When it comes to seeking an advantage in today’s increasingly competitive business environment, many companies have come to recognize the value of collaboration with allied businesses.
Case in point: Leach Camper Sales, which has formed a mutually beneficial relationship with Pender, Neb.-based towing products supplier Blue Ox.
That partnership allows Blue Ox to pilot test and train installers on new products in a real-world setting utilizing RVs from Leach Camper Sales as test platforms. At the same time, the Council Bluffs, Iowa-based dealership gets early access to the latest Blue Ox products, according to Edd Leach, owner and president of Leach Camper Sales.
“We trial new products with Blue Ox and it is a great partnership,” he says. “They’ll come up with, say, a new steering stabilizer or a new hitch for travel trailers and they’ll call us and request a particular class or brand of camper and then come pick it up.
“When they release new products, they do a technician training school where they bring in techs from around the county they’ll do all that work on our units,” he adds. “When they’re done, they’ll leave the products with the trailer so we can then use that unit for a demonstration or for test drives, which is a great benefit for both us and the customer. We’ve become friends, but we both benefit from the partnership, too.”
Leach Camper Sales takes a “candy shop” approach when it comes to stocking the sales lot, with offerings for every price level and interest level.
A Partnership Formed Over Decades
Leach says the strategic partnership between the two companies started small and grew deeper over the years.
“I don’t recall there ever being one specific product or event that brought us together, but they came up with some great towing equipment over the years and we became aware of them in the 1990s,” Leach says. “At some point in the late 1990s, we sold one of their accountants a motorhome and that was probably our first contact. That contact turned into a meeting and those meetings evolved into a tighter partnership, particularly between our sales manager, Bob Saunders, and Blue Ox’s longtime CEO, Jay Hesse, who passed away in 2014.”
That friendship became the foundation that supported increasing collaboration over the years, according to Leach. Saunders and Hesse became well-known in the industry as the towering pair – Saunders is 6-foot, 5-inches tall and Hesse was 6-foot, 4-inches tall – were a hard-to-miss team at industry and social events throughout the years.
“Those two became good friends, and I think that really made all the difference. There is just a lot of trust there,” Leach says. “Blue Ox is in Pender, Neb., about 70 miles from us and there are plenty of dealerships there, so it was really Bob’s relationship with them that made them choose us for this type of work. This is a relationship business and that can make all the difference.”
The partnership endured even after Hesse’s untimely passing in 2014 after a long battle with cancer partially because, over the years, the partnership has trickled down through each organization. Ellen Kietzmann, who had been with Blue Ox since 1994 and had served as the company’s vice president, already knew the team at Leach Camper well as she took over responsibilities as Blue Ox’s CEO at the time of Hesse’s passing.
“Ellen had really been lining up a lot of things for Blue Ox over the years, so that transition went very smoothly,” Leach says. “She’s been one of the main people driving that organization for a long time.”
For her part, Kietzmann is very complimentary of Leach Camper Sales and of Saunders.
“Leach Camper Sales is not only a loyal Blue Ox dealer, they are the true definition of a partner,” she says. “Bob Saunders and the staff at Leach Camper Sales are always ready to help, from offering valuable input on new products, suggesting improvements to existing products, or assisting as our official recreational vehicle supplier at our annual OXSMART technical training sessions.
“Bob is also a long-standing valuable member of the Blue Ox Dealer Council, helping us, on a firsthand basis, to understand how Blue Ox can help dealers with the successes and the challenges in a competitive retail market,” Kietzmann adds. “Blue Ox would not be successful without the advice, wisdom, and guidance we receive from partners like Leach Camper Sales.”
Partly due to that strong, mutually beneficial relationship, Leach says hitches and towing products are a significant part of Leach Camper Sales’ business, contributing more than $1 million a year to the dealership’s annual gross revenue. The dealership thrives in both the motorhome and towables retail business.
“A good bit of that is specialty hitches, tow bars, etc., and about $200,000 of that is installed at the time a unit is purchased,” Leach says. “Overall, the towing portion of our business is growing pretty significantly because we have a very good reputation for being the premier dealer for tow bars.
“We have that reputation because big Bob Saunders knows more about towing than anyone in the Midwest. Bob’s only been with me a short time, about 25 years, but he’s learning quickly,” Leach says with one of his trademark hearty laughs. “Bob used to be an independent Snap-On truck guy, working with a lot of mechanics, which tends to make you mechanically inclined pretty quickly.”
Another topic that the team at Leach Camper Sales knows a lot about is building lasting relationships with employees and customers, as exemplified by its 50 years in the RV business. The company’s origins go back further still, to 1962, when Leach’s father operated a gas station in Council Bluffs, that became a regular stopping place for local businesspeople on the road.
“Eventually my dad ended up with a couple of pickup campers for sale,” says Leach, who joined the business at his father’s urging in 1969. “A lot of the local bankers stopped for gas there. One of them ended up talking with my father and ended up offering to fund him to expand his camper business.
“I came to work with my father for a bit, helping with different jobs around the shop, and in September of 1969, I became a partial owner,” he adds. “At the end of the first five years we both owned half and my father had opened another dealership in Lincoln, Neb., about 60 miles away.”
Over the following years, Leach expanded the dealership from 1 acre of rented land with a small building to 8 acres with two 6,000-square-foot buildings, one for the service department and another serving as sales offices. The dealership also leases a couple of bays offsite, where the dealership does RV-related automotive work, including installing steering stabilizers, tow bars, wiring on motorhomes, and installing plates on the front of tow vehicles, among other services.
The dealership’s service department plays a critical part in creating return customers, according to Leach.
“We focus on being able to help people when they need help – not when the clock says its business hours,” he says. “We focus first on the people that we sell units to, and then prioritize the people who are traveling across country. RVs are sold to people to try to enjoy their life. If you’re on vacation and broken down, the reality is you only have a certain number of days. I always try to get them back to their travels.
“There’s getting to be a lot of Internet dealers over the last 10 years, focused only on providing a low price. The public is coming to learn that they still need service and that has become a big opportunity for us.”
The dealership offered outside storage onsite up until about 10 years ago, but now only stores between 10 and 50 units onsite at any given time.
Today, Leach Camper Sales takes a “candy shop” approach to stocking the sales lot: “We try to have something for everyone,” Leach says.
“One reason we’ve always had the folding trailers is that within your first year you’ll get about 20 percent traded back in to move up to a higher-end product. By the third year that number increases to about 70 percent, often moving up to a travel trailer or motorized unit.”
Along that path of customer evolution, a great opportunity is created in selling what Leach refers to as “pre-enjoyed” campers.
“We work to build a lot of trust with our customers and our returning customers almost always upgrade over time,” he says. “Stocking a broad mix of product lines allows us to accommodate the customers as their tastes change. That’s how we’ve built the company over the years.”
An Entrepreneurial Approach
That strategy, along with a dedication to finding and keeping the company’s talented staff, has paid great dividends over the years.
Despite facing huge swings in demand for RVs during the dealership’s five decades in business – prompted by events such as the oil embargo of the 1970s, interest rates near 20 percent in the 1980s, and the economic crisis during the Great Recession – the dealership today sells in the range of 700 units per year, exceeding $20 million in annual gross sales.
“I hate to say that I’ve seen all those things over the years, but I’m proud that we’ve lived through it all by focusing on (hiring) the right people and hard work,” Leach says. Hiring the right people optimally means hiring people who have been entrepreneurs themselves at some point in their career, according to Leach.
“I feel like people who have that mindset just understand the realities of doing business,” he adds. “They can be turned into great employees because they understand that things won’t always be easy and that you can never be sure what happens next month or in the next few years. But those qualities of hard work and keeping an eye out for new opportunities is what helps keep a business going.”
And it appears to also keep a staff together. Most of Leach Camper Sales’ 45 employees, of whom half are technicians, have been with the dealership for several years, and in many cases, for decades.
“When it comes to finding great employees, I don’t have a real big challenge there,” Leach says. “Bob (Saunders) has been with us for about 25 years, and one of his guys has been with us for nearly 20 years. Our main bookkeeper has been here 33 years and her assistant has 28 years. One salesman has been with us for 27 or 28 years. I could go on.”
While it sounds a bit cliché, Leach says he’s been able to retain good employees over the years by treating them like family, which means making allowances for life outside of work.
“We try to keep in mind that this is a family-oriented business,” Leach says. “If your kid has a school play, I think it’s good for that kid to look into the audience to see their mommy or daddy looking back at them. I’m a long way from perfect, but with these folks being here for so long, it becomes like family, so you want to support them and their families outside of work.
“Our business manager is 55 years old and I met him 55 years ago,” Leach laughs. “I was in high school working pumping gas and I worked with his dad at the time. When the baby came, I went over and had a beer, like you do with family.”
Staying Current with Best Business Practices
To stay current with best business practices, Leach has belonged to 20 Groups over the years and has been a member and staunch supporter of the RV Dealers Association since the early 1970s.
“I was on the national board for RVDA 15 or 20 years ago, so it’s safe to say that I’m a strong advocate for that organization,” he says. “I believe very deeply in it.”
The entrepreneurial mindset and company culture – combined with a focus on hard and honest work and treating customers and staff like family – all comes together to create one of the most competitive dealerships in the Midwest.
“Clearly we’re doing something right. We’ve made it this long, anyways,” Leach says.
He adds another signature laugh when asked whether he still enjoys his work after five decades in the business.
“I sure as hell wouldn’t be here if I didn’t!” he says.