Johnston RV Center’s Slice of the American Pie

Conducting business honestly and offering outstanding service are two ways this dealership succeeds in the Yellowhammer State.

For one father-and-son dealer team, the American dream is pretty simple: run a successful business that allows them to make a living.

A bonus? Employing good people, allowing them to make a living for their families, too.

Rodney Johnston and his son Nick Johnston of Johnston RV Center in Decatur and Cullman, Alabama, both say that’s what it all comes down to.

“I love the industry,” says Rodney, owner of the dealership. “There’s opportunity for people like me and Nick to come in and do an honest, good dealership and take care of things, work hard at it. I’m an old-school ‘American dream’ capitalist, I guess, but it really is true.

“I tell my wife that the products that we sell are manufactured and put together in Elkhart or Topeka or Shipshewana – they’re coming from the heartland of America. And we employ 50 people, so that’s 50 families that make their living through what we envision. I’m just really proud of that.”

Humble Beginnings

In his early 20s, Rodney started out working in manufactured homes in Winston County, Alabama, which he likened to Elkhart, Indiana, in terms of an area being known for producing a particular product.

“It used to be a lot of little family-owned factories, but I worked for a retail company and then I ended up owning that business after a period of time,” Rodney says. “I bought the business when Nick was still in school and young. And then we sold that business to … a big manufactured home company. They actually had a factory here in north Alabama, because there was a workforce here, kind of like Elkhart.”

Johnston's RV Center
Cody Nuss, operations manager

Rodney says he then did a few other things, but eventually started looking at the RV industry and his interest piqued after RVing with his family when his kids were young.

At the end of 2013, an existing dealership went up for sale after the owner principal experienced health issues. In February 2014, Hood RV Center in Decatur, Alabama, became Johnston RV Center, and Rodney and Nick – who is the general manager – have worked together ever since. They also employ Rodney’s daughter and Nick’s sister, Kelsi Nuss, as web director and her husband, Cody Nuss, as operations manager. Nick and Kelsi’s cousin, William Cockrell, is the desk manager.

“We had a goal of having a very good customer center. We kind of knew the pitfalls of buying a camper and not having support,” Rodney says. “So, our goal was to have the customer-facing part to be really warm and friendly and a family deal.”

Rodney says they worked with Forest River from the get-go but went exclusive with Forest River in 2015.

“Having a relationship like we do with Forest River, if we have an issue, if something comes up…they’ll help us,” Nick says. I have a 100% confidence in what Forest River does. I love having that relationship as opposed to being the candy store that handles absolutely everything. I want our salespeople to be proud of that. That’s something I want our service folks to be proud of.”

Finding Their Footing, and Then Some

Despite starting out with only eight or so units on the lot when they purchased the business, the Johnstons grew from roughly 10 employees to 50, and from selling a couple hundred units to, in 2022 selling just under 1,000 units between the Decatur location and the Cullman location, which opened in 2016.

Johnston's RV Center
Employees show off Platinum Elite Dealer awards the dealership received from Cherokee RV

Rodney and Nick agree that 2018 and 2019 were stellar years for their business – so much that they didn’t think it would get any better. Then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic came and accelerated their results even more to selling more than 1,000 units in 2020 and 2021.

In 2021, Johnston RV Center was the No. 1 travel trailer dealer in Alabama, Rodney says.

“We hit kind of a lucky streak. We were on a path up. We’ve never had a year where the year after was a little bit less until last year – because of the pandemic, we dropped off some,” Rodney says.

Things are still looking good so far this year, he says, using the term “bullish” to describe 2023. But the reasons behind the success are different.

“We’ve always been a selling organization. We have a big concert here in town that’s called Rock the South. This year, Chris Stapleton’s going to be (there, and) we’re one of the title sponsors. We do a lot of promotional stuff. We’re active in our communities and that was something that came natural to us – promoting and sales.

“What dealers aren’t saying, what’s happening is, the price escalated quite a bit mainly because of material cost, material shortages. This industry’s not immune to all the problems. [But] prices have normalized. They’ve actually come down, which is really helping our sales.”

Service has always been a big focus for Johnston RV Center, and post-pandemic I became even more important, as was dropping inventory levels to pre-pandemic levels, Rodney says.

Affordable campers have always been their bread and butter, he says, with Cherokee being a big seller for them.

“That’s our niche. We didn’t really go way off into the real high end. We’re very active with toy haulers and we were the No. 1 toy hauler dealer in Alabama for several years,” he says.

The Johnston family is passionate about the outdoor lifestyle – with their location near Guntersville State Park and the Tennessee River in north Alabama, there are a lot of outdoor enthusiasts in the community.

“We’re kind of small-town guys and a small-town mentality. Everybody knows everybody,” Rodney says. “It was extremely important for our reputation to be as impeccable as much as possible. We worked on process a lot and, all of a sudden, we started following the stats, and we were climbing.

“We’re just like everybody else, we watch trends and all,” he says. “Our staffing [has] dropped a little. Our inventory level we’ve dropped accordingly.

You know, [we’re] small potatoes compared to the big companies that are consolidating and have 50 lots or a hundred lots or whatever. But we just focus on our two lots to try to do the very best we can, and it’s been very successful for us.”

Employees Who Are Family & Family Who Are Employees

Johnston's RV Center
(L-R) Judy Thomason office manager; Alisha Hilley, receptionist; Kelsi Nuss, web director; Kimberly Hicks, controller

The Johnstons take pride in having employees who feel like family – and family members who have become excellent employees.

“My sister Kelsi is an integral part of the business on one side, and her husband, Cody, is an unbelievably integral part on another when it comes to operations,” Nick says.

Most dealers have trouble finding quality trained technicians, Rodney says. At Johnston RV Centers, Cody introduced a key performance indicator (KPI) program that employees are graded on and provide incentives for doing well.

“He has a weekly main meeting where we grade where we were, where we’re going,” Rodney says.

There are a lot of young people who need training, he says, but the workforce is out there.

“Once you can get a good process in place, you can find out people’s talents,” Rodney says.

Nick and Rodney both speak very highly of their employees.

“I feel like right now we have the best staff that we’ve ever had – they do an incredible job for us,” Nick says. “I’m very proud to have each and every one of them.”

“We’ve been very fortunate that they’ve come our way,” Rodney continues. “We’ve had turnover like everybody else, but our core group of people have stuck with us through thick and thin.”

A Lifetime Warranty – The Differentiator

One thing Johnston RV Centers is known for doing differently is offering a lifetime warranty on their units through Assurance.

“We may have just been young in the industry and didn’t know any better, or we were just fortunate … but what it amounts to is we pay a premium on each camper and to keep that warranty in place, you have to bring it back to the shop – it doesn’t have to be ours. Now, we actively market it to get them back to our shop … but they have a requirement to get their inspection done, we send the paperwork and then it renews for another year.

“Now it doesn’t cover every component on the camper, but it does cover air conditioners [for example]. The list is expansive.”

He explains that while some dealers offer extended warranties, the coverage is not typically as good as the Johnstons’ lifetime offering.

“We believe in it,” Rodney says. “It’s something that separates us from the crowd.”

Word of mouth among other campers has benefited the Johnstons, Rodney says.

“Our percentage is pretty high that they come back to us. We have sold some five and six campers to the same family. But (it’s) something where they sat around the campfire, roasting marshmallows, generally talking about dealers, like, ‘where did you buy yours? Mine’s got a lifetime warranty.’”

Jennifer King

Jennifer King is executive editor of RV PRO magazine.

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