Hooray for Hawleywood

If the measure of a successful dealership was limited to millions in annual sales and a prime location on an Interstate freeway, then Hawleywood RV Ranch would fail to meet that yardstick. However, if longevity and employee retention count for something, then the little dealership just outside of Dodge City, Kan., stands high above many of its peers.

For instance, Hawleywood – owned by Bill Hawley, a son of one of the founders – has the honor of being Winnebago’s oldest dealer still in operation. One thing Hawley appreciates about the Iowa manufacturer is the effortlessness of parts ordering.

“We’ve been kind of spoiled since Winnebago has a highly sophisticated parts system compared to other manufacturers where you had to send a picture of a part to get the right one,” he says. “Winnebago has bar codes on everything. You can open a cabinet door on a Winnebago and there’s a bar code.”

With only a little more than $3 million in annual sales, Hawley says his eight-person store is too small to have integrated dealer management software, but Hawleywood did receive its first computer in 1983. Its sole function was to allow the dealership to order parts from, as well as submit warranty claims to, Winnebago with ease.

Almost 30 years later, computers are commonplace at the dealership, unlike the more expensive aftermarket products that could once be found on Hawleywood’s parts shelves.

“We don’t carry as much big-ticket stuff as we did at one time because years ago when you ordered RVs, they didn’t come with air conditioners and TV antennas and awnings. We put all that stuff on here,” he says. “That was back in the early days.”

When Dutchmen shocked the industry by introducing trailers that came standard with formerly optional equipment in the late 1980s, Hawleywood found itself instead selling basic items.

“We do a lot of towbars for people towing their cars behind their motorhomes and, of course, we sell fifth wheel hitches and equalizer hitches for trailers. We still sell pickup toppers and I know a lot of dealers don’t do that anymore,” he says. “That’s a market for people who aren’t even in RVs.”

Hawleywood a Home for Toppers

It’s a point of pride for Hawley to offer Kansas-made ATC (formerly Astro) toppers, even if the category is rarely offered in RV stores.

“When I was in a 20 Group, there were a couple of dealers who sold them, but they weren’t sold by their sales departments, they were sold by their parts departments,” Hawley says. “Our salesmen sell those here.”

Hawleywood, which has a sales staff of two in addition to Hawley, moves about 100 toppers annually, and while it doesn’t happen often, sometimes a customer will buy both a topper and trailer.

“People with travel trailers like toppers. Sometimes, we’ll put a package deal together when we’re selling them a trailer,” he says. “A lot of them are totally different customers and there isn’t anybody else selling them so they come here and get them from us.”

With a population of just less than 30,000 and more than 100 miles from the nearest Interstate Highway, Dodge City doesn’t have a Camping World for Hawley to compete with, but it does have another big-box retailer popular among RV owners.

“I very rarely go to Walmart, but when I’m in there, I always go look at their RV parts and price them. We’re pretty competitive,” he says. “We use Stag-Parkway as our distributor and they’re big enough that they can keep our prices where we’re competitive.”

Being in a sparsely populated region has its advantages, according to Hawley.

“We’ve always had a pretty decent parts sales because, for one thing, we don’t have very many people around us doing that, and even if people don’t come here to buy their RV, they’ll come here to buy their everyday parts,” he says. “We also sell a lot of repair parts. When we first started the business, there wasn’t anybody selling parts except the manufacturers.”

Advantages of Having a Veteran Parts Pro

Hawleywood’s parts staff consists of just one man, Hawley says, but he has two attributes that make him a force multiplier: he’s been working at the dealership since the 1970s and he’s an avid camper. Accordingly, Hawley’s compact showroom is well staged with accessories and his parts counter has someone behind it who can sufficiently answer customer questions.

“Your parts people need to know their stuff and be able to explain why a customer would want a collapsible trash can,” Hawley says. “Right now, we’re starting to bring in some LED lights that replace regular light bulbs and they cost a huge amount of money. My parts guy says if somebody is boondocking and the bulb only uses one-tenth of the electricity of an incandescent bulb, then you’d probably pay the difference. Every night you don’t pay for a campground, you could probably buy a couple of light bulbs. I hadn’t even thought of that.”

What Hawley has thought of, and often sells, is an hour of a technician’s time to people who’ve purchased an RV from a private seller. Even though it’s not always an easy sell, he says “the more intelligent people seem to realize that it’s worth it to pay a professional for an hour’s labor.”

After all, most people who haven’t previously owned a unit may just look at tires, the hitch or the interior, according to Hawley, without a thought to whether other critical components such as the furnace, refrigerator or plumbing is in satisfactory shape.

“I think our whole industry would be better off if every sale went through a dealer where the unit was checked out. I think sometimes people buy something from an individual and they end up very dissatisfied because it seems to them like it’s an overwhelming amount of problems but really, those problems may all be minor,” he says. “Had it gone through a dealer, all that stuff probably would’ve been found.”

A full-time RVDA-RVIA master certified technician who’s been a Hawleywood employee since the 1980s leads his two-man shop staff, acting as the service manager and mentor to a part-time technician. As for compensation, Hawley pays by the hour.

“At one time, when we had four or five techs, we did run a flat-rate shop,” he says, “but with just two, it’s almost easier to manage the way it is. They get a commission over and above their hourly rate that’s based on a percentage of service sales.”

As for training, the staff has attended Winnebago classes, as well as those offered by the various OEMs. Hawley’s master technician has attended the annual RVIA Trouble Shooter Clinic, where technicians can improve knowledge in all major RV systems.

Both parts and shop staff work in the same building as the rest of the dealership: a purpose-built, 9,600-square-foot structure that sits atop a hill near Dodge City. Designed to resemble a house, complete with shutters, the 11-year-old building is the centerpiece of a 132-acre parcel that Hawley thought would be a nice place for a dealership because “everybody in town would look up to us,” he says.

Initially, he inquired only about the acres on the hill, but received a response with a price for the entire parcel; considering western Kansas land was quite affordable, Hawley jumped at the chance. Today, the dealership occupies a mere 6 acres while the rest is in pasture, thus the origin for part of the name.

One end of the building houses the four-bay shop, while the other contains the offices, showroom and parts department. One thing that won’t be found at Hawleywood is a body shop and paint booth.

“We have several local body shops that do that kind of work all the time,” Hawley says. “With a small operation, you don’t always have enough business to have a full-time body man or a full-time automotive mechanic.”

Dealership Focuses Service Offerings

There are several commonplace shop functions Hawleywood no longer offers.

“At the old place, we used to do oil changes and things like that, but we don’t even do those jobs out here. Carpet and grease don’t mix too well,” Hawley says. “Certainly, a lot of my friends in the RV business have automotive mechanics, they have body shops, they do it all. We decided to simplify it a little bit when we moved out here and operate on a little smaller scale and at the same time be able to really concentrate on what we do, which is to sell and service RVs.”

Some chassis work, such as replacing a starter motor, for example, is accepted, but Hawley says “we’re not going to take the heads off an engine or do a valve job because our town is full of shops that do that,” which means his staff can keep its time available to work on a unit’s refrigerator or water heater.

The shop even will repair a leaky wall, but draws the line at jobs requiring paint due to the trouble and expense that a paint booth would demand, he says.

Oddly enough, the predecessor company to Hawleywood RV, a Venetian blind-making business founded by Hawley’s father and uncle in 1946, also built pickup toppers out of kits shipped from Winnebago.

“We weren’t in the RV business yet, but we started building these toppers because Winnebago had a system where you could buy them knocked down,” Hawley says. “The window openings were cut and there were flat sheets of Styrofoam laminated wall with paneling and aluminum, just like they make laminated walls today.

“We had to have a name for them, so we called them the Hawleywood Campers. Later on, when we got into RVs, we called our place the Hawleywood RV Center and when we moved out here on the acreage, we called it the Hawleywood RV Ranch,” he says.

More than 50 years later, Winnebago products, albeit motorized and more sophisticated, are still popular with Hawleywood customers, as are several lines of towables. Not surprisingly, the dealership offers Kansas-built fifth wheels from NuWa and Excel, as well as Skyline Wagoneers and Forest River Sandpipers.

Website a Powerful Sales Tool for Rural Dealership

In 2009, almost half his sales were new units and most of those were towables, Hawley says. Half of the 60 used units Hawleywood sold last year were motorhomes and his Website, as usual, played a big part in selling them.

“A lot of our used inventory is sold over the Internet and people come from a long way off. In that case, we do as good a job as we can presenting units with pictures. We’ve taken as many as 100 pictures for people,” he says. “We get the unit ready for them and when they come, they still have the option of backing out if it’s not what we presented. We’ve never had anybody back out yet.”

Hawley, a former RVDA director and now the Kansas state delegate, says his customers often come from as far away as Canada, New York and California just to buy an RV from a dealer off the beaten path on the Kansas prairie.

“They probably drove by a dozen just like it, but they didn’t see those,” he says. “They saw ours because we presented it well on the Internet.”