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Yuba City RV dealership blazes own trail
• LOCATION: 1337 Colusa Ave. (northwest corner of Highways 99 and 20), Yuba City
• HOURS: Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• PHONE: 671-9070
• WEBSITE: www.allseasonsrv center.com
Parts and Service
• LOCATION: 3300 Colusa Highway (on the south frontage road, west of George Washington Boulevard), Yuba City
• PHONE: 671-9070
• PARTS HOURS: Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• SERVICE HOURS: Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The name is clearly visible to the thousands of people who navigate the intersection of Highways 99 and 20 every day. That sign — "All Seasons RV Discount Center" — stands high above the rows of travel trailers sitting on the lot.
The business, open for nearly 40 years — which has moved hundreds and hundreds of people off their couches and onto the open road over those years — has been owned by the Friesen family since 1985.
"When we bought it, the business was in a 'turnaround' situation. It was not making money. They were in trouble, so we bought it. And the surprising thing — especially to the seller — was we made money the first month we were open," said Ernie Friesen, the company's chief executive officer. "They were really lacking in customer service, which has always been one of our strong suits."
"When my wife, Irene, and I bought the company, I had spent 20 years in corporate life; and two years prior to us purchasing All Seasons RV, I was transferred to Chicago. I hated Chicago. The company I was with had gone through a merger and there was lots of infighting and so on. So I told my wife that we would do something different," Ernie explained.
"I'd wanted to buy my own company for a long time. I would make trips back to California to look at various companies. I wanted to buy a manufacturing company, but I couldn't find anything that I felt comfortable with," he continued. "All Seasons at that time was manufacturing truck tops — and that's how I heard about it.
"The broker drove me up to Yuba City, which until then the only thing I'd ever heard about the area was the (Juan) Corona deal, but the moment I drove on the yard, I knew that this was what I wanted," he said.
But Ernie wanted to do more than just make money.
"My wife and I made a vow to one another when we decided to buy this company that if we ever decided or resorted to or did anything that was illegal, dishonest or untruthful, we would walk out. That was almost 27 years ago and we're still here."
The recreational-vehicle industry was a different animal when they jumped into the business, said Darrel Friesen, company president and Ernie's son. "In the 1980s, it was like the auto industry was in the '40 and '50s. It was 30 years behind the times in terms of processes and how they did business."
Ernie said he came out of the food industry — which is very organized, from the fields to the stores — whereas the RV industry was just the opposite.
"It was the most helter-skelter (industry) that I had ever been associated with. One of the things that I really spent a lot of time and energy on was organizing the industry so that it was more professional and more systematic in the way in which it does things," said the elder Friesen.
To change things and bring the retail businesses onto a more equal footing with the manufacturers, Ernie became heavily involved with a recreational-vehicle trade association. He said that just two months after buying All Seasons RV, he was elected to the Sacramento RV Dealers Association board.
But he didn't stop there.
"There was a group of us, five of us, who formed the state association, because we had no representation. I later became active in passing legislation that gave some protection to RV dealers," said Ernie.
Prior to that, he said, manufacturers could, without any warning or compensation, move their business to a competing dealership no matter how long the first dealership had been selling that brand. "We put a stop to that. Now, there has to be a justified cause," he said.
Even with the modernization, the Great Recession hit the RV industry hard. Darrel said that in California there were 78 recreational vehicle dealerships before the downturn and today there are just 34.
"Our sales dropped about 60 percent in 2009. That was the worst, but we'd been going down since 2007," Ernie said.
This was the reason they had to discontinue their association with the Gold Sox baseball team and end their naming-rights deal for the Marysville ballpark, he said.
"We'd started to make adjustments beforehand," Darrel added. "We saw the writing on the wall. We started reducing our inventory. When (the downturn) first hit, it caught a lot of dealers by surprise. But we were already ahead of the curve."
Part of those adjustments was a reduction in staff, Ernie said. "We had 65 employees in Yuba City before the downturn; now, we have 37."
"During all this downturn, not once did we lose money," the CEO said. "We didn't make money, but we didn't lose money."
"The RV industry, in my judgment, will take many, many years before it gets back to its heyday that ended in 2006. We had some awesome years, and it's going to be a long time before we get back to those days," Ernie added.
Things are looking up.
"We are experiencing a very nice increase this year. In fact, through May, our rolling stock was up almost 100 percent — meaning we've doubled the amount we've sold," Ernie said.
It's not just external economics that drive the recreational-vehicle market; it's also design changes and responding to customers' needs and wants.
"The RVs have become much bigger. The big turn came about in the '90s when the industry came out with the slideout. That was a big deal. When the first slide was installed, it was six or eight feet wide, which turned into a 13-foot slide. Then that turned into multiple slides. Today, you can have as many as five slides in an RV," Ernie explained.
"The other turn of events that started about that time was when one manufacturer decided to put all the things you could possibly use on an RV on the RV and shipped it that way. It came with awnings, it came with microwaves, it came with air conditioners, stereos and everything else," he said. Prior to that, he said, the recreational vehicle was sent to the dealer as a stripped-down unit, and the dealer installed all the extras the buyer wanted.
"That move really turned the industry around. It reduced the price of a loaded RV by a couple thousand dollars," said Ernie. "Slowly, the other manufacturers emulated that. It took away a lot of shop business from us, but it dramatically reduced the retail price of an RV."
"They're getting fancier and fancier, more bells and whistles. I take people who have never seen an RV and have them walk away saying, 'Wow, this is nicer than my home,'" Darrel added.
But these aren't the only factors driving sales, he said. "You've got two different forces going on. One is (bigger and) fancier with more conveniences. The other is trailers getting smaller and lighter because tow vehicles are getting smaller and lighter."
Staying profitable is vital to any business. For All Seasons RV, having a well-trained staff in the parts and service departments has been their lifesaver. "Of the dollar volume (of income), sales is the higher amount, but parts and service are what's kept us in business during this downturn," Ernie said. "When I talk to any owner in the auto industry, one of the first questions he'll ask me, as an RV dealer, is: 'What's your absorption rate?' What he's asking is what percentage of our bills is paid for by parts and service. In our industry, we are usually talking 40 or 60 percent. We have been as high as 90 percent. We were the exception because most dealers ignore their parts and service — they treat it as a necessary evil. We've always treated it as a vital part of our profitability."
All Seasons RV is now a second-generation business which means it's had to go through some changes after Darrel moved into the president's chair three years ago.
"(Ernie) casts a long shadow," Darrel said. "I'm following in my father's footsteps. He was president of the California Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association, the CalRVDA; and years later, I became president. He was chairman at the national level; and right now I'm on their board. With the business being successful under his leadership, that puts a lot of pressure on me not to let it fail."
The business has gone through other changes since 1985. Ernie said that, when they took over the business, the parts and service department was located on Live Oak Boulevard before moving to the present location 15 years ago on the south frontage road along Colusa Highway west of George Washington Boulevard. They also expanded when they purchased Redding RV Center in 2005.
The Friesens are also looking to the future. Between the parts-and-service building and the frontage road is a large empty lot. Darrel said they plan to open a second trailer-sales site there.
There's a reason they stay in business despite the lean years. Darrel said it's the enjoyment they bring to their customers. "When they take that unit out and they call back and say how great their time was over the weekend with their family, or how excited they are about taking their next trip — that makes you happy and proud."