Wednesday, December 06, 2006



RV Business
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

On the day he signed the papers taking over his company, John Wisolek remembers his pride turning to bewilderment when his attorney advised him to find something else to build.

According to a report in the Elkhart Truth, the van conversion business had been the mainstay of Chariot Vans Inc., reaching a company record in 1997 of 4,800 custom vans built. But two years later, when Wisolek bought controlling interest in the company, consumers had abandoned vans and were well into their courtship of SUVs.

Looking to home and seeing he would eventually need to pay college tuition for his three young daughters, Wisolek, who had spent nearly 20 years at Chariot before he bought it, realized his attorney was right.

Fortunately the company, founded in 1982, had a good reputation, a young work force and sturdy production facilities, so Wisolek sought out the advice of his mentor and former Chariot owner Dan George. The elder businessman suggested a switch to building the staple of the local economy – recreational vehicles.

"We're just kind of carving out our little niche," Wisolek said.

The Truth reported that Chariot starts with a Freightliner chassis and builds a hulking motorcoach. It measures 45 feet bumper to bumper but still, said Denny Peterson, vice president of sales and marketing, "handles like a sportscar." Retail price ranges from $350,000 to $450,000 per unit.

"We're trying to be leading edge," Peterson said. "We don't want to be copying what everyone else is doing. We try to set our own standards and develop and grow from that."

The company started production in May 2006 and, to date, has built about 10 units. Orders for more have come in and dealers have signed up to carry the Chariot brand. The company plans to prototype more models of the motorcoach and eventually ramp up production to three units a week.

Typically the customer for such an RV, Peterson said, has been drag racers because the motorcoach has enough horsepower to tow a trailer loaded with the racing car and pit tools. However, the former national sales director at Royale Coach sees the vehicle as having a broader appeal, possibly with the "RV guy wanting something a little different."

The change from vans to RVs meant the employees had to switch from building luxury vehicles to building residential dwellings, said Dave Rogers, one of Chariot's production workers. The Chariot motorcoaches have full kitchens, baths, bedrooms and living rooms with residential cabinets and refrigerators, washers and dryers, king-sized beds, plush sofas and cedar-lined closets.

Rogers said learning to build RVs was difficult, but he is "actually quite thankful" his employer moved into another market rather than stop operations and close.

About five years ago, Chariot entered the hauler truck market. Willie Floyd, operations manager for Chariot's truck division, brought experience in designing and installing aluminum beds onto the back of the medium-duty trucks. Carrying a price tag between $75,000 to $125,000, the trucks are especially popular among equestrians, boaters and racers.

"All I ever did was build stuff out of metal," Floyd said while helping his crew build the truck's flatbed.

Chariot also customizes the interior of the truck's cab by installing comfortable seats, wood console and even a Global Positioning System.

The Truth reported that since changing focus, Chariot has expanded its payroll from 35 employees to 50. It has three facilities in operation and plans to start production in a fourth sometime in the spring. For the new manufacturing line, Wisolek expects to hire more workers.

New products, new markets and new customers are part of Chariot's goal to survive. Indeed, the framed picture hanging in Peterson's office displays the word that could be the company's motto: Change.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?