Taking the Risk & Reaping the Rewards

Princess Craft RV in Texas evolves from truck camper sales to a burgeoning business that prizes well-trained employees.

Evolve or die is a fitting motto for Princess Craft RV.

The Texas company, founded in the late 1960s as Pfluger Craft Manufacturing (it became Princess Craft shortly after), built inexpensive truck caps and campers when Richard and PJ Buerger took over in 1996. Things wouldn’t remain the same for long, and the reason was simple.

“By 1997, I just said ‘Yeah, we can’t make any money manufacturing. We’ve got to do something.’ So we took on Shadow Cruiser truck campers, because truck campers were all we knew. I knew nothing about the RV industry at all,” says PJ Buerger.

Indeed, Buerger didn’t even want to be a business owner. She had already been her own boss by the time the opportunity to take over Princess Craft — the manufacturer — presented itself. Buerger preferred to work for someone else and take it easy.

“It was not a plan to have a dealership. In fact, I remember telling my husband, ‘OK, I decided we’re going to be a truck camper dealership.’ He looked at me funny and said, ‘You know that’s not a thing, right?’” she says. “I said, ‘Well, then we will go out of business as a truck camper dealer.’”

Thankfully for customers throughout the Lone Star State and beyond, Buerger stuck with it. Today, Princess Craft — the dealership — not only sells and services RVs, but also hosts annual rallies geared to truck campers and “tiny trailers,” maintains several popular YouTube channels (plus the aptly named RV Small Talk podcast), and even opened a second location in Houston two years ago. It employs more than 30 people and offers units from more than a dozen manufacturers.

While the dealership’s early business was built on truck camper sales, Buerger’s been selling lightweight towables since the early 2000s. Last year, 80% of the 750 units sold by Princess Craft had wheels, and according to Buerger, it all started thanks to a persistent Aliner representative who insisted she try offering five of the iconic A-frame travel trailers.

“I think it was kind of like, ‘I’ll just do something. You know, what could it hurt?’” she says. “Once I got licensed for Aliner, then I popped up on people’s radar. Then every manufacturer who had some weird little thing that no dealer would take came to me. Seriously, that is what happened. Small trailers weren’t a thing. Aliner was trying to be a competitor to the canvas pop-ups. The problem is it didn’t sleep as many people and it was a real problem. They had a very strong following. So we did really well the first year and even better the second year. By the second year, I think we sold 58 because I didn’t know any better. And one person said, ‘Hey, you want to come to our rally?’”

Rolling With the Ups & Downs

Buerger, who naturally took an Aliner to the event, arrived late and tired, she recalls, and even slept soundly through an overnight thunderstorm so threatening the other attendees rode it out in a shelter.

“So the next morning at seven o’clock, they knocked on my door and said, ‘People need to leave, so you have to come out and talk to them.’ I got up in my pajamas, which I think was probably sweatpants and a sweatshirt,” she says. “I wandered through 50 or 60 Aliners one by one until two in the afternoon, so every single person could show me their Aliners and all the things they had done to them.”

Despite having a less-than-perfect start, Buerger, who didn’t grow up in a camping family, believes the event was definitely worth it. “What it did was it got me connected to the Aliner community,” she says. “So from then on out, I sold tons of Aliners.”

Princess Craft’s big test came during the recession when, in Buerger’s words, the world fell apart.

The dealership was still in Pflugerville, a growing Hill Country city north of Austin, when the economy took a turn for the worst. In addition to truck campers and Aliners, Buerger also offered TAB teardrops, then a Dutchmen RV product. Space was at such a premium, Princess Craft inventory had to be spread among multiple blocks downtown plus a field.

“It was brutal,” she says. “So we scaled back to a handful of employees and I was back to repairing trailers, driving a forklift, answering the phone and selling truck campers in 2008 because everything shut down.”

Unlike some dealerships, Princess Craft managed to make it through the recession, thanks to lessons learned from 9/11. Space remained an issue because there wasn’t enough of it in Pflugerville. A solution was needed quickly, and Buerger’s salvation showed up in 2012 when a 10,000-square-foot bowling alley in Round Rock, seized by the Internal Revenue Service, caught her eye.

Converting the building, constructed in the 1970s, to a dealership took six weeks, she says, as it contained not just bowling lanes but also a full-service kitchen. Practically everything that wasn’t hauled away by creditors — there were 17 liens on the property — was torn down and removed before new walls and a door could be added to separate the new offices and showroom from the shop.

Investing in Techs

Like Princess Craft’s truck camper origins, their shop is unconventional, too. It’s not divided into bays like a typical RV service center, Buerger says, but is instead a large, open space capable of holding up to 12 units at a time. It’s staffed with six technicians; two are dedicated to PDI (pre-delivery inspection) work.

“Our service techs are split between PDI and service. Our service techs are good, solid techs and most of them have been here a long time. In fact, the man who was working at the Princess Craft Manufacturing when I started there is still a tech for us,” she says. “He taught me everything I know about RVs, so I’m glad to have him here.”

Buerger runs an hourly shop, and technicians with RV Technical Institute Level 1 certification can earn an additional $9 per hour, depending on efficiency. All her technicians hold Level 1 certification (some hold Level 2), while her parts staff also is Level 1 certified, as she is; her service managers are Level 2 certified.

The achievements are an important part of being a good employer, according to Buerger.

“One of my jobs is to make sure technicians are as skilled, as talented and as certified as they can be, so they can be as employable as they can be. Now I’m not helping them get a job somewhere else, which I realize is a problem and a fear for a lot of dealers, but that comes down to culture and pay. That doesn’t come down to making them a valuable employee,” she says. “I think as an employer, my job is to make sure that they are a sought-after skilled person if they end up on the job market for any reason.”

In addition, certification also shows initiative and promotes customer confidence, according to Buerger, who believes there’s no real reason why more dealers shouldn’t be onboard with the process.

“Maybe the downside is that it takes some time away from their work or that it costs the business just a little bit of money, but if you’re doing a pros and cons list, let’s be serious,” she says. “It doesn’t make any sense not to, in my book, and then when you’re looking at entry-level people or lower skilled technicians, they need all the help they can get. They need resources, they need connections and they need certifications, too.”

Princess Craft also has a different approach to parts.

“The majority of our counter parts are sold on walkthroughs. And you know, those types of sales are really 90% based on who’s doing that walkthrough and who’s explaining to the customer about the parts,” Buerger says. “When we’re looking at the mix of business today, I would say at least 50% of our customers are fairly new to the RV industry. They don’t know what they need, or they need some help to understand. The other half maybe have been camping, but they just know the basics. So we have somebody spend time with them, walk through our parts department, and show them, ‘Here is what this is and this is why it’s really important, and I want to be sure you understand that.’”

By using a technician to conduct walkthroughs, Buerger says parts sales have probably quadrupled.

“When so many people have driven a long way to get here, they have some confidence in the Princess Craft name. They think we’re going to help them out, get them well on their way. I think not only giving them a good walkthrough but also giving them a good parts tour is important. They feel more educated. They feel more capable. And it just doesn’t feel like this huge unknown of what camping will be like. So that is a serious part of our process,” she says.

Finding the Right Balance

Buerger admits her store will never be mistaken for a typical RV dealership, but it goes beyond bare essentials.

“We have a moderate amount of parts. It’s not overflowing, but it’s not a minimalistic, ‘Here, we’ve got a sewer hose and some toilet chemicals,’ either,” she says. “We can talk to you about everything from portable toilets, satellite dishes, solar and lithium upgrades to inverters, Wi-Fi, generators and all the parts in between.”

One thing that makes her parts operation a little different is the way it’s presented.

“I am not big on having reps come in and set up a planogram because a planogram really works if you are a destination,” she says. “We have some of that, but not a tremendous amount. We have what we need to repair the units in the service bay. We don’t have a spot for every widget you might ever need in our parts department out on the floor because it’s not interesting for customers to shop and it’s not going to turn fast enough.

“We try to look like a fun and interesting store, but we have every serious piece that an RVer would want to know about. [But] we probably don’t have every widget that they would need to fix a little burner tube on their 10-year old-water heater,” she says.

Since customers will go to Amazon if they can get an item cheaper, Buerger makes certain her inventory is priced reasonably.

“We also give them a voucher when they buy from us to get them started buying things,” she says. “It’s only $25, but it piques their interest. So they’re more attentive when they’re looking through parts on their walkthroughs.”

It’s a successful strategy, as Buerger says her parts and service department today contributes about 20% to Princess Craft’s gross profits; that number has been as high as 50%. With a pending expansion at the Round Rock store, she hopes to add more technicians since service work is in such high demand.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to grow my staff fast enough to take care of all the service that we would be able to bring in. It’s coming in faster than we can manage. Every dealership is having that same problem,” she says.

When another RV dealership in Houston closed its doors a couple of years ago, Buerger saw a perfect opportunity to expand the Princess Craft footprint.

“That one kind of fell in our lap, and Houston is one of the main markets in the country. We have so many customers in Houston,” Buerger says of the dealership managed by daughter Sue Ann Smith. “One of the reasons that we took that location is because we could immediately keep Aliner and Lance there.”

The only downside is the facility itself, she says. While it’s on the access road of busy I-45 south of downtown, it’s located behind an outlet store, so access is difficult with longer RVs. Buerger says a move is in the works and the new site will be announced soon.

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