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Thursday, Jan 26, 2023
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Roughing It?

Jack Cole has had one employer in his adult life, giving him the opportunity to move from the production line to an executive position and, eventually, to president and owner. Cole, 65, started with Lance Camper Manufacturing Corp. as a teenager in 1966, the year after the company was founded in the San Fernando Valley. He and the company grew up together – along with the whole post-war generation, which avidly took to camping as a prime leisure activity. Lance started out making just camper shells, those ubiquitous covers placed atop the back of pickup trucks. But since taking over the company in 1980, Cole has guided its expansion into trailers and, most recently, toy haulers – trailers that can carry motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles for today’s generation of outdoor lovers. Overtime, simple camping vehicles have become luxury accommodations in the great outdoors. “Now if you take any of these products, the camper or the trailer, it’s like having a 5-star motel with you wherever you go,” he said. Cole took time to talk with the Business Journal about his career, how camper amenities have evolved and American’s abiding love of the outdoors. Question: What is the appeal of a camper or trailer? Answer: So many Americans like to wander and like to explore and need to have some kind of product to do that. In California you can be in the snow in the morning and the beach in the afternoon. We have the mountains, the desert, the valleys and the plains. It is one of the reasons why California is one of the largest states for RV sales. Position: Owner Company: Lance Camper Manufacturing Corp., Lancaster Born: Gardena, 1949 Education: Verdugo Hills High School, Los Angeles Valley College Career Turning Point: Becoming a company partner in 1973. Most Influential Person: Ronald Reagan Personal: Married, two daughters, three grandchildren Interests/Hobbies: Camping, waterskiing Is that lifestyle still appealing in an age of videogames and Twitter? The recreational vehicle lifestyle is one that parents like to pass down to their kids. We have many families that generationally have passed the product down. They will tell you, “I used to camp in a Lance trailer and that is why I want to own one now.” Are there Lance campers from the 1960s still in use? I am sure there are. Every once in a while we will see one. We have one in our possession now that was built in 1972. That’s over 40 years old. How did you start with the company? I was 17 years old. It was 1966. I was still going to high school and working part-time, and then went to Valley Junior College and working part-time. I started full-time in 1969 when I got married. We were in North Hollywood until 1984. Then we moved to Pacoima from 1984 to 1997. Then we relocated to Lancaster. How did you end moving out of the San Fernando Valley? The company was growing quite a bit in the 1980s. We bought property here in 1987 but didn’t actually start to build the facility until 1995. The reason we purchased property here was the Valley was pretty much bought up, and property was three or four times as expensive. Were there suppliers who also came out this way? Most of our suppliers in the RV industry used to be throughout Los Angeles and most of them are gone. Ninety-five percent of (RV) manufacturers in California – at one time there were well over 50 – are gone. They moved out of state or have gone out of business. All of those suppliers for the most part are gone too. We truck all of our parts for the most part from Elkhart, Indiana. Over 90 percent of all RVs in the United States are built in Indiana. It wasn’t always like that. What led to your eventually becoming the owner? In 1973, one of the founders Richard Murray decided to leave and relocate to Oregon. (The other owner) Ronald Mertes offered me (Murray’s) interest in the company. At that time I became a 49 percent owner of the company. Ron and I ran the company together until 1980. Ron decided he wanted to leave the business. Why? The 1970s were tumultuous. We had two oil embargoes and each time we did our sales would plummet and we’d be scratching to figure how to keep the doors open. Ron was older than me and decided to close it up. He left at that time and I purchased his interest in the company. So in 1980 I became owner and president. What motivates you as a business owner? I guess the challenges of building and running a profitable and successful company. Also, satisfying our customers. What is your daily work routine? I sit down and have a lot of meetings. I talk with my partner and vice president of manufacturing to find out what is going on. Meet with people and look into issues we have with whatever the main topic of the day that needs to be worked on. I meet with department heads and then there are the three or four product planning groups I am involved with. Do you miss being out on the production line? The whole process has evolved and there is stuff going on out there that I would have to be taught how to do it. How is the recreational vehicle industry doing these days? The industry has been growing substantially the last four years. When that happens, more people put research and development dollars on the table to improve their products. Is it a sign of a strengthening economy? Absolutely. You bet. Has the drop in gas prices affected the sales of RVs at all? The drop in gas prices increases the wind at our backs. It is added momentum for the industry and economy. So what does the company make? Truck campers we’ve been doing since day one. A truck camper fits on a pickup truck and the benefit is you can tow something with it. In the downturn of 2008-09, we started developing a travel trailer because that product is about 80 percent of the RV industry. The toy hauler is our newest product. People like to take their motorcycles and (all-terrain vehicles) enclosed inside a trailer. Then when you get where you are going, you back the gear out and have an extra-large living space inside. How much do your products cost? The retail price on the travel trailers goes from about $18,000 to $35,000. The truck campers go from about $18,000 up to over $40,000. And the toy hauler, the retail price is about $35,000 to $45,000. How have the designs evolved over time? Early on in the RV industry, it is fair to say what the manufacturers were supplying were the bare essentials. At that time it was more of a male product; a hunter, fisherman, that type of thing. Over time, throughout the 1970s we started putting in actual refrigerators in units, and showers and toilets and holding tanks. They became more complicated to design and build. It brought the whole family on board. That opened the whole industry to supplying a real home away from home. What kind of trailer or camper do you have? We are building a new camper model right now and I will be using that this summer. I have a waterskiing boat and I like taking my family out. Where are some favorite spots you take the camper? I like to go to Black Meadow Landing over at Lake Havasu. I have an enclosed trailer that I have some quads in and like to go out to Glamis (Imperial Sand Dunes, east of El Centro) in the wintertime. It is a great place to take an RV and your toys.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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