There's a long-standing belief that the RV market leads the boating industry by about six months. Feedback from those in the RV and marine trades indicates that formula is holding true in this recession, even though the numbers show both industries are tracking similarly.
Still, there are leading indicators on the RV side that are hard to ignore. Fleetwood and Monaco, two of the RV world's largest manufacturers, filed for and emerged from Chapter 11 restructurings. While some components of the brands were lopped off or modified (or sold off entirely), both remain in business, giving the industry a much welcomed sense of stability.
Meanwhile, the marine industry's second-largest manufacturer, Genmar, remains embroiled in a difficult bankruptcy process, with no clear sense of what the final outcome will be. That not only is a concern to dealers and industry insiders, but some believe it's one reason lenders are more hesitant to loan money to marine businesses than their RV counterparts.
Manufacturers seem to be approaching the recovery differently, too. Some boatbuilders are keen to offer more modest and affordable options to consumers, while many say RV manufacturers are looking for the next big "wow" factor to spur consumers to trade up before they're quite ready.
Both industries have had to deal with credit crunches that have stunted their rebounds, and most forecast a long, drawn-out recovery. Suppliers and vendors to both marine and RV manufacturers have faltered precariously. Weakness in consumer confidence is keeping sales difficult to come by.
Those customers who are buying are tending toward smaller boats and RVs. They're the "bottom-feeders," as one insider says - looking for, and often finding, a steal. But if the RV industry is a leading economic indicator, there are some reasons to be hopeful.
Credit seems to be easing slightly, as RV dealers find both wholesale and retail financing options through local lenders who are looking to replace lost car dealership clientele. Shipments are increasing, meaning at best that improved sales are ahead and, at worst, that dealers are clearing and replacing their aged inventory with new models.
And whether the numbers support it or not, the prevailing perception is that the RV industry is doing better overall - a definite boost at a time when everything hinges on consumer confidence.
Both the RV and marine industries have lost dealers and manufacturers. The RV industry has counted 170 dealerships that have gone out of business since 2007, out of a total of 3,000, according to Phil Ingrassia of the National RV Dealers Association. It's a small percentage, but it's much higher than the typical 15 to 20 closings the RVDA tracks in a typical year.
The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association estimates that about 50 percent of its work force has been laid off, according to spokesman Kevin Broom. The RV industry has about 80 manufacturers - down from about 100 - whereas the marine industry has about 1,500 boatbuilders, according to Scott Stropkai, an RV industry analyst with Statistical Surveys in Michigan.
Some think the marine industry must contract more to shrink capacity to demand, but experts say it won't become as small as the RV industry. "This is an industry with lots of small niches, more so than the RV industry," so it needs more manufacturers and dealers, says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
The NMMA estimates that around 20 percent of boat dealers have failed - some 1,500 of approximately 6,000. The marine industry is losing dealers more quickly than the RV industry because so many are undercapitalized and overstocked, says Phil Keeter, president of the Marine Retailers Association of America. RV dealers tend to have one or two brands, while it's common for boat dealers to carry five or more, making the RV dealer more stable.
"The [boat] dealer shouldn't buy so much stuff; he shouldn't try to be everything to everyone," says Keeter. "He ought to be more focused."
Just as unemployment numbers tend to be a lagging economic indicator, the RV industry seems to be a leading indicator, says Mack Bryan, vice president of the RVIA. Though sales dipped similarly through 2008 and the first two quarters of 2009, according to Statistical Surveys data, the perception is that the RV side is rebounding ahead of the boating industry.
"We're definitely seeing the RV side recover quicker than we're seeing the boat side recover, although there are still some similarities where maybe larger motor homes and larger boats are softer, and smaller boats and smaller trailer sales are improving," says Chris Hoover of Ron Hoover RV and Marine Center, which has five locations in south Texas.
The RV industry definitely leads into recessions but not necessarily out, according to Mark Bretz, of Bretz RV and Marine in Missoula, Mont. This time Bretz saw the same early decline on the marine side. "I think that these industries were probably aware something was going on that wasn't good for close to a year before a lot of other industries felt that," Bretz says.
A shorter boating season makes the industries tough to compare in terms of who is first in or out of a recession, says Earl Stoltzfus, who has owned Stoltzfus RV and Marine in West Chester, Pa., for 42 years.
In 2006, the RV industry shipped 390,000 units. The 2009 projection was at 146,000, but a 27 percent increase is forecast for 2010 over "admittedly weak numbers," Bryan says.
Bretz isn't comforted by the new projection. "I just think that manufacturers are out of sync with retail," he says. When dealers saw their business plummet, they quit buying. Now inventory is so low that they are buying to restock.
"But on the sell-through rate, it's still not very good," says Bretz.
Like many, Stoltzfus thinks the RV industry is healthier because major manufacturers have already worked through Chapter 11 restructurings. Though the largest boatbuilder, Brunswick Corp., responded quickly to the downturn by downsizing, the future of No. 2 Genmar has been up in the air since its Chapter 11 filing last June, leaving dealers, suppliers and consumers fearful of the future, he says.
Stoltzfus worries that Genmar is repeating the pattern of an RV manufacturer that hurt its dealers and customers in the Chapter 11 filing process. Though the assets were sold to a solid builder with a good reputation, they were sold on a net-net basis with no liabilities. That means approved warranties will not be paid and dealers are not able to sue for damages, he says.
"You don't do that and get away with it," Stoltzfus says. "They are currently trying to mend their ways, but it's going to take a long time. They're going to get a much smaller portion of the industry. The portion that is taking care of consumers and dealers during this time, they are the ones that will get more market share."
The major RV bankruptcies came early in 2009 and were resolved during the summer, giving more weight to the idea that the RV industry leads marine. Bretz predicts that RV manufacturers will have a tougher recovery because, in the past, RV builders who filed for Chapter 11 typically didn't emerge from bankruptcy, yielding their market share to survivors. This time, the same number of major builders is competing for a smaller market.
"Maybe these industries will end up like the airline industry - to be a survivor you have to go through every few years and do a bankruptcy again," says Bretz. "I think part of it will make businesses, unfortunately, less afraid of debt, because it appears that if you take on a bunch of debt and don't manage it very well, you get a get-out-of-jail-free card."
However, the prolonged uncertainty caused by Genmar's unsettled Chapter 11 is scaring off potential lenders, Hoover says. A banker that RV and Marine Center deals with told Hoover that, from a lending perspective, RV manufacturers are more stable than marine manufacturers. That makes banks hesitant to issue marine dealers floorplan money.
"Two of the three biggest RV manufacturers ... both filed and both emerged, [so] it seems like just a hiccup," Hoover says. "There's still some question on where the marine manufacturers are."
The marine industry is operating with only one national wholesale lender - GE - and the RV industry with three - GE, Bank of the West and Bank of America. Still, Stoltzfus says the two industries have suffered equally but that the RV industry has moved further beyond its low point. He believes he is paying more than he should for GE's wholesale dollars but says he has no shortage of credit.
Bretz says there's a mixed message being sent. "Legislators are saying they want to grow business, but meanwhile the banking regulators are being incredibly onerous on banks in many cases, and until that changes, I don't think you're going to see significant expansion" into RV and marine wholesale finance, Bretz says. "Regulators that had capital ratios that they thought were acceptable two years ago are now saying those ratios need to be twice as high, and the only way you can get there logically is to reduce outstanding loans. Until banks are positioned to where regulators stop getting them to beef up capital liquidity, you're not going to see significant change."
However, RV dealers have been resourceful with local lenders, and credit unions and have been helping them understand floorplan finance, says Ingrassia. RV dealers say they have had some relief across the board, since local banks are loaning wholesale credit lines.
One reason credit unions have been more open to providing credit is because they have undergone such a change in the auto market, Bryan says.
Marine and RV associations have joined forces to secure Small Business Administration loans that were to be spread between marine, RV and auto dealers. That program has performed below expectations, Ingrassia says, and though everyone expected the new program to take time, it's taking longer than anyone thought.
Bryan speculates that the credit crunch on the retail side has caused a slowdown in the turnover of vehicles, perhaps similar to that of the marine industry. "Typically, people trade in RVs every four years, and my guess is that time frame has been lengthened," says Bryan.
Factories ramping up
RV manufacturers are gearing back up to build more product, but Keeter says that won't necessarily be reflected in the retail market.
After both industries focused on clearing out aging inventory, combined with a credit shortage, there is little product in the pipeline, Bretz says. "I believe RV manufacturers will have a relatively good 2010 just bringing inventories back to normal," says Bretz. "That's one of the problems with both industries - we don't have good information about retail. There's much better information about shipments, but in times like these [shipment numbers] tend to either understate or overstate the problem and are not a very accurate indicator of what's really going on."
The RV industry is also moving to a system that allows consumers to dictate production.
That is especially true for dealers who sell higher-end motor homes, since those already were declining in popularity before the recession's onset, Bryan says. In 2006, that segment accounted for about 15 percent of the 390,000 units sold. Now it's less than 10 percent, says Bryan.
"Because dealer inventory is being watched very closely and because the cost of that inventory has ... gone up in several different ways, dealers are reluctant to take on inventory they don't think they can move very quickly," says Bryan.
If the RV industry does, in fact, lead marine, that could be a cue for dealers who sell larger vessels to pay close attention to their inventories, because Bryan says no one anticipated such an extreme decline in that RV segment.
Retail credit could also be a factor. Bretz says he has problems securing financing for buyers of the expensive RVs he sells.
Ingrassia says dealer inventories have thinned, as has the competition with the liquidation market. Maybe it's fortunate that few expect a swift upswing in either market, because many worry that decimated supplier ranks would be hard-pressed to keep up.
Dealers will have smaller inventories moving forward, Bretz predicts, and will understand the importance of turning them more than in the past. And it will take time before the manufacturers have the clout they had a few years ago.
"We're in the process of opening a new store in Portland [Ore.], and we're amazed at how many good product lines are available in what would be a pretty major market," says Bretz.
The RV industry is unveiling new products for the upcoming model year at a pace likely to exceed marine, where some manufacturers are offering scaled-down versions of models, or resurrecting smaller, previously discontinued boats.
"I would say that is a pretty significant opposite," says Hoover. "[RV manufacturers] are bringing out bigger TVs and fancier things and trying to give people a reason to buy."
Some marine manufacturers say that after such a long trend of adding technology and gadgets to boats, there might be a consumer trend toward simplicity. But in the RV market, Broom predicts, that predilection will not just disappear.
There will be a trend to provide better value in the future, Bryan says. The marine industry seems to be catching up in terms of offering fewer options or more specific packages. Bryan says the RV industry has already made that shift. And even when people buy less-equipped vehicles, they buy add-ons after the fact, he says.
"That's been a strongpoint in the industry - the aftermarket sales," Bryan says. That being said, RVs are increasingly coming fully loaded with home conveniences like televisions and microwave ovens.
And though nobody expects a rapid rebound in either industry, Hoover says the family dynamic of both is giving him leverage in this uncertain economy. People are making choices about their limited disposable income, and in the end, family activities win. That gives him hope for both the marine and RV industries.
This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.