Knowing your market is a key tenant in business, so while dropping diesel pushers for sub-30-foot gas units and turning a showroom into a parts store may seem like desperate reactions to a troubling economy, they were just smart moves for Triangle RV Centre on Canada’s Vancouver Island.
“We were known at this location for higher-end motorhomes, so diesel pushers and bigger gas models from Winnebago and Newmar,” says Sylvia Thistle-Miller, Triangle RV’s owner. “I say you have to be like a chameleon. You have to move with it. You can’t get stuck on a product type.”
Thistle-Miller, wife of dealership founder Roy Miller, moved highline units off her 2-acre property in Sidney, B.C., seven years ago before the bottom of that market fell out. As the diesels left, they were replaced by similarly-sized gas units; eventually, those were sold off and Triangle RV began offering smaller gas Class As and lightweight towables.
“We’ve always had them, but we were very much known for being a high-end dealership, so we sold higher-end towables and definitely the big pushers. It’s been a hard switch,” she says. “I had some dealers say, ‘You can’t do it.’ I said, ‘But we have to.’ We needed to follow the trend and you still need to do that. We did it slowly and I think we did it pretty well, actually.”
Triangle RV sells a variety of towable and smaller motorized units from its location on Canada’s Vancouver Island.
The store’s sales numbers back her up: During 2008-2010, 55-year-old Triangle RV consistently posted sales from $5 million to $7 million. By the time 2011 is over, sales should come in just over $7 million. For a small dealership to do so well during one of the worst economic climates in recent memory could only mean Thistle-Miller paid attention to her market.
“On the island, there are a lot of very small cars. We’re very ‘green’ oriented. We’re into biofuels and those types of vehicles and they don’t have towing capacities,” she says. One popular seller is the Forest River r*pod, a line of mostly 17-foot travel trailers in the ultra-light class.
She still has customers who want more than just a tiny towable, so for them, the longtime Winnebago dealer has had great success with the Vista 26P. Those units are a far cry from the larger Winnebagos and Newmars that once graced the lot, but her customers have voted with their wallets.
“A lot of buyers are downsizing. They’re saying, ‘No, I don’t want a big 40-footer anymore; 26 (feet) works. It’s got everything in it I need and it’s affordable,’” she says. “We just sold four of them. It’s a beautiful little coach.”
Another motorized unit that moves well among the 80 to 100 units in inventory is the Itasca Navion IQ, a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter-based Class A that seems more popular in her area than Super Cs.
Varied Experience Benefits Business
The island is a market Thistle-Miller knows well. She was born just down B.C. Highway 17 in Victoria and joined Triangle RV in 1982 as a salesperson, only four years after Roy Miller located the store to its present location. In the almost 30 years she’s been aboard, Thistle-Miller has become quite familiar with the business.
Sylvia Thistle-Miller, owner of Triangle RV, is pictured with some of the dealership’s sales staff, which includes (left-to-right) Sales Manager Doug Howden and sales reps Art Ries and Garry Blane.
“I did everything in that timeframe because we were all struggling in the early ‘80s financially. The industry literally had plummeted and interest rates had skyrocketed into that 21-percent range, so Roy did let go of a few people,” she says. “I was lucky enough to stay on … heck, I even went out and cleaned units. I did whatever it took.”
Although she was never a service technician, Thistle-Miller recalls helping place air conditioners on roofs, assisting with awning installations and other mechanical duties.
“I had to do that. One thing about Roy was he never looked at you and said, ‘Well, you’re female, you can’t do that.’ It was always wide open. You did what you physically could do,” she says. “I think that was pretty great of him.”
Thistle-Miller also worked the F&I desk for several years, learning that job from a bank manager. It was a tour of duty she appreciates as an owner today.
“You can still have a financial background, but if you haven’t physically sat there and done it all, I think you run into trouble,” she says. “When you do bookkeeping hands-on, you really do understand what your bankers are looking for.”
Obviously, bankers and owners alike look for profits, so Triangle RV decided to grow its parts business by turning the showroom into the parts store, but that wasn’t all.
“We started to bring in fun stuff and we’ve done that for many, many years,” Thistle-Miller says. “We really research for items that add color and a little bit of pizzazz to keep women because when a man says he wants to go to the RV store and buy a part, that’s not so exciting. If you bring your partner or spouse in and they also can shop, I think the whole experience is way more fun. We have dishes and other odds and sods here.”
Pets Always Welcome at Triangle RV
As someone who shows dogs on the side, Thistle-Miller knew she had to cater to the RVers who owned pets, too.
Triangle RV has designated itself as a pet-friendly business, inviting customers to bring their animals with them to the dealership. Above, bookkeeper Diane McKay is pictured with the dealership’s rescue kitty. At right, Thistle-Miller is pictured with her dog, Odin, inside a Winnebago motorhome.
“All of our customers come with their dogs and they would ask if they were allowed to bring them out and we said, ‘Of course,’” she says. “The more they asked, the more we thought, ‘Let’s just state it: it’s OK, bring your dog.’ They all know we have water and treats and we have all kinds of things they can buy for their dogs that make it easier for traveling with them.”
Like many U.S. dealers, Thistle-Miller relies on Coast Distribution to keep her shelves stocked, as well as Atlas Trailer Coach Products, a Calgary, Alberta-based supplier. As for competitors, Thistle-Miller doesn’t have to worry about the Camping World effect, as the closest one is across the Juan de Fuca Strait – and the U.S. border – in Washington state. Still, Victoria does have a few Wal-Mart stores that do concern her.
“We aren’t running head to head with them, but we do price comparisons and we’re certainly comparable. They’re not less than we are, so we’re very conscious and cognizant of that,” she says. “We also go to Canadian Tire because they’re sometimes our competitor.”
Regardless, Triangle RV has an edge those retailers can’t match, according to Thistle-Miller.
“It’s the knowledge of the people. My guys are extremely well trained,” she says. “Tom, my parts manager, came from Vancouver and was a hitch specialist, so he was working in the shop. He came here as a hitch specialist and then moved into the parts department. His knowledge is vast and he works with his guys to help them get knowledge on new product and my staff is eager to learn.”
Product-specific training is encouraged, as is spending time with customers to help them with their needs.
“If a customer asks us for a part, we will research it, we will find it, we will try and get it. It’s not just, ‘Oh, sorry, we don’t have it.’ We’ll go that extra step and try and get it,” she says. “I really do believe that’s part of the deal. You have to have knowledge. And, they’re friendly and lots of fun.”
Meeting the Challenge of Finding Talented Techs
What hasn’t been fun is looking for technicians, according to Thistle-Miller; even in Canada, good shop staff is few and far between.
Triangle RV’s service and parts staff work hard to meet customers’ expectations. Pictured are (left-to-right): Service Manager Penny Moerenhout, Parts Assistant Dale Lansdowne, and Service Advisor Sherry Shamblin.
“These guys are really hard to find. I’ve done advertising across the country and never had a response,” she says. “When a good resume crosses your desk, you really need to look at bringing that person onboard.”
Consequently, when the wrench-wise son of a longtime customer submitted his resume, she gave it serious thought and decided to hire him. With his automotive background, Thistle-Miller figures he’ll do well, thanks in part to Triangle RV’s shop mentor, who’s been there for 30 years.
“He keeps a very watchful eye on them,” she says. “Like he says, ‘I’ve done this so many times now, there are easier ways to get to the end.’ He just asks that they ask him.”
An active RVDA of Canada member and former vice president, Thistle-Miller has taken advantage of the Association’s Okanagan-area training school and apprenticeship program; two of her five techs are products of it.
Her techs aren’t the only ones learning how things work in the shop; Thistle-Miller has gained an education, too.
“One thing you should learn is when you have a tech recognize his limitations,” she says. “If he’s a great PDI tech and he’s happy there, he may not have a personality that you can push past that. We do have techs that are great at certain things and unless they say, ‘I really want to go there and learn that,’ we may not ask them to. That’s just something we learned from a couple of guys we tried to push and couldn’t.”
Service Department Up to Nearly Any Task
As for capabilities, Triangle RV doesn’t do welding or have a paint booth, but its staff won’t shy away from paint and body work on front-end or rear corner caps. Of course, the shop also handles slide-out work and installs leveling jacks, cameras, slide-out awnings and satellite and TV antennas.
Triangle RV’s talented service department is up to nearly any task, including doing work on awnings and cameras, installing leveling jacks and repairing slide-outs, to name a few. A 30-year veteran of the service shop acts as the official mentor to the shop’s newer technicians.
Modern manufacturing techniques, according to Thistle-Miller, haven’t completely eliminated customer sidewall woes.
“With the way these units are constructed today, we’re doing a lot of rot repairs. We’ve got three out in the shop right now,” she says. “We live in a very damp climate. It really is a fallacy that a bonded wall reduces water issues. It’s just not true.”
Although Triangle RV doesn’t sell horse trailers (Thistle-Miller has considered it, but doesn’t have room), they aren’t strangers to her shop.
“Usually, you’re dealing with axles, brakes and bearings,” she says. “It can be a little bit more challenging to get some of the locks or pieces that they need, but we’ll do it and we’re known in the area for that.”
Selling American-made products in Canada means waiting three or four weeks for appropriate parts to arrive in Sidney, she says, but it wasn’t always this way.
“I think it was better five years ago. If you’re talking warranty parts, manufacturers were just easier to deal with,” Thistle-Miller says. “Today, if you even say one word wrong in a claim, they just deny you. I find they’re constantly looking for an out of any claim. Now Winnebago is very straightforward and clean cut. Why the others don’t follow that type of system is beyond me.”
Rewards & Challenges of Being a Woman-Owned Business
Another challenge, not surprisingly, has been being a woman dealer.
“I really didn’t have a lot of problem with staff. I didn’t have a problem with our Canadian manufacturers. I had a problem with buyers,” she says. “So I learned then to put on a pair of blue jeans and comfortable shoes, then get under that coach or get up on that roof. I had to know my product inside out because the customers made me.”
Although a feminine viewpoint might help make a sale where the customers are husband and wife, Thistle-Miller says even that was a fine line.
“I think being female has helped for sure with many people, as long as you didn’t pose yourself as a threat,” she says. “When I was younger, I ran into a lot of that with buyers. The women were like, ‘What’d you do to get the ring?’ I was like, ‘Well, I actually worked for it, and I don’t mean what you’re thinking.’”
Perhaps one of the biggest contributions to Thistle-Miller’s success is her Spader 20 Group.
“I 100-percent believe in groups like this. We’ve been a member for 18 years and I can’t imagine running a dealership today without their support,” she says. “It’s not Spader, but the people within your group. I can get on the phone at any given time and say, ‘What’s hot in your area? What about this? Why aren’t my ratios right?’”
Such groups help dealers discover a yardstick for their businesses they’d find through no other method, according to her.
“The industry needs to be strong, so we should make each other strong. I learned a long time ago, you need to share. I share with my one of my dealers down the street,” Thistle-Miller says. “We’ll share information to try to help each other. I don’t think we should ever try and make another person fail because then, the industry fails.”