is definitely growing. Having the green footprint and infrastructure at the dealership is one more reason for that growing demographic to become customers.”
Beyond the financial returns from cost savings and the greater alignment with the growing number of RVers who are environmentally conscious, the solar shade structures also provide another asset for the dealership that is near and dear to Langdon’s heart: more space for the dealership’s thriving service business.
Technician Tom Jones uses one of the dealership’s Apple iPads to take a photograph. The iPads run the IDS program, streamlining customer service and reducing paper use.
The solar structure provides a wealth of new outdoor bays, bringing the total number at the dealership to the equivalent of about 25 service bays. For a decades-old dealership that has been consistently selling north of 500 units per year, that’s a critical competitive asset for the dealership as it seeks to service the customers it’s sold to over the years.
“Over the long term, we know that we’ll attract new customers from the solar investment, particularly the Gen X’ers and Millennials that really love solar, but we didn’t do it as a marketing tool, we’re doing it because that’s who we are,” he says. “While it may benefit us in that way in the future, in meantime this gives us just a tremendous advantage in terms of service capacity for our existing and new customers.
“The canopies are weather proof, with panels over sheeting, keeping the employees out of the rain or the elements,” adds Langdon. “Each post in the structure now has a few 50-amp drop so we can plug all the units in and run them as we work, all with renewable energy.”
That expanded – and more comfortable – service space has allowed the dealership to increase its service staff from five up to 11, including a service admin role to coordinate the increased workload. All of which makes Langdon, who started in the RV business as a service tech, a very happy man. He knows that ser- vice is what separates one great dealership from a sea of merely good ones.
“I’ve been involved in service and repair all my life,” he says. “After high school I worked as a technician at a motorcycle shop and worked there for a time becoming their service manager. After some years I made the switch to commercial truck service.
“Throughout this whole time, I would jump in my pickup with a cabover camper on it and tow my dirt bikes out to Anza-Borrego (a Desert State Park in California) and go camping and riding in my spare time,” he adds. “So, when the commercial truck repair business closed, I bought a Coachmen fifth wheel and toured North America for three years.”
After seeing Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration and a couple of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, among countless other sights and events, he ended up in Florida for the first space shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral, Fla. After that, he continued a stretch of odd jobs across the country – washing trailers for an RV dealer in Orlando, service work at various dealers in Oregon.
One constant, regrettably, was that throughout the adventure Langdon also was dealing with his own service issues on the fifth wheel.
“I was really disappointed and frustrated by how many problems it had,” he says. “I even drove it to the factory while I was full-timing it for a service appointment. I was so frustrated I wanted them to just take it back.”
After a few great years on the road and more than his fair share of service struggles as a customer, Langdon found himself reading a book about the best areas to live in California, and drove his rig directly to a KOA in Sacramento.
This time it stuck.
Langdon got permission to do some odds-and-ends service work out of the KOA and that fledgling business, then called CV Inc., grew into what is today Folsom Lake RV. He signed his first lease in 1983 and in 1989 a local dealer went out of business and Langdon was approached to buy the inventory. Soon after, he signed his first two lines: Starcraft Tent Trailers and Skyline Trailers.
Sales Rep Ali Shahnazari explains the features of a Keystone fifth wheel to a prospective customer.
Service Beyond the Service Department
Folsom Lake moved into its current facility in Rancho Cordova in the Sacramento metro area in 1998, occupying five acres and two shops, one about 10,000 square feet of space and a second with another 3,200 square feet. With the exception of a modest offsite storage space, everything is contained within that 5 acres, by design, he says.
“We have sales, parts, service, admin and business office all under one roof together. We are family run, not corporate,” says Langdon, whose wife, Debbie, serves as the company’s chief finance officer and chief marketing officer, among many other executive functions, out of the office they share on the second floor. “Being located together really keeps us all together as a team, which means that staff is readily accessible to each other and to our customers. We have an open-door policy because we absolutely care about our customers.
“Our customers come back to us because we take care of them even if the factory doesn’t,” he adds. “Many customers of ours are repeat buyers because of that service and our philosophy. We actually have created special license plates for our repeat customers and we recently had to have a five-time-customer plate made recently.”
Langdon says his service-based philosophy extends far beyond the service department, and he believes that will help Folsom Lake RV better ride out the inevitable next economic downturn when it comes. Overall, the team at Folsom Lake RV takes the long-term approach to building trusted relationships.
“It starts by helping them find the RV that is right for them,” he says, noting the team then helps customers get comfortable with the new unit by letting them test tow any RV on the lot, either in their own vehicle or one the dealership provides, with a tech by their side, giving customers “more opportunity to drive and gain confidence in their adventures. We want people to be confident in their purchase, in their abilities, their dealership. We want everyone out enjoying their RVs. That’s what they are made for.”
Team Folsom Lake RV in Rancho Cordova, Calif., has values aligned with its customer base, which trends younger by the day.
‘Happy Campers are Happy Customers’
A robust parts-and-accessories business also helps, he notes. The dealership offers fifth wheel hitches, WD hitches, brake controls and slide toppers, among many other parts and accessories. Many of Folsom Lake RV’s customers are new to the RVing world, so staff makes sure they understand the difference between common products to enhance their confidence.
“We can guide them on these decisions because we use these products ourselves and we talk to our customers about what’s working for them,” he says. “For parts, we can’t be everything to everyone, but we have a wealth of knowledge to draw from. We provide a real live person to talk to and provide guidance on repair and maintenance parts for DIYers and for accessorizing a customer’s RV.”
The common threads between all of Folsom Lake RVs departments and throughout its many years of service to its customers is fairly simple: consistency and authenticity.
“We have been rooted in service and been here for 36 years and we see our future in service,” says Langdon. “Providing service after the sale keeps people coming back.
“Sales fluctuate with the economy, naturally, but people want to use their RVs and enjoy life,” he adds. “Service will keep them camping and happy campers are happy customers.”