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Elkhart County, Ind., is home to dozens of marine and RV companies whose products make escaping to the outdoors more doable, comfortable, efficient and fun. What’s in the area’s drinking water? Why do so many RV and marine companies call Elkhart County home, and how are they being good corporate citizens and creating positive work environments?

Smoker Craft has deep roots in Elkhart County. Today, the company builds 
the Starcraft, Sylvan, Sunchaser 
and Starweld brands, in 
addition to Smoker Craft. 

Smoker Craft has deep roots in Elkhart County. Today, the company builds the Starcraft, Sylvan, Sunchaser and Starweld brands, in addition to Smoker Craft. 

About two hours from Chicago, and half that distance from the shores of Lake Michigan, Elkhart has a long manufacturing history. It started with musical instruments, then encompassed recreational vehicles and related OEM parts and products. Today, many marine manufacturers call the area home, cohabitating in Elkhart County with their RV industry cousins.

A supercluster of names such as Thor, Lippert, Forest River and Patrick Industries are neighbors to Smoker Craft (owner of Starcraft Marine, Sylvan, Sunchaser and Starweld boats), Polaris-owned pontoon-boat brands Bennington and Godfrey, and other companies, including HL Enterprise, NeXus RV, Keystone RV, Grand Design RV, The RV Factory, Gulf Stream Coach, Barletta Boats and more.

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Peter Barrett, senior vice president of marketing at Smoker Craft, which is based in the Elkhart County town of New Paris, says that merely mentioning the name Elkhart conjures images of manufacturing to those in the outdoor recreation industry. His experience runs deep, as his great-grandfather Arthur E. Schrock founded Starcraft (manufacturer of the first pop-up camper) in early 1900s in this part of north-central Indiana.

“Employees here have a really good work ethic — agricultural-based, very much not afraid of long, hard days,” Barrett says, adding that when government restrictions forced the company to shut down at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many employees called in. “Rather than sit home, they wanted to do anything to be productive, which really made us feel good about the workforce. They wanted to be active and working.”

The iconic Airstream brand (their Globetrotter model is shown here) is one of the many RV companies owned by Thor Industries.

The iconic Airstream brand (their Globetrotter model is shown here) is one of the many RV companies owned by Thor Industries.

Barrett also says the “really good supply chain” has helped area RV and marine manufacturers develop products and innovate. “We hear about manufacturers moving out of the Elkhart area, and they struggle with anything from wiring harnesses to glass to any type of parts and pieces,” he says. “In Elkhart County, we have a very mature supply chain. It helps us move products through the system and be creative with new product ideas. Plus, our vendors are close and can continuously feed us ideas.”

Proximity to the supply chain was a distinct advantage following last spring’s pandemic closure, Barrett says. “As the pandemic came on, we communicated with our vendors, finding out how they were doing, what might prevent them from firing right up or keeping to our pace once sales picked up,” he says. “Having local connections just makes it that much easier when we couldn’t have face-to-face meetings.”

RV Capital of the World

Renee Jones, head of marketing at Thor Industries, says that company also is based in Elkhart to be close to suppliers. Parent to such brands as Jayco, Airstream, Cruiser RV, Venture RV, Dutchmen and more than a dozen others, Thor employs more than 13,000 people and tries to be a good community member. “We strongly believe in supporting the communities in which we live, work and play,” Jones says.

Lippert supplies the RV and marine industries, offering such products as Taylor Made fenders and other accessories.

Lippert supplies the RV and marine industries, offering such products as Taylor Made fenders and other accessories.

She cites as one example the Thor LEAP Program, an initiative with local schools to increase awareness of the RV industry and to introduce students to career pathways. Thor team members have made 111 school visits with 10,323 students taking part in LEAP since its inception in October 2017. (Because of the pandemic, 60 visits with more than 5,000 students had to be canceled in 2020.) The company also donated more than $200,000 over five years to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Elkhart County — an organization that Smoker Craft, Lippert, Godfrey and Barletta also support.

Barrett says community-building is also vital to Smoker Craft’s operations. “We host a yearly employee-plus-family picnic event at the Elkhart County Fair that attracted 1,200 employees and family members,” he says. “Each employee could bring up to 10 family members, and they received admission to the fair, ride tickets, T-shirts and a meal. We spend more than $160,000 on employee events a year.”

Barletta founder Bill Fenech was in the RV industry for three decades (including with Grand Design RV) before leading Barletta, where he pursues philanthropy and supports local organizations, encouraging employee volunteerism and offering funding for employee sponsorship of events and groups.

Leadership Training and Culture

Approaching $3 billion in annual sales with more than 5,600 employees, Lippert’s business extends across the RV, marine, automotive, commercial vehicle and building products industries. Jarod Lippert, vice president of marketing, says that about eight years ago, the Elkhart County-based company started a leadership and culture program. “We identified that we did a pretty good job of training leaders that lead 10 to 20 people, but what about the leaders that reach hundreds of people?” he says. “If you don’t have good leaders, you won’t have good employee retention. At the time, we were just as bad as everyone else.”

The company now has a Leadership Development Team to cultivate core values. Amber Selking, vice president of leadership and culture development, works with teams to improve performance personally and professionally. Selking helps employees develop passions and achieve a deeper sense of purpose.

Though Thor Industries is in Elkhart, its Venture RV brand is based in neighboring LaGrange County.

Though Thor Industries is in Elkhart, its Venture RV brand is based in neighboring LaGrange County.

“Once employees believe in the company and believe in the culture, they begin to think this is really more than a place to hang your hat — this is a family working toward something much bigger than a paycheck,” Lippert says, adding that attrition is less than 30 percent.

Lippert says the company also encourages employees to contribute to the community. “We actually keep track of volunteer hours, and over the last four years, we’ve eclipsed 100,000 hours of community service,” he says. “Our philosophy is that business can be a force for good. It’s not just making good products and quality products that people want to use in their boats or their RVs, but really, how do we become good citizens of planet Earth?”

To address the workforce needs of the next generation, the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association in 2019 permanently housed its 18,000-square-foot RV Technical Institute in Elkhart. There, future techs receive the only available industrywide credential for diagnosing and repairing RVs. “The building is centrally located in Elkhart,” Technical Institute executive director Curt Hemmeler said at the time, with everyone listening well aware that he meant in the heart of the industry. 

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RV/MH Hall of Fame

The RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum is in Elkhart. Visitors can tour exhibits of RVs and motor homes dating to the 1920s, including actress Mae West’s 1931 Chevrolet Housecar and the classic 1974 GMC motor home. The Go RVing Hall at the museum includes a theater that showcases the RV lifestyle, as well as kiosks where visitors can search for RV dealers.

This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue.

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