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Posted: April 10, 2014

Diversification Paves The Way To Steady Growth

Mark Gibbs at American Camper Shell discusses how this retail center has managed to stay in business by focusing on the commercial and van business

By Ellen McKoy

American Camper Shells, once known as American Shell Center, was established in 1971 by Court Prowell whose roots were in the RV business. In the early days, caps and RV and van conversions were mainstays. In 1976, Mark Gibbs joined the business as a truck-cap installer. He later moved into sales and management, and became a partner in 1980.

During the boom years, the company expanded from a single store to five locations. The product lineup swelled from caps, tonneaus and bedliners to a full range of truck gear, along with van, fleet and RV conversions, and a mobile unit that services local auto dealerships.

At its peak, the company had 65 employees. But when the recession hit, the company made some tough decisions. Satellite facilities were closed, staff was reduced, and everything was consolidated under one roof. To hear Gibbs tell it, these measures not only helped American Camper Shells maintain a steady course, but to also grow and prosper.

“In December 2006, business was rocking. But when the economy started to tank in 2007, it became tougher and tougher. Between 2008 and 2011, we closed four stores, but that was to make us stronger and more successful. So even though Stanton is our only store and we only have 18 people now, the great thing is our revenue is like it was when we were doing really well in 2004 and 2005. But that’s because of a mixture of things. We have retail, wholesale to car dealers, and van, commercial and RV business. We also do repairs and service work. So, when one side drops off, we’ve always got pieces that are doing well. Our shell and tonneau cover business has been pretty steady. But because we sell at the upper to high end of the market, I don’t see retail coming back to where it was. Not when shells are $3,000 or more. But, the commercial side is doing well. We have really good connections with local fleets through dealerships or leasing companies. We have an F-350 mobile unit with a 10-ft. stake bed and custom rack to support shells on top. Our installer is out four days a week, installing shells, tonneau covers, bedliners, and running boards. To me it makes sense to partner with dealerships. Because that’s where fleets get their trucks, we have a better opportunity to get that fleet business.

Businesses will spend the money for high-end shells and other expensive things for their trucks. And our vendors have done great jobs building quality products that meet those demands. Same thing with our van business. We don’t look for cheap products. We work only with high-end van interior companies, because the fit and finish are superior.

We’ve developed a good following in the van business through word of mouth and our van conversion website. We built the business through the Mercedes Sprinter. They’re expensive, but have a huge variety of uses, and we can do whatever the customer wants. We’ve built different concepts for handymen and plumbers, mobile echocardiogram units and mobile spray-tanning vans for entrepreneurial businesses, even a green motorhome with a diesel generator, solar, diesel-forced heating and hot water.

Then there’s the Transit Connect, which is a service vehicle, but on a smaller scale. And there’s a whole new niche now that Ford is coming out with a passenger version. I see it coming as a mini-van craze with soccer moms fixing them up to be cool. With the Dodge Promaster already making great gains among plumbers and contractors, and a new full-size Transit due out soon there are more opportunities.

Business was really difficult from ’07 through the better part of 2011. The challenge now is taking care of the business we have and doing things right. There’s a learning curve, and it takes talented people to make this work. You’ve got to have great installers and good tools. You’ve got to be creative, have a vision, and not worry about what competitors are doing.

It’s all about what will make us successful and profitable for the long term. I’m really optimistic about all facets of the business. I think the commercial and van business are going to go gangbusters. The RV business will do fine, and the cap business will remain strong. I see 2014 shaping up as a great year.”

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