April 14, 2013 in Business

RVs Northwest owner provides foundation for ultimate road trip

Michael Guilfoil Correspondent
 
Dan Pelle photoBuy this photo

Ron LIttle is owner of RVs Northwest, which has two locations in Spokane and will soon open a lot in Coeur d’Alene.
(Full-size photo)

Five facts

Year business started: 1985

Employees: 38 at two locations

RV price range: $10,000-$400,000

Most popular models: 24- to 27-foot bunkhouse travel trailers ($13,000 to $30,000)

More information: www.rvsnorthwest.com; 924-6800

Ron Little knew almost nothing about RVs two decades ago.

“I was selling cars,” he recalled, “when a good friend who worked at RVs Northwest offered me a job.”

That was in 1992. Ten years later, Little owned the business.

Today, RVs Northwest is one of the region’s largest trailer and motorhome dealerships, with two sales locations – 18919 E. Broadway and 10006 N. Division – and a third lot set to open in Coeur d’Alene next month.

Little discussed the industry’s evolution and his dream road trip during a recent interview.

S-R: Why did you choose sales as a career?

Little: It was a way to make a decent living, and I had a knack for it. I enjoy people. I studied business in school because I always wanted to own my own business, although I didn’t expect it to be this large when I was younger.

S-R: How was the transition from selling cars to recreational vehicles?

Little: That was easy. People are more excited to shop for RVs than for cars, because they’re trying to fulfill their family weekend getaway dreams or retirement dreams. So it’s a fun business.

S-R: How did you end up owning the business?

Little: It was a case of being at the right place at the right time with the right motivation. I went from selling to sales manager, then general manager, and in 2001, I became the owner.

S-R: Did you have a mentor?

Little: Yes, and that was a big part of my success. The previous owner – Bill Fishfader – was a very good mentor and friend. He’s not in Spokane anymore, but we still talk every other day.

S-R: What’s a lesson he taught you?

Little: I think the biggest surprise for me going into management was how much time you need to spend working with your own employees, keeping them happy. I used to think it was all about the customer. I have a very loyal crew – one has been here 26 years – and they all seem to enjoy coming to work in the morning. I couldn’t have created that atmosphere if I hadn’t been mentored.

S-R: How has the industry evolved since you joined it 21 years ago?

Little: The product has evolved quite a bit. It used to be you just wanted a place to get out of the rain with a few comforts, like a sofa, a bed, and maybe something really fancy like a microwave. Now people want all the luxuries of home and then some, like entertainment centers so the kids can play their video games. The slide-out rooms were the biggest change that got people interested, because they let you turn a little 26-foot trailer into a very large living area.

S-R: Does interest in recreational vehicles ebb and flow along with the economy?

Little: Yes. In 1997, when gas prices were in the headlines every day, it had a tremendous effect on the motorized portion of the industry. Eventually things recovered, and 2006 and ’07 were a really good time to be an RV dealer. It’s been a bit of a struggle since then. Banks have tightened their lending, and there’s a lot more competition out there. But I think this year we’re going to see a big comeback in the industry.

S-R: How many RV dealers are there in this area?

Little: Back in ’95, we were the only one along the (I-90) freeway. Now there are four just in this two-mile stretch.

S-R: What distinguishes your dealership?

Little: We still try to encourage a family atmosphere, without the high pressure. We’re not after every deal – we’re genuinely more interested in helping people find what they’re looking for and taking care of them before, during and after the sale.

S-R: Sailboat enthusiasts recommend first-timers buy the biggest boat they can afford because soon they’ll wish they had a bigger one. Does the same hold true with RVs?

Little: Yes, we call it “two-foot-itis.” I always suggest people buy something larger than what they have in mind to avoid wanting to trade up a couple of years down the road.

S-R: What other advice do you offer first-time buyers?

Little: Some people worry about not knowing how these things work. I explain that RVs are so simple now that everything’s done with the push of a button or the flip of a switch, and you can’t get it wrong.

S-R: What’s the longest motorhome you sell?

Little: Forty-two foot.

S-R: That’s almost as big as a Greyhound bus. Do owners need any special license?

Little: No. We take them on test drives, but typically the guy who buys a 42-footer has worked his way up to it and will already have pulled something or driven something more than a pickup.

S-R: Which RV features would you consider essential, and which border on the extravagant?

Little: You want a kitchen and a bathroom. It’s nice to have a TV in the living room or bedroom, or both. Extravagant motorhomes are the ones that include a washer and drier, a dishwasher, and an in-motion satellite system so you can watch different shows on five TVs at the same time. But some people consider those features essential, too.

S-R: How quickly does a new RV depreciate once it leaves the lot?

Little: It’s very similar to a car. You’re going to suffer the most depreciation during the first two years, then the depreciation dissipates from there.

S-R: If a relative asked for advice, would you recommend buying a new or used RV?

Little: If they were looking at the higher end – a big motorhome – I’d probably recommend buying one that’s a couple of years old. With trailers, you’re not talking about that massive a dollar amount. You can buy something new for $20,000 or $30,000 vs. something used for a little less. And the selection among new models is a lot greater.

S-R: Do you have a personal favorite on your lot?

Little: We have a 26-foot Wildwood travel trailer that’s a very comfortable size for a young family. Mom and dad have their queen bed up front and the kids have their own bunk beds in the back. It comes with the microwave, power awning, power tongue jack and power stabilizer jacks, all for $14,995.

S-R: What qualities do you look for in salespeople?

Little: Someone who’s friendly, knowledgeable about the product, and can develop a rapport with people, regardless of whether they’re in their 20s or their 80s.

S-R: Any big changes ahead for the industry?

Little: I think they’ve pretty much maximized the potential for what you can offer inside an RV. Now everybody is trying to figure out ways to be more green: using greener materials; trying to keep the trailer weight down so there are more options for the person with a utility vehicle instead of a ¾-ton truck; different ways to get better fuel economy out of the motorized section.

S-R: Any changes ahead for your company?

Little: We’re adding a third location at 6520 N. Government Way in Coeur d’Alene, across from the Silver Lake Mall. I’m hoping to open that in early May.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Little: Working with the people I work with. It’s like leaving one family in the morning and coming to work with another family.

S-R: What do you like least?

Little: This is a great industry. But like any business, there are good RV dealers and some that give us a black eye. That’s probably something I shouldn’t be saying.

S-R: Do you own an RV?

Little: No, but I have access to several hundred. And I have owned RVs. The first one we got was a little 26-foot motorhome – a great little family rig.

S-R: What’s your dream road trip?

Little: I’d love to visit every (NFL) football stadium in the country and watch a game. There are 31 stadiums, so it would probably take me two seasons.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at mguifoil@comcast.net.

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