Fran Roberts Discusses Camping World Buyout
By Greg Gerber @ 2:46 PM
RV Daily Report
-- In an exclusive interview with RV Daily Report, Bob Zagami talks to Fran Roberts, the owner of Long View RV, which recently sold his Florida store to Camping World. The two discuss what led to the Camping World buyout, the speed with which it happened, and what will become of Long View's dealership in New England.
Bob Zagami: Why Camping World and why now?
Fran Roberts: As the greater Tampa area continued to expand, we would frequently get inquiries from other real estate brokers on the possible sale of our Florida location dealership. There were many offers from non-RV related entities but we always felt that the best use of this property should be another RV dealer.
Several RV dealerships looked at the property this year but they struggled with the investment it would take in building a flagship facility. Also, the recent press releases regarding the RV turmoil in the Tampa Bay area clouded retail RV sales.
Our wholesale inventory was dramatically reduced when Gulf Stream exited the market. This left us without a motorized product and other brands we wanted to carry were already spoken for in Florida.
As the Camping World situation changed in Florida, Marcus Lemonis walked in and was ready to make a deal. It was a simple and fair process and they showed their willingness to move quickly and make something happen here. And they did. We were truly amazed at the efficiency and capabilities of their company to turn this from an idea to an executed deal in such a short period of time.
Bob Zagami: How could they make something like this happen so quickly?
Fran Roberts: Camping World immediately saw the value and potential of this property to significantly change the Tampa market and use it as their premier location in the country to showcase what the company can do for RV consumers nationwide. They flew several internal staff members in to Tampa to inspect the facilities and provide feedback on their ideas and what it would take to match the vision of Marcus Lemonis. We were really amazed at how quickly they worked and the synergy of all their people in meetings with our staff and management team. This was one of the quickest and most straight forward major decisions I have seen in the RV industry.
Bob Zagami: Are there any regrets after signing on the dotted line?
Fran Roberts: Actually just the opposite! I know that this is a great opportunity for our Tampa team to grow with a national leader in our industry. Having the expertise that Marcus brings to Camping World and the financial strength to continue expanding the retail stores and RV sales, will provide them a lot of opportunity to expand and grow that we could never have matched in todayís market.
Knowing that the facility we built down there will now become a national RV showcase is very rewarding for Frank, Shirley and me. Itís truly a winning situation for everybody.
Bob Zagami: When does Camping World take over the day-to-day operations of the dealership?
Fran Roberts: Soon! We donít have an exact date yet but they are working with our team to understand the facilities and how they will expand them and they have already started site improvements on landscaping, paving, and new signs will go up soon. Given how fast they executed this deal, it will not be long before it is the newest tourist attraction in the area and the parking lot will be filled with visitors and buyers. They have the capability to move a lot of inventory to this site in a short period of time. Frank, my son, who has been the president of the dealership since it opened, was very impressed with the Camping World management team and will be their main point of contact moving forward.
Bob Zagami: Are you going to retire now?
Fran Roberts: Hell no, whatever gave you that idea? This has been our life story since we opened our first location on the Mohawk Trail in western Massachusetts in 1959, selling Winnebagoís under an observation tower and next to a gift shop owned by my parents.
I still remember the story you did on us in 2002 when you were the editor of RV News
about how we started in business and the first time you ever saw our first location:
ďRoberts started as a youth, while still in college. He began his career under the high observation tower that was part of his parent's souvenir and tourist attraction on the picturesque Mohawk Trail in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Frank and Shirley worked the business by themselves, never hiring their first employee until 1970.
"Three years later they actually sold 55 Winnebago motorhomes in two months.
"I remember stopping at this Mohawk Trail landmark as a youngster when traveling with my parents. We didn't go camping as a kid ... hell; I didn't know what camping was when I was a kid. The trailers next to the souvenir shop never even garnered a glance from me ... all I wanted to do was climb the tower and look at the beautiful scenery in all directions that spanned three states. This was the first place that I ever remember seeing a Winnebago motorhome. I must confess - I didn't have the slightest idea what it was and never even went over to look at it.Ē
Shirley and I have enjoyed every minute of it (well ok, almost every minute of it) and we were excited when Frank joined the business after graduating from Northeastern University. Frank furthered his training by working at Beaudryís RV of Tucson, Ariz., and Lazydays of Tampa. Itís kind of ironic that Frank wound up building a great dealership just one exit down the road for us.
We are not retiring and will now focus all our attention at our Windsor Locks, Conn., facility right off Route 91 between Hartford, Conn., and Springfield, Mass.
We donít have a Camping World store anywhere near this location. Their closest stores are in New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York. So, given this experience of working with Marcus and his team, we would seriously consider adding a Camping World retail store to this property with excellent visibility to hundreds of thousands of RVers that head out of New England on vacation or on their way to a snowbird location for the winter.
Bob Zagami: Ok, so you are staying around and staying active, what do you see for the industry in the years ahead?
Fran Roberts: We donít have enough time to cover all the issues and challenges facing our industry today! No, seriously, I think the years ahead will be good for our industry. Trailers and fifth wheels will continue to lead the recovery with some great products coming off the line. Our fifth-wheel business is great and we see a lot of former motorhome owners opting for a pick-up truck and a fifth-wheel trailer.
We are starting to see some younger families coming into the lifestyle, but we have to continue focusing on them and the new demographics of families as they see the new Go RVing ads and start to visit dealerships.
Service is always an issue and we have to attract more young people into training and apprenticeships to show them what a great career opportunity they can have with a dealership, especially given the economy and job market right now.
We are seeing the next generation of owners coming along, like Frank, who have more formal education and business training, who are in the same generation as new owners. They grew up on the computer, the Internet and now communicate with their friends and customers through social media and new technology associated with smartphones and tablets. They get it, and it will help them build the business with their communications on a national level with a computer-savvy prospect and customer.
The new generation of smaller, more fuel efficient, gas and diesel motorhomes will still find many waiting prospects and owners who still want to enjoy the lifestyle from the cockpit of a motorhome. This new generation of coaches in the 26- to 34-foot range are getting a lot of attention and manufacturers are turning out some great product to keep them coming back to the dealership.
I think it is also time for the industry to move beyond their bashing of Camping World and Marcus Lemonis with the many negative comments, often unsigned by people willing to say things but unwilling to attach their name and stand behind what they are saying. We found Marcus to be extremely professional throughout all our discussions, genuinely concerned about our employees and customers, and dedicated to growing his company and providing a professional experience for the Camping World employees and customers. I was very disappointed to see these types of comments posted to the story about our recent sale to Camping World. Itís obvious to us that these people, in most cases, simply donít know what they are talking about or the man they want to chastise for running a successful business.