Easy Rider

RVing is more than just a pastime at Pete's RV, it's a business that rang up more than $11 million in sales last year

by Amy Souza

It all started with a bread truck that Terry Shepard converted into a homemade RV. He spent a lot of time at Pete's Trailer Mart on Williston Road in South Burlington. "I was there buying parts all the time, so much that I joked to the owner, 'Why don't you just sell me the place?' "

Pete's RV in South Burlington has been in the same Williston Road location for 49 years. Dave McGinnis (left), Larry Shepard and Terry Shepard have owned the company since 1986. "We're now selling to the fourth generation of families who have always been into the camping lifestyle" says Dave McGinnis.

Not long afterward, Terry and his wife, Mary Ann, became the proud new owners of the business. That was 1983. Terry owned and managed a number of rental units with his brother, Larry, and his brother-inlaw, Dave McGinnis. In 1986, the men sold their rental units, and Larry and McGinnis bought out Mary Ann's share of the RV business.

Pete's RV has occupied the same lot for 49 years. Like much of the property along Williston Road, it's located on former farmland. In 1952, the lot was purchased by Peter and Trudy DiSpirito and Pete's Trailer Mart was born. The DiSpiritos owned the business for 21 years. The Shepards didn't want the name changed because of the recognition it had developed in the RV community. "Pete was always known for his welding," Terry says.

Today, the company sells RVs, parts and accessories, and rents and services used RVs. Twelve years ago, the Shepards and McGinnis added an indoor showroom, a move that has given them an edge over the competition. "From December to February, we sold 100 tent trailers," McGinnis says.

The showroom is filled with RVs, as well as a simulated outdoor camping scene complete with artificial evergreens and rocks, and (real) camp chairs around a fake campfire. Step into a Fleetwood Bounder RV, and it's anything but rustic. The nation's bestselling motor home features a leather recliner, plush couches and thick carpeting. There's a TV, a VCR, a microwave oven, a cook stove. There's seating for six around a dining table that converts into extra sleeping quarters, and a queen-sized bed in the back. Though some motor homes are 40 feet long and as wide as a bus, no special license or training is required to drive one.

At the lower end of the spectrum is another big seller at Pete's: the pop-up, or folding, trailer. On the highway, it looks like a flattened-down RV and is towed behind a car or truck. In the campground, it unfolds to provide beds and seating on either end, and dining and kitchen space in the middle. The "pop-up" part is made of heavy-duty tenting material. McGinnis says they're an affordable way for young families to have a vacation together.

"I like going into campgrounds and seeing young families enjoying camping," McGinnis says. "Today's families go different ways all the time; camping really brings a family together."

Tent trailers start at $4,200. Pete's carries 12 models of Coleman trailers and sells 150 a year. Motor homes range in price from $50,000 to $500,000. Travel trailers and fifth-wheel RVs that must be towed by a truck range from $12,000 to $35,000. McGinnis points out that there are also plenty of good, used vehicles from the 1970s and '80s with only 20,000 miles.

"Our customers don't need anything we sell," McGinnis says, "but they want to enjoy the lifestyle."

An RV may be financed for up to 20 years. Average buyers keep their vehicles for five years, and the repossession rate is a fraction of 1 percent, Terry says.

Like car dealers, McGinnis and the Shepards have their choice of campers when heading out on a trip. All three men enjoy camping, though they don't get out as much as they'd like. Traveling by motor home is definitely their mode of choice.

"You always have a clean rest room," McGinnis says. "There's a convenience to RVing you're not tied to airplanes, hotels; there's more flexibility," he adds. "And in campgrounds, people are friendly; you talk to them. In hotels, the only people who talk to you are the people who have to wait on you."

The company sells new and used RVs, parts and accessories. It also rents and services used RVs.

Though a $300 tax refund probably won't help anyone buy an RV, Terry says the economy hasn't hurt their business this year.

"If anything, when the economy goes soft, our business gets better," he says. "Even though Disney World is complaining their business is down, our business is booming."

"People aren't taking the big vacations," McGinnis says. "There are lots of things to do in campgrounds and lots to see in Vermont. Plus, with an RV, you can go all over."

"July is usually our worst month. Sunny weather is not good for us; rainy weather is," Terry says.

"But, this has been a year that'll top all others. There's been no slow period this year," McGinnis says. "It's not unusual to get a hundred calls a day and 30 or 40 customers walking in."

In fact, Terry says, the RV business is thriving nationwide. That could be because for $79 a month and no money down, a family can own an RV. There are approximately 5,000 dealers in the country, and just one RV manufacturer does in excess of $1 billion in sales annually.

In 1986, Pete's did about $400,000 a year in sales. In 2000, that number grew to $11 million.

"I don't think the (aging) baby boomers are a big part of our business," McGinnis says. "We're now selling to the fourth generation of families who have always been into the camping lifestyle."

The company advertises in direct-mail fliers through Buyer's Digest and often participates in joint marketing with campgrounds. It has pop-up tent trailers in five Vermont state parks. "We also help campground owners fill their campgrounds," McGinnis says. "There are all different types: family, adult, nudist. Everybody wants to go to the hottest campground."

Vermont doesn't have the population base to support continued growth, however, so Pete's staff attends 25 shows around the country from campground shows to RV shows to the Champlain Valley Fair and draws many customers from out of state. Over the years, Pete's has strived to provide solid customer service. "We can't afford to have an unhappy customer," McGinnis points out.

Another facet of the business is building custom haulers. Fourteen years ago, Terry's son, Chadwick, was a star motocross racer. Because motocross courses are often an hour or more from the nearest hotel, the Shepards decided to convert a $2,000 motor home into a live/work space, with the living quarters up front and a garage space in the back. "We'd stay right at the track while everybody else was looking for breakfast," Terry says.

Today, the niche is growing. Pete's may be the largest manufacturer of custom haulers in the country, bringing in more than $4 million this year. It sells to motocross and car racers, hot air balloonists and people who show dogs. Each trailer is built to specification. The wait-period for a custom hauler is 14 to 15 weeks. "We already have orders for January," Terry says.

The company is building a mobile screening room for Vermont Eye Care, which will allow people to come in for an eye check.

All three men are native Vermonters. Terry lives in South Burlington; McGinnis lives on the lake in Colchester; and Larry just moved to Essex from South Burlington. They see themselves as part of the community.

Pete's may be the largest manufacturer of custom haulers in the country. It sells to motocross and car racers, hot air balloonists, and people who show dogs. Pictured: Erik Shepard (left), Todd McGinnis and Scott Borden.

Terry stays involved in South Burlington's National Night out. The company also donates tent campers for raffle to the Shriners in Boston, the Essex PTA, and the Irasburg Fire Department. It also has lent a prized possession the oldest known tent trailer, a 1920 Zaglemeyer to the Shelburne Museum for a three-year camping exhibit. "We try to be a socially responsible company," McGinnis says.

Pete's RV Center borders the airport and the airport's new quarry, which can make for a bit of a mess. The staff finds itself washing RVs and customers' cars more frequently. The Williston Road location is convenient, Terry points out, and customers know where to find it, but it's steadily been outgrowing the space.

"We only have four service bays when we need eight or nine, but we want to stay here," Terry says.

To compensate for the need for extra bays, they run two shifts. "We'll never catch up," admits Larry, who runs the parts and service department.

RV technicians are a sort of jack-of-all-trades. They need to know about car and engine repair but also how to fix appliances, plumbing, electric and gas, because essentially they're servicing a home on wheels. Technicians must attend classes every year to stay certified, and Pete's employs the only master certified technician in Vermont.

Lack of space aside, the biggest challenge the men say they face in running their company is common in all industries. "Like any business, it's employee issues," Terry says.

McGinnis says he spends a lot of time keeping up with legal issues around workers' compensation and harassment laws. "We want to provide a good, safe workplace," he says.

They also spend time and money trying to find workers, McGinnis says. "All of our employees are good people; they work hard," he says, "but it's hard to find a person that wants to clean a motor home."

The company employs 33 full- and part-time employees. Fourteen employees have worked at Pete's for more than 12 years. Only six employees have been there less than three years. One way they keep their employees happy, for instance, is to host steak cookouts during lunchtime.

"Most of these people are like, or are, family. It's your family you can count on the most in this type of business," McGinnis says. "We do whatever it takes. We'll wash a camper, do a delivery, clean the bathroom downstairs," he says of himself and his two partners.

McGinnis says people always ask him how the three men have stayed in business and friends for so many years.

Pete's RV employs 33 full- and part-time employees. Fourteen have been with the company for more than 12 years. "Most of these people are like, or are, family. It's your family you can count on the most in this type of business," Dave McGinnis says.

"We respect each other's expertise," he says. "As long as any two of us aren't doing the same job, we're OK." McGinnis also credits family enthusiasm and hard work for the company's success. Chadwick, the former motocross racer, builds custom haulers and owns the rental business of 92 units. Larry's son, Erik, is the store and parts manager. Terry's son, David, runs the sales operation. McGinnis's son-in-law, Jamie Chalmers, is a service technician. A nephew works in accounting.

"We're continuing to climb with our second generation," he says. "It's one thing to be proud of your kids, but we have the numbers to prove it."

Originally published in September 2001 Business People-Vermont