Few beehives of industrial activity have prospered more through the last decade than Elkhart County, Indiana. As the global capital of recreational-vehicle manufacturing, the area prospered from the RV-sales boom after the Great Recession and amid $2-a-gallon gasoline, and then the industry got another accelerant when Americans fled to the great outdoors over the last couple of years in reaction to the pandemic.
All that time, ATC Trailers has been grinding away, solidifying its workforce by leveraging some benefit enhancements to help recruit from other RV makers in a labor-starved industry at the same time that the company emerged as a leader in a growing part of the genre: “toy haulers.”
And ATC is just a thriving part of the incredible industrial ecosystem that has grown up around the design, development, manufacturing and marketing of recreational vehicles in northern Indiana and the surrounding region. With the many factories making components and assembling RVs that dot the entire top tier of the Hoosier State and even sweeping over into facilities like the new Airstream factory in central Ohio, this industry is powerfully motoring the entire region to new heights of prosperity.
No More Bust?
RVs used to ensnare this area in a boom-and-bust cycle that could be really bad when it busted, as in the Great Recession. But the last decade gave the industry a chance to adapt and retool for a modern era and to provide millions more Americans with a travel alternative that could be embraced in an increasing number of ways. Then, the pandemic supercharged this phenomenon and helped give it an extra platform that seems like permanence. So here we are.
Recreational vehicles can be expensive enough, but for consumers who want the ultimate in travel convenience or an ability to take their hobbies with them, toy haulers are the answer. In addition to the living spaces that are conventional in RV trailers and coaches, toy haulers provide a garage on the back end that can be used to stuff all-terrain vehicles, bicycles, golf carts — or just a whole lot of luggage for the extremely high-maintenance traveler.
“People have realized that toy haulers are more versatile than conventional travel trailers,” Jason Schalbach, RV category manager for ATC. “One customer is an avid collector of antiques and likes to go to auctions with his toy hauler. He travels around, opens up the ramp door and puts his stuff in the trailer.”
ATC is an example of the specialization in the industry that its prior history has enabled. ATC models typically bring $100,000 to as much as $180,000 at the company’s independent dealers, in models ranging from 20 to 45 feet. Some can even fit full-size vehicles such as a four-door Jeep Wrangler.
“We get a lot of customers that maybe had a motor home and always towed their cars behind it, and these people like the fact that they can pull their car inside our trailer,” Schalbach said.
Garage on Wheels
The toy haulers are cleverly designed so that the garage part can double as part of the living quarters if owners empty it of vehicles once reaching a destination. Furnishings can be pulled down from side positions. “We have a customer who hauls a Corvette and sometimes on a long trip will pull over alongside the road and can get to his kitchen area and dinette with the car sitting in front of him,” Stalbach said.
The necessary complexity of these vehicles bespeaks the need for putting them together by hand, like a small house. That’s how ATC Trailers started out, in 2015, making “everything from 5-by-8-foot trailers for dog groomers to a 53-foot gooseneck car hauler, with custom living quarters. Its ability to satisfy a variety of demands for custom trailers prompted leadership to jump into the RV business.
“We’re just in the toy-hauler market and on the high end because of the value we provide,” Schalbach said. “One of our best competitive advantages is our construction recipe and method. A lot of manufacturers use aluminum, but ours is welded together. We don’t use mechanical fasteners like most. And every one is assembled by hand; our framing is built more like a house than it is an RV.”
Angling for Workers
Thus automation isn’t much of an option for ATC Trailers, which now has three factories in and around Nappanee, Indiana, and is building a fourth one. The company employs about 400 people, up from about 100 before its leap into RVs. Growing such a labor force hasn’t been easy in an area that suffered terrible unemployment rates less than 15 years ago but which now has one of most maxed-out industrial labor pools in America.
“It’s very competitive in Elkhart County,” Schalbach acknowledged. “But we treat our people with respect. We don’t work them to death and then lay them off. When things get busy, we try not to work too much overtime, and when things get lean we don’t lay people off.” Also, ATC is able to move some workers around between its consumer-facing side and a commercial operation that builds trailers for government and other B2B customers.
The problem is that every local worker with any kind of aptitude knows his or her value these days. The entire RV industry basically conducts one continuous job-recruiting fair. That’s why ATC tries to lure some by adding simple wrinkles that are meaningful to blue-collar workers.
“A lot of RV factories locally force workers to take their vacation days in July or during the Christmas shutdown,” Schalbach said. “But we let you take them whenever you want. And we also give people an extra week of vacation time compared with other manufacturers.